Office and showrooms building in Siek, near Hamburg, 1997
From Klaus Dieter Weiss
„The coming generation of young architects is confronted with the task of reworking, extending, developing, rebuilding, redesigning, expanding and renovating, adding a storey to, or changing the function of buildings which have often been produced in a hasty and unconsidered way by an older generation much favoured in terms of commissions. The question whether indeed anything can be saved remains open. The situation of architecture in the business and industrial districts, the ‘throw-away’ landscape of our urban culture, seems more hopeless than ever.
Given the widespread fraternisation between ‘turnover’ culture and cultural decay it could hardly occur to anyone to view such areas as urban repair cases. Long before the transfer of business and industry to the rubbish disposal tip of urbanism promoted by Alexander Mitscherlich and Christopher Alexander in 1965, the banishment of architecture had been tacitly agreed upon, and the possibility of change excluded. Any profiteer can find an argument for this state of affairs that has, supposedly, something to do with the common good. In this context it is not surprising that it was mere chance which led to Carsten Roth being allotted the difficult task of providing enlightenment in the spare tyre district of Hamburg. He was found by leafing through the ‘Golden Pages’ of the local telephone company. A second project of this kind, an equally fortunate commission which is shortly to be completed, reveals Carsten Roth as a shining hope with proven success at healing.
In many city centres the supply of luxury and leisure time facilities increasingly creates an atmosphere similar to that onboard an excursion steamship. But, unlike in a ship, the machine room of the city with its dense arrangement of business and industrial areas cannot be concealed below water level. The industrial buildings that are so important in terms of raising trade tax but so depressing in terms of architecture or urban design, are positioned along the periphery of the city like a hastily erected corral. Urban culture which is available only in the city centre, and even there in a very one-sided way, can only be captured with effort whatever direction you approach them from. The hygienic approach to town planning first conceived in the 18th century and proclaimed in the Charter of Athens in 1943 is today revealed as an embarrassingly simplistic way of thinking which has long lost its central argument: the noise and pollution previously associated with industrial production. With few exceptions Henry Ford’s architectural credo dominates the profit-making areas on the urban periphery. In 1922, the fifteenth year of production of the famous Model T, the industrialist penned, for the benefit of future fellow managers, an important principle of ‘Fordism’ on the sinking of the production costs: ‘We do not think of erecting magnificent buildings as symbols of our success. The interest rates for construction and maintenance would be an unnecessary burden on our products – such monuments to success often end up as tombstones. We prefer to be become known through our products than as a result of the buildings’ in which they are produced’.1) 75 years later the finest cameras and computers are produced in windowless containers on the edge of the city that are simply an expression of a lack of architectural thought. On the other hand Walter Henn, the 85-year old Nestor of German industrial building, has consistently pointed out that architectural quality can, by improving the motivation of the workers, also lead to increased economic success. Obviously Carsten Roth was able to convince his clients in both Siek and Barsbuttel of the validity of this hypothesis. The result is something highly unusual: an architecture which had to engage the banality of its surroundings but did not lose its strength in the unavoidable process of integration. Instead it emerges from a sea of meaninglessness as a significant model and sovereign pace-maker.
Carsten Roth developed his architectural language in his Hamburg backyard atelier from an intensive examination of a motor car factory dating from 1911. He only wishes to understand what is new if, in the future, the old elements are still to be able to remain tangible. In the industrial estate in Siek, a small town a few kilometres east of Hamburg, this formal architectural approach, reminiscent of Schindler’s unorthodox modernism, became manifest on a particularly difficult site – in conjunction with an existing production hall, which, by itself, would not be worthy of a passing reference. But together with the new showrooms and administration building placed along the road frontage, the old structure becomes a remarkable historical documentation of a building with formal and urban inadequacies that had to be balanced, both spatially and in design terms, in a furiously intense manner. The process of architectural layering, the direct interpenetration of very different epochs, buildings and architectural quality – window to window – recalls a basic precept of Jane Jacobs. In her famous book Life and Death of Great American Cities she insisted in 1961 that the continued use of existing industrial buildings was an indispensable foundation for the future of the Brooklyn area, ‘in order to develop new primary uses’.2) Would it not be a fabulous idea to rethink our business and industrial districts along these guidelines, to infiltrate them functionally, to build over them, to make them more dense and thus structure them in a marked fashion? The desire to build often exists and vacant sites are often available because provision must be made for planned extensions which, even on a narrow strip separating an existing building from the road (perhaps only the depth of a parking place) can guarantee a completely new architectural appearance. In Barsbuttel the new three-storey architectural shell placed in front of the two-storey assembly and storage building is only five metres deep (plus staggered projections on either side). Given that the building types are very different (town palace versus industrial building) it may seem far-fetched to make the comparison but Palladio’s basilica in Vicenza was, in fact, also an addition, the framing of an existing palace with a row of arcades and the famous ‘Palladio motif. This method of continuing a building was introduced a long time ago but is all too rarely and mostly far too ineffectively employed. In Siek a shop-fitters’ business required a new showroom and planning area to serve as a kind of self-portrayal and also as a means of discovering further goals. Nowadays a photo of the new building accompanies the company’s presentation in Internet. Despite all the doubts initially expressed this fact relativises the building’s location, remote from the public – for which, as in the case of the tax consultant or party service opposite, there is no convincing argument, but which is a result of political and economic circumstances impossible to escape single-handedly.
