In Context

Nikolaus Goetze

In these days of impending climate change, the aspects of industrial and consumer products that we’re increasingly interested in are the manufacturing conditions, production and supply chains, pollutants, energy balance, and lifecycles. All these factors affect how these products are accepted by users and viewed by the public. The image of products has completely changed within less than a generation. The shiny new SUV stands for a waste of resources, whereas clothing from thrift stores counts as shrewd sustainability.

It’s no different in architecture. Making careful use of what we have and what’s already there is the order of the day. In the realm of theory, architecture already adopted this attitude half a century ago. The change of attitude happened in 1975, the European Architectural Heritage Year. Suddenly the concept of “old construction” stood for neighborhood, atmosphere, and flexible use. “New construction” stood for monotony and one-dimensional functionality. But it took a long time for this change in perspective to affect the practices of we who work in architecture, because it’s less about monument preservation than it is about reconstruction and a creative adaptation to new goals.

The current motto is “building in existing contexts,” which is basically just describing what we architects do with every construction project. Existing buildings and contexts are everywhere — even in the case of the famous “greenfield.” Naturally, what’s meant is building in historic and mostly urban contexts, location-based and historically conscious construction, and more specifically UMBAU (conversion), which is reconstruction using the existing building substance.

It wasn’t until we roofed and refurbished Berlin’s Olympic Stadium that the public also starting seeing gmp as experts in UMBAU and not just a large architectural firm that implements complex new building projects like transportation facilities, office buildings, stadiums, and museums. Ten years ago in our exhibition On Old Foundations, we focused on the apparent dilemma of the public’s perception of conversion projects. At first glance, it’s sometimes hard to tell that architects did anything. “As you can see, you can’t see anything” was a phrase that we frequently cited in our office in this context even then. But only now is it becoming more accepted and even more highly regarded when the character of identity-forming buildings and spaces is preserved and the architect’s personal signature remains hidden in the background. Meinhard von Gerkan called this principle — which remains our core philosophy to this day — “designing in dialogue.” In Hamburg, the city in which gmp was founded and where we continue to maintain our headquarters, Volkwin Marg laid the groundwork for our preservation and reconstruction work, which was initially in complete opposition to the spirit of the times. It started in the mid-1970s with the reconstruction of Hamburg’s “Fabrik” event center, which, at the time, was anything but a prestige project. gmp’s first two museum projects were also conversions in Hamburg: redesigning Karl Schneider’s Michaelsen Country House as a doll museum, and covering the courtyard of Fritz Schumacher’s Museum of Hamburg History with a lattice shell structure designed in collaboration with schlaich bergermann partner. The stated aim of our work is to establish a dialogue between the old and the new, and not to juxtapose them as being totally unrelated.

Our office has implemented almost one hundred projects in Hamburg to date, one-fifth of which are conversions in the narrower sense of the word, such as the upgrade of the former Schwarzenberg Barracks to make it the main building of the Technical University in Harburg, the refurbishment of the Springer high-rise as part of the new Springer Quarter, and the conversion of the urban block on Alter Wall, directly adjacent to Hamburg’s city hall, featuring the exhibition areas of the Bucerius Kunst Forum. We’re currently working on the re-conversion of the Hanseviertel shopping arcade, built over forty years ago. And in the spirit of of sustainability, our (unfortunately) unrealized design for the 2024 Olympics in Hamburg already included plans for its use following the close of the major event. The stadium would be turned into a residential neighborhood, the sports complex would become a ferry terminal, and the competition pool would be a leisure pool. Similarly, the commission to convert the Alsterschwimmhalle, one of the seven projects selected for this exhibition, was to preserve one of Europe’s most impressive and largest concrete shell structures while leaving it virtually untouched.

For several years, “conversion rather than new construction” has also been a prominent trend in China. With the tremendous volume of construction taking place there in recent decades, the buildings to be converted aren’t just newer than those in Germany and Europe. From a global perspective, the task in China is also much more urgent with respect to complying with climate goals, saving resources, and preserving gray energy. With the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, we’re presenting one of our most spectacular projects in China, involving the conversion of a stainless-steel factory. The art academy will benefit from the generous proportions of the over 900-meter-long building that would not have been possible in a new building. Conversion doesn’t primarily mean constraint and sacrifice. It means a gain in identity, spatial character, and creativity. We’re also experiencing this over and over with our students at the Academy for Architectural Culture: Nothing hinders creativity more than designing in a — always purely imaginary — vacuum. In any case, accomplishing increasingly complex tasks requires teamwork, without which architecture would be inconceivable, and collaborations that span generations and disciplines.

Nikolaus Goetze completed his architectural studies at Aachen Technical University and joined gmp · von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Architects in 1987, where he has been a Partner since 1998. In 2019, Goetze was appointed Visiting Professor at Tongji University in Shanghai. As a co-initiator of the Academy for Architectural Culture (aac), he regularly leads workshops there. His best known international projects include the Guangxi Culture & Art Center, the Grand Theater in Chongqing, the master plan for Lingang New City (today Nanhui New City) and the China Maritime Museum there, the Hanoi Museum, and Deutsches Haus in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Important projects in Germany include the extension to Kunsthalle Mannheim, the Alvano Residence in Hamburg, and the extension of the Technical University in Hamburg-Harburg.