What makes architecture alive and effective is its aesthetic quality. This quality exists as a taut and ambiguous relationship between architecture as it is conceived and architecture experienced as a real space. Schweger + Partner have used a two-dimensional drawing to turn conceptual architecture into a constructive composition. They later transposed this composition into a ground plan of the proposed building. But a productive, even creative transposition can never be a formal one-to-one translation. If the quality of a construction is to be assessed accurately, the people who are actually going to use and spend their time in it should be able to imagine for themselves what each part of the building is going to look like when it has been built. In this way they can experience the aesthetic tension between the abstract drawing and the concrete space. The ground plan will certainly tell you about the building, but the constructive composition will tell you about the concept of a dynamic structure of basic geometric shapes and therefore about its design concepts.
As an observer and user of buildings, you will find a magnificent example of the kind of aesthetic quality that is typical of the architecture of Schweger + Partner in Ulrich Erben’s realization of its 96 metres long facade. He uses this wall that extends along the whole length of the complex both as an abstract composition of colour fields as well as concretizing it in the form of ideas or memories. These can be imagined or remembered, according to what they are seen to mean, as pillared hall and triumphal arches, theatre curtains and stage scenery, rainbow and »clean fields« (Goethe, Faust I, Easter Walk: »Before the sun the white is sped/He sets astir with growth and springing/The world of colour he is bringing«). Erben wants a similar response from his viewers and users. He wants them to make associations like these when standing in front of the coloured facade. Many people find that difficult because the mural gives no clue at all as to what memories it is illustrating.
Architecture and building
The Bible reminds us that man does not live by bread alone. From time immemorial our good and trusty master builders have taken this reminder to heart. They knew that people don’t live in bricks and concrete, in marble and glas, wood or clay. They were aware that people really live in their thoughts and imaginations, in their memories and the way they perceive the world. It is the task of the master builder and the architect to combine the process of putting a roof over people’s heads with those special qualities that turn housing into living. Architecture transforms a building perceived as somewhere to keep you warm and dry, a care depository, a protection zone and a work area into Lebensraum and a world to live in. That is why each efficient architectural project is a model, a social cosmos that allows the people who live in it to encounter this world. Architecture makes that possible by allowing us to see the building as an organized entity that is both shaped and recognizable. Organizing entails making sure that everything interrelates — stylistic forms, social and functional outlets, historical ideas, or rather the theological and political concepts of life.
All architecture speaks about these concepts — but in very different ways. Its language is clearer if the building is designed as to illustrate these concepts. As if, for example, in ancient times a baker’s tomb appears as an oven, or about the year 1800 a cowshed is preserved in the shape of a huge horned bull, or in the twentieth century the restaurants of a fast-food chain are shaped like gigantic hamburgers by the roadside. But this crude translation of a function or position into a self-image has the disadvantage that the very unambiguity of its language means that it quickly becomes less interesting. Epoch-making architectural achievements over the centuries, ecclesiastical buildings, government buildings and commercial buildings, i.e. temples and cathedrals, palaces and parliaments, department stores, stations and factories were all intended to maintain a tension-filled balance between stylistic and formal, technical and functional motifs, and motifs concerned with the history of ideas.
How did this succeed? Architects raised the level of abstraction in all three conceptual areas: in formal and stylistic terms, building forms aimed at geometrical variation of circle and square, cube, cone and cylinder, point and line within the strict co-ordinates of verticality and horizontality. This is true of Greek and Roman antiquity, the Renaissance and early Baroque, Classicism and Classical Modernism. Where natural rather than geometrical forms were the basis, architects drew on the formal canon of plants, the outlines of living creatures and the dynamics of movement sequences — this applied to Gothic, Rococo and Jugendstil.
Technical and functional abstraction showed in the development of universal building materials (like cement) and new building processes (like reinforced concrete), which could be used equally in all building types.