In architectural terms Carsten Roth aimed at a unity of interior and elemental explosiveness expressed in the variation of the openings and materials. The freely sculptural effect (which contrasts with his other works) results from his study of the site and aims at the efficient exploitation of the area available. Two storeys were permitted by the authorities. The official site plan shows how closely the main front to the north-east is adapted to the line of the road and to the site’s boundary. In addition – and the photographs do not reveal this – ten parking spaces had to be provided on the site and the delivery route for juggernauts along the entrance front had to be maintained. These constraints produced the fragmentary ornament provided by the beams under the cantilever at the entrance which are carried by merely two isolated, jumping piers. For Carsten Roth (in contrast, perhaps, to his structural engineer) a ‘Dance in Chains’ (Fritz Schumacher) of such a kind is not so much a cause for despair but a welcome opportunity to allow the building to achieve an unmistakable identity not directly derived from the specific require¬ments of the brief. The accepted wisdom that piers should stand one above the other is here, (given the special nature of this one-off case) simply of less im¬portance for the architect – an approach which also facilitated the creation of parking places. With such an approach, conventional metal flashings to seal the concrete edges at roof level can be dispensed with, as can the supposedly optimal radiant warmth of ‘incorrectly’ fitted radiators. Because of its accurately positioned anchor holes both inside and outside, the monolithic concrete staircase was very difficult to mold. However in relation, it provides the accommodation with two insulating layers of 35 cm each. Heat-insulating fair-faced concrete was also used extensively, its viscosity was constantly controlled in a laboratory, and improved, at the cost of its efficiency as insulation but in favour of an optimum surface. Cantilevers, which are in fact not cantilevers, can be achieved with a ‘wild’ arrangement of beams (at the entrance) and with compression rods supported against an abutment above (brise-soleil on the south facade). But are at least the materials genuine? The answer is no. In the display area on the ground floor, where the upper glass surfaces are printed as a variation, the architect indicates archly a ‘concrete’ beam created by a painter. The new building was erected under the old structure without interrupting production, which meant that it was impossible to pour concrete at this point. The copper skin of the gallery block at the rear merely and decently enough preserves appearances. The difficult experiment of producing a copper facade that would preserve its shiny appearance proved in practice to be unrealistic (at present) and so an aluminium facade, treated by a car sprayer to look like copper without a patina, now compliments the insulated fair-faced concrete and the zinc facade, which is horizontally emphasised like the glass surfaces. The quality of this facade can be admired in the interior behind the southern glass front. It is therefore not merely a few formal similarities which justify the reference to Schindler but above all the nonchalant way in which Roth deals with the smoothness and coldness of what is regarded as classically orthodox modernism, an approach that could be interpreted as an infringement of the rules. Today the scale ranges from ‘ice blocks’, frozen in a double glass skin according to ecological criteria, to free forms which, almost impossible to build, refuse to allow their dance to be disturbed by a single binding or chain. Between lay and still lies a serious confrontation with architectural space and its orientation, with the handling of light and with the resultant body language which carries the interior outside in graceful movements. To confront such a subtle and complex way of handling a shabby industrial building with a question about a possible infringement of the rules would (not for the first time since the introduction of the International Style) represent an attack on the poetry of the architectural treatment of space. It was only with difficulty that Neutra’s Lovell House in Los Angeles cleared the hurdle placed by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their book The International Style: ‘The architecture is based on the visible regularity of the load-bearing structure but is, unfortunately, marred and unnecessarily complicated by various projections and by the confusing use of metal and plaster infill’.3) Schindler, who separated space, order and proportion even more insistently from the machine aesthetic and who had written a manifesto for modern architecture in 1912, was not directly included in the Hitchcoc/Johnson book: The essence of life is variation, in direct contrast to the limited strength of the machine. A house that helps us to express ourselves must allow further variations, it must be four dimensional’.4) Does the fact that Carsten Roth creates a spatial architecture amidst the vulgar functionalism of business and industrial districts not represent Schindler’s (somewhat overdue) rehabilitation?”
1) Henry Ford: Mein Leben und Werk (My Life and Work; 1922), German Edition, Leipzig 1923, p. 43
2) Jane Jacobs: Tod und Leben Großer Amerikanischer Städte (Life and.Death of Great American Cities; 1961) Braunschweig 1976 (Bauwelt-Fundamente 4), p.117
3) Henry Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson: Der Internationale Stil (The International Style; 1932) German Edition, Braunschweig 1985 (Bauwelt Fundamente 70) p. 157
4) Rudolf M. Schindler quoted in August Samitz: R. M. Schindler, Architekt 1887-1953, ein Wagner Schüler zwischen Internationalem Stil und Raum-Architektur, (R.M. Schindler, Architect, a Wagner Pupil between the International Style and Spatial Architecture) Vienna 1986, p.9