Building upon Building

1 March 2016 – Work of my office is presented in the book Building upon Building. The book was published earlier as a special issue of the magazine Forum. Antje Engels and Marius Grootveld invited a range of European architects to present imaginary extensions to existing buildings. These buildings form an interesting ‘shadow canon’ which relates critically to the dominant modernist historiography of architecture. In Building upon Building I deliver, quite literally, a reflection on a project by the German Reform architect Paul Mebes.

Designers make ordinary things more beautiful. That is what Mebes did in 1909 with his Paul Francke housing estate in Berlin: he sought an aesthetic form for living. The building complex was not a predecessor of the machines for living that came to dominate housing a few decades later. The apartments look like houses. Balconies, windows, pitched roofs, doors, fencing and guttering are brought together to create a powerful composition, going further than merely combining architectural necessities. The estate belonged to a still young tradition of collective housing that had not yet developed a canon of exemplary projects. Mebes understood this tradition in the basic sense of the word, i.e. old ways practised by large groups of people. Living was not the revolutionary act of a few. The very fact of seeking a powerful form for everyday comfort of many was what made the estate a particularly progressive experiment.

And now, one century later, the Paul Francke estate has weathered with style. Signs of life and domesticity are plentiful, seamlessly punctuating the building at intervals. This is no architecture of a bygone age. Mebes’ ability to move with such vitality within his tradition is the point of relevance.