The continuing further abstraction of theological-philosophical and political concepts was expressed in the fact that transport-related buildings, for example, tended to look ecclesiastical (the station as a »traffic cathedral«), factories became governmental, and department stores were palaces. Since Schinkel’s day (and Schinkel was certainly an outstanding architect of the early industrial age), post offices have looked like grammar schools, grammar schools like tax offices, tax offices like factories, factories like town halls and town halls like churches. All Schinkel’s successors have had to face this charge, because the crucial thing was forgotten: the similarity of the buildings results from the aspiration towards architectural quality, and that is, when it is successful, the same everywhere in the structure of proportions, care of execution and clarity of formal ideas. This general bringing into line has been criticized as a loss of specific deviations, as a rejection of regional traditions and democratic levelling — for reasons that are understandable, but not watertight. What we find depressing in the hotch-potch of monotony, in the uniformity of post-war towns and cities, is not lack of diversity but lack of architectural quality. Types of modern work-forms coming closer and closer together; and so are social roles. So it would be cynical to fix factory work and administration, blue- and white-collar workers in terms of architecture, that instantly reveals, from the outside and even more from the inside, that it is wilfully trying to make a distinction that means hardly anything in real terms. Should we refuse to design factories and distribution centres to the same standards of architectural quality simply to make a distinction between the kind of people who work there? This kind of architecture that identifies and therefore perhaps deceives is perhaps appropriate in Disney Worlds, but everyone can see how offensive it is actually to have to live and work inside an architecture that is merely a mask.
Incidentally: the concrete prevailing conditions for any architectural work in mature cities will in any case ensure that the same level of quality does not lead to levelling uniformity in architecture. On the contrary, in many cases the shape of the plot, infrastructure, building requirements, climatic conditions and building economies are to tempt architects to make superficial facade details with a high level of abstraction conceal a lack of actual quality. Then architecture becomes surface design, a hymn of praise as a Post-Modern brochure, and inside the ceiling falls down on your head.
Schweger + Partner’s building work does not try to represent the client’s status or the users’ functional type, nor to be a mask-like facade in the streetscape, making heavy-handed points. It does not assert that it can formulate a distinguishable company philosophy or political and personal positions in terms of architecture, nor does it attempt to make them visible, so that the headquarters of the Sparkassen- and Giroverband would be able to set itself apart from other banks’ buildings. It will be possible to judge the architects’ achievement only when the task that they had to address is understood. It was necessary to define a Neo-Baroque building, a post-war extension and the finance ministry carpark as the ground plan of a uniform building complex, on a tricky site in the Hanover Schiffgraben. The architects took the historical stylistic languages and function types of the existing buildings and abstracted the longitudinally directed rectangles placed upon each other in a T-shape, aiming their directional dynamics at the outermost corner point of the site on which they had to build. The dynamic appears visually as a straight line. The run of the Schiffgraben meant that the building line had to be curved from the corner point in the direction of the Neo-Baroque building. This introduced the circle motif; the architects placed the completed circle shifted backwards into the gap between the Neo-Baroque building and the wing that is a segment of a circle. The basic formal canon is continued by a square divided into four, which is included in the unity of the formal assembly by the dominant directional axis. The canon is completed by a second straight that intersects the directional axis and the circle at right angles. If the composition is considered as a Constructivist image, the two intersecting straight lines mark the two diagonals. But if one looks at the ground plan of the entrance facade, then the intersecting horizontal and vertical straights are defined as the central orientation axes.
This balanced and yet tension-filled composition, which in terms of quality can hold its own against the best work of El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy and other Constructivists, means that the architectural semantics can be developed structurally: the circle becomes a rotunda, or pantheon, the directional axis becomes an internal facade, and the square divided into four becomes the broken-open cube of a conclusion without finality. The viewer can and must be able to relate the significant associations of the building sections and the Constructivist figurative qualities of the ground plan geometry to each other from every standpoint in the building. Thus Constructivist formal ideas and the building forms’ significance in terms of the history of ideas can be used equally to make the building comprehensible. The architecture becomes image and the architectural image conceptual. The connection between image quality and conceptuality is created by the cross of the intersecting straights, if we see this as a rotation symbol for movement out of the image into the structure and from the structure into the image. Thus the architecture challenges every user of the building to imagine the Constructivist image as his own idea. By moving around the complex, the user realizes the image of the architecture and himself becomes someone who is discovering and understanding the building in terms of architectural thought. Thus he lives in the architecture of his own thoughts and not just a casing of building materials.
Artistic thinking in building
There’s nothing special about coloured walls being seen as part of the design of a building, with the exception of a brief period in our century when walls were kept as white as possible. But even a white wall is a projection area and horizon of perception, namely for the autonomous works of art, usually paintings, intended for these walls or in fact hanging on them. Space is essential if Modern art is to find a setting for its painting, reliefs or sculptures. Many Modern artists even conceived their work with a view to an enclosed space as a stage for their work. But the more the architecture of space asserted itself the more difficult it became to present autonomous works of art in such expressive architecture. Very often the claims of architecture and the claims of presentation came into conflict. Hollein’s museum buildings exemplify this. Art in buildings compelled architectural space to be neutral; architecture was pushed out.
All programmatic attempts to reconcile art and architecture — whether it was that architecture was designed as sculpture or art was applied to decorate architecture (art in building) — failed to satisfy architects, artists and users of the buildings. For this reason painters like Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel and Gerhard Merz tried to apply their image-concepts directly to the wall, and not to hang them in front of it. Here they had to work against the conventional view that colour applied to wall was a mere coating. An old problem, addressed in our century mainly by the Bauhaus wall painting workshop. To avoid the impression that walls were being decorated retrospectively, the workshop, under Itten, emphasized colour psychology and colour theology. Colouring became a stimulus for spiritual mood and spiritual opening-up. Real space became spiritual space. When Kandinsky was directing the workshop the Bauhaus students tried to subsume colour within the given architectural form of the wall, »to enhance the effect of that form and to allow new forms to emerge«, as »colour also tends to set itself against forms and to redesign them«. Many artists worked with this »form of colour« programme in our century, although their medium was painting and not architecture, unless like Mies van der Rohe they allowed the form of colour to assert itself through appropriately chosen building materials (e.g. frosted glass). Under Hinnerk Scheper the Bauhaus wall designers undertook to emphasize the figurativeness of colour on the wall by using the famous Bauhaus wallpapers, and also to define the form of colour as the topography of the wall. Their coloured walls were intended to make the individual rooms distinguishable as landscapes, or to make the architecture intelligible as a landscape. At any rate, Scheper extended the colour characters that people had not dared to use in Germany up to this point — refracted colours, impure colours and flat colours — with this topographical map-colouring.
And these beginnings were all that happened, even though Post-Modern architects like Venturi, Johnson, Moore, Gehry and Eisenman tried to use colour functionally and structurally in their architecture, not just in a painterly fashion. In Ulrich Erben’s design for the dynamic axis of the Schiffgraben as an inner facade the above-mentioned approaches seemed to be making an impact, certainly in the fundamental extension of the historical perspective and a considerable enhancement of their significance in terms of the history of ideas. It can be asserted without exaggeration that in formal respects Erben’s ideas evoke the IInd Pompeian style, the vertical encrustation in white and green marble on the Baptistery, Santa Maria Novella or the side-aisle façades of the Duomo in Florence. And in terms of the topoi of architectural design he suggests ideas of stage portals and triumphal arches, colonnades and galleries, festive architecture and columned halls. Erben extends the striking quality of his wall design above all on the place of meaning. In the first place it serves to dynamize the 96 metres long spatial unit through the irregular sequence of colour fields. Otherwise such long stretches of space, corridors or other public areas, whatever colour they may be, are deadly dull in their effect. As the colour fields change from nuances of similar or contrasting colours speeds up the eye and the observer’s movement, not uniformly, but as a change of tempo. The change of ceiling heights reinforces this vertical visual access, as the unity of the colour zones transcends the storeys and also shapes the observer’s ideas when he is unable to look into the second floor and the roof structure.
It should be noticed that Erben works only on the flat surface of the wall, but not the reveals of the wall openings and also not the rear sides of the walls. The metal sheets on the reveals and rear sides are anodized black-brown with visible traces of the process — a related leftover from the architects’ original ideas of designing the whole wall as an iron curtain or screen with a rusted surface. It is very tempting to imagine how a sculptural look like this, in the manner of Serra, would have turned out. This idea alone justifies the client’s and the architects’ decision to choose a painterly rather than a sculptural solution for the design problem. Certainly the monumental impression given by the axis would have been enhanced, but also the impression of hackneyed emptiness and monotony. Erben’s suggestion does not just make it possible to accelerate and hold back openings that extend beyond a single storey and restricted access to spaces, but also allows for alternating colour-psychological moods and functional-structuring colour schemes. How did Erben proceed? His first step in designing the work was to close the architectural elevation of the wall with its numerous archways, door openings and storey divisions down to form a uniform pictorial surface, in the shape of the horizontally placed rectangle that he had always preferred in his previous work. He thus saw the wall as a uniform pictorial surface and worked on this surface as he would on a work of autonomous painting. But this painting was not intended to be projected on to the actual existing wall surfaces, but also across their openings. This is indicated by the interruptions to the vertical colour strips by door and arch lintels. And so painting as an autonomous pictorial work by Erben exists only in the design and as an idea in the mind of the observer of the built wall. Just as the architecture as a whole demands constant mediation of the constructivist composition of abstract formal ideas by the experience of real space, in the same way Erben’s painting has to be constantly resummarized conceptually, i.e. as observer convey the idea of a panel picture that is complete in itself by means of the colour fields that are in fact visible.
