Building in the Dialogue between Preservation and Change

Stephan Schütz

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This key phrase in Giuseppe Tomasi die Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard describes the area of tension in which we carry out our refurbishment work. Generally speaking, holding on to what already exists is possible only with the aid of transformative interventions. The need for the changes that buildings undergo during this process of renewal are traceable to changing conditions that can be explained by social, political, economic, or ecological contexts.

Conversion presents architects with a complex and challenging range of tasks that not only require profound specialized knowledge and interest in the building technology of the past, but also necessitate comprehensive expertise in the latest technical aspects of structural engineering. Without structured processes, conversion tasks inevitably turn into risky ventures that end in financial and scheduling chaos. Architectural training and media coverage that continue to favor spectacular new buildings fail to recognize that over 90 percent of the work of architects and engineers has to do with with conversion and alteration.

A basic prerequisite of any successful conversion is an appreciation for what others created in the past. Such appreciation on the part of clients, politicians, and architects means both a rejection of any throwaway mentality whatsoever and an orientation toward protecting the climate and resources in line with the ever-present sustainability requirements. More than half of the gray energy contained in society’s building stock is in the skeletal structure. Our designs and plans are geared toward preserving them.

For us, these building tasks start with an investigation of what exists. This involves a three dimensional measurement of the existing building as well as an analysis of the supporting structure, the fire-protection performance of its components, and the concentration of contaminants within the structure, which usually can’t be fully determined until the cladding has been removed. Our office’s experience with building in an existing context is currently based on 60 projects that were completed over a period of more than 40 years. The expertise that we’ve accumulated comes from a concrete, situational encounter with the buildings entrusted to us. But however uniquely each individual project has to relate to the strengths and weaknesses of the existing building, there’s one thing that all the projects have in common: the implicit encounter with someone else’s work. The investigation often leads us to the people who were involved in the building’s genesis, and to the archive where the original sets of plans were stored. Sensitivity to existing contexts and the joy of discovering the unexpected are combined with a desire to create something fundamentally new.

In the case of the Kulturpalast in Dresden, for example, we were fortunate enough to find its creator, Wolfgang Hänsch, two years before his death and were able to talk to him about the particular issues of the refurbishment project that he considered relevant. Although he was then involved in a dispute with the City of Dresden concerning the preservation of his multifunctional hall in the Kulturpalast, he gave us vital clues regarding the facade design that we were then able to integrate in our planning. In Dresden in particular, we came to deeply understand that it isn’t primarily about the display of spontaneous creativity. It’s about cooperation between architects and engineers across generations, coupled with the pleasure of preserving, repairing, and reimagining in collaboration with future users and other stakeholders.

Dealing with postwar buildings is particularly challenging, especially when they’re already listed as historic monuments. In these cases, it’s less about construction methods associated with traditional craftsmanship than it is about construction that uses industrially manufactured elements for which the production lines no longer exist. Many of our design tasks involve buildings from this period, including the Kulturpalast in Dresden, the Alsterschwimmhalle in Hamburg, Ulrich Müther’s Hyparschale in Magdeburg, and Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek in Berlin.

Often, however, the only way to preserve these existing structures is by making courageous changes with a view to long-term and future-ready utilization scenarios. Dealing with buildings listed as historic monuments frequently provokes a conflict that can only be resolved by precisely examining the goals of the refurbishment and conversion measures in an iterative process. The reason for this is the recognition that architecture is generally considered to be an applied art, which means that it’s always in the service of a more or less clearly defined goal. In the design competition for the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, for example, it was clear from the very beginning that the requirements placed on a modern, covered soccer stadium and its preservation as a historic monument would produce many complex contradictions. Reconciling these contradictions in a high-quality modernization was possible only through sound creative and conceptual compromises and a collaborative way of working that allows open discussion and always includes all the parties involved in construction.

This made it possible to turn a late-1920s transformer hall in Munich into the foyer of a concert hall, a municipal library, and a restaurant, to turn a former barracks into the main building of a university in Hamburg, to create a philharmonic hall in Dresden by inserting a building inside a building, and to transform a gigantic factory into an art academy in faraway Shanghai.

One of our very first projects — Berlin’s Tegel Airport, built in 1974 — is currently being converted into a university, research, and business campus. As part of the overall refurbishment measures that involve several different firms, we were responsible for planning the transformation of the airport’s multistory main building into a conference center and business incubator. One of our first acts was to develop a sticker with the catchy phrase “DAS BLEIBT HIER” (THIS STAYS HERE). It was our way of identifying the objects that we considered worth protecting so that they wouldn’t be dismantled and discarded. At the same time, this cleverly ironic imperative epitomizes our conviction that preservation comes before demolition. This means that we cultivate this same appreciation in our approach to our design as we do for our conversion projects — regardless of whether we’re dealing with large components, furniture, fixtures, or floor tiles.

A building’s myriad interrelationships aren’t always immediately apparent to others, and yet they do exist and occasionally form a central component of the overall architecture that shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. At the same time, however, our own architecture can and must change as part of a nonstop transformation. Others will (hopefully) come after us who will make the architecture their own.

We take it as a compliment when subsequent generations are interested in our work. A thoughtful approach opens up new opportunities for a constantly changing society — locations whose preservation is motivated not only by historical significance and collective identification, but also by the courage to transform.

With his exhibition On Old Foundations, which was held exactly ten years ago, Volkwin Marg addressed and showcased building in a historical context as it relates to the work of gmp. Back then, we had little idea that the preservation and further development of buildings from the past would become such a dominant topic of the future for our office. The challenges of climate change have turned the preservation option into an imperative that demands a consistently new approach to thinking and acting with regard to our professional practice — fully in line with the “responsibility of the architect” that Meinhard von Gerkan passed down to us as a guideline giving meaning to our work.

Stephan Schütz studied architecture at Braunschweig Technical University. After qualifying, he joined gmp · von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Architects in 1994 and was appointed Partner in 2006. Since 2009, he has been regularly leading workshops at the Academy for Architectural Culture (aac), which he helped to initiate. His most important architectural projects include the Civic Center in Weimar, the New Tempodrom in Berlin, the Christian Church in Beijing, the CYTS Plaza office building in Beijing, the Grand Theaters in Qingdao and Tianjin, the National Museum of China in Beijing, the Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen, the conversion and refurbishment of Dresden’s Kulturpalast, the Hyparschale Magdeburg, the Berlin State Library, and the Isarphilharmonie Gasteig HP8 in Munich.