In September 2004, the architect Rem Koolhaas, a student of Oswald Mathias Ungers (at Cornell) and later colleague, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, went to Cologne for the first of what was to be a series of conversations with the “rationalist” German architect. The interview published here – an edited translation from the German – took place in two of Ungers’ houses: Haus Belvederestrasse (1958–59), which is now the home of Büro Prof. O.M. Ungers and the Ungers Archive, and “Ungers House III,” or Haus Kämpchensweg (1994–96), where he was living. Arguably, these two buildings alone distinguished Ungers as the most important and perhaps most controversial German architect of his generation. Unfortunately a second conversation did not take place before Ungers died on September 30, 2007. The following is a short excerpt of the interview which runs 46 pages of Log 16.
Rem Koolhaas : I want to continue not with a flashback but with a flash-forward. You could say that after Enschede , and with the rise of the market economy since the 1960s, architecture has become more and more shapeless and is powered by forces other than architectural interests. I think that, relatively speaking, the position of architecture is becoming weaker and weaker. So this approach – and this is why it is still pregnant for me – could be more appropriate than the imposition of ideal forms on a shapeless condition, which is what you propose now in most cases. Can you comment on that?
Oswald Mathias Ungers : I didn’t understand the question exactly.
RK : I think the discovery or reinterpretation of found objects has a greater, or at least great, potential at the moment, especially now that all the recognized forms are evaporating and we are being confronted with these new conditions. This process could have a very strong impact – an impact that could counter this wave of generic egalitarianism with recognizable and “eternal” issues.
OMU : There is a great misunderstanding among architects. They think they are inventors and always need to be avant-garde. But you cannot permanently exist as an avant-garde. That is impossible. But architecture can be carried forward in a dialectical process, meaning a confrontation with the existing or with that which one wants to provoke at a certain moment. From a morphological point of view – which is not exclusive but inclusive, and not contrary but complementary – you can assess that certain elements are missing that could be added. I will give you a banal example. In a certain area only four-story houses exist. But we know that people also live in single-family houses. And we also know that people live in high-rise buildings as well as many other building types. In order to have a complex living environment, and to have a complex architecture, it is possible that certain things need to be added to achieve this complexity. That is what we did, for example, with the Kulturforum project in Berlin. We said, if it’s a forum this means that all ideas and concepts should be gathered. So we gathered all the different existing museum types into one complex, all prototypes in their dialectical presence or argument. But it is always an intellectual process, which is necessary in order to be able to search. There is this famous Zwicky-Box , which I developed for myself. Zwicky is a Swiss philosopher and a morphologist. The principle of the box is that for a certain assignment you make small boxes. Say, for example, you want to solve organizing parking spaces and are listing all possibilities – park one above the other, park one behind the other, park crossways, diagonally, etc. You can use the box to invent even more options. Or the problem of the terrace – the terrace can be open or closed, can be this or that, and so on. During the analysis or during the work itself, you already invent. You consider the entire complexity of a particular function and try to parse it morphologically. And the Zwicky-Box provides a set of tools – that’s how I use it – like a vocabulary. As if I were to develop the grammar for a language I would want to speak. And then – now comes the problem of emotion – comes the decision, when you speak. Through the sentence emotion is added – what you choose to say so that the sentence makes sense. And you must always provide a sense. It is also a matter of emotion and imagination. But you must first know the whole set of tools and have parsed them. Otherwise you will have no language; otherwise the syntax is at an end. Most of today’s architects are designing by taking a look at what is in fashion, what is useful, what is popular, what is done. For me they simply have become a speechless society of architects who can no longer articulate themselves at all. They sit down with a pencil and scribble and something is created, and then they present this attempt and fail.
The Enschede project has really almost been parsed academically for what we tried to do and then really failed to do. It has three basic shapes: circle, triangle, and square. All of the transformations are performed according to certain criteria. If not, it would lead to an infinite combination and you would drown. It becomes pointless. It becomes absurd. It no longer works. A counterbalance is needed to limit the possibilities, to regulate or, alternatively, to give this an objective.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist : But this is very interesting, because it is a question not unlike the one Sol LeWitt posed in art. There is a real parallel.
OMU : There is indeed. And in Enschede we transformed it. You have individuals living here, and when this circle is divided, you get two semicircles and create group living. This story is then inverted and row and terrace housing are added so that the entire spectrum of living is parsed in the axis here fanned out with the square. Only with the triangle it is not formally possible, because again and again triangles emerge.
HUO : Can it be said that the openness increases due to the constraint?
OMU : Exactly. This research process was an important attempt, which in the end led to nothing but absurdity. If a further limitation, a function or situation had been added, then this could have led to something. It would have excluded certain combinations or made only certain combinations possible.
RK : Yes. The interesting thing is that you describe this as a mistake – but at the same time, it is a gesture of an architectural language that now has conquered the world.
OMU : I did not describe the project as a mistake, but rather the research that emerged from it. Given the euphoria during the project we wanted to offer the ultimate architectural catalogue. And that was the mistake.
RK : Because what was adopted was the language, but not the content?
OMU : Exactly. The mistake was not in developing a proper syntax, but in turning it into an end product. The same thing happened with the three schools in Mayen.#8 One has several wings with a central inner corridor, one is terraced, and the third has an arcade with a wall. Or the project for the museum [for Prussian Culture] at the Berlin Tiergarten. It has nine squares as a basic organizational principle. Of course each of the individual museums has a variety of objects and artifacts, a variety of technical requirements, and different architectural demands from our side. The development of this simple, basic principle leads through superimposing additional layers to a differentiated museum complex. Each part is different and the whole is actually a dialectical relationship of different museum types.
Purchase Log 16
Log is a journal of writing about contemporary architecture, cities, and the built environment, published by the Anyone Corporation . A forum for observations, speculations and ideas about all things current, Log examines the present with an architectural bent, an historical perspective, and a critical eye. It embodies its name; a log of events, a series of mono-logs becoming a kind of dia-log; Log is a reading of our spaces in and for our time.
Log 16 Copyright © 2009 ANYone Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.