Aluminium panels, 62 cm wide on average, hand-painted with acrylic paint and sealed with clear varnish, are visible. The aluminium sandwich sheets are so wafer-thin and so subtly fastened to the walls that they sometimes seem like a floating light projection and at others like the pages of a book, with the joins between the panels as the folds in the pages. The individual strips of colour always run across two panels; this prevents the individual panels and their borders from defining the shape of the colour strips. If Erben had made the individual panels just as wide as the double colour strips that are now visible, this could easily have given an impression of a monumentalizing arrangement. But this would have lost the transparent lightness, the immaterial quality of the colour forms.
All the acrylic paints used were unmixed — only the blue range consists of different additions of white. The blue tones dominate over chrome- and lemon-yellow, burnt Sienna, chamois, orange, ox-blood, violet, carmine, anthracite and aubergine. Green is quite deliberately not used, as the exterior facade monopolizes this colour value; another fact its that we tend to perceive green horizontally, in the foliage on shrubs and trees, for example, as part of our natural seeing process. Obviously Erben did not want to include natural green in the architecture because the colour fields would then have very quickly acquired a sense of greening-euphoria. But the colour that is most rarely seen in architecture is the blue of the sky. Erben draws the shades of this blue into the wall’s light vision. Additionally, the vertical arrangement of the panels leads the observer’s eye much more strongly from bottom to top, in other words out of the closed architecture and into open space, into the sky. But natural for us the sky is the most general vision of the world of light. From our earliest years we project notions as dreams and thoughts as ideas into it. This dominant blue on Erben’s wall makes the observer walk with a lighter step, you start to float and the building’s hard lines start to seem as transparent as clouds. Walking past the wall becomes a walk through the light of the seasons and the landscapes, while the observer, although the light remains on a single plane, is inclined to the impression that he is now looking up into the sky and then down to the ground, here he is looking at the grey-clouded horizon, there at a field of sunflowers before his very eyes.
The observer has no idea or memory of many of the colour values, and thus finds them inaccessible — a challenge to make his colour perception more subtle. Erben chose very varied colour characters quite consciously: those that seem familiar in terms of qualities of the non-pictorial world and other colours that we have never encountered as qualities of things, plants, animals or atmosphere. It is important that colours which inhibit associations, are devoid of memories, alternate with those that immediately stimulate ideas of images, because in this way the observer perceives that both the withheld images and those that suggest themselves without difficulty are created by his own perceptions to the same extent, and not creative requirements laid down by Erben the painter. Erben »only« offers, he »only« provokes a series of reasons to perceive, and we cannot but link the colour perceptions in the spatial structure with thoughts, memories of ideas.
The more unspecific the appeal to perceive (all you see is a sequence of colour fields), the more compellingly the observer is prompted to come up with a pictorially concrete or conceptually lucid response to the appeal to perceive. He may be stimulated to do this by the memory of a visit to Pompeii or Florence, walking through a triumphal arch in Rome or strolling down the aisle of an early Christian columned basilica. He will transport himself from the set of a theatrical scene into a cheerful harlequinade or imagine that he is taking part in a summer festival in a street hung with garlands — or whatever. Erben’s wall design, as painting and decoration, as staged space and the play of light, as an architecture-structuring form of colour and as the image of colourful reminiscences, will activate and motivate the observer — we can be sure of this — as much as the architecture itself. Walking through the concrete space will produce an architecture that will enliven the senses and the intellect through constant alternation between the abstract image of the building’s formal ideas and the momentary perception of space. Walking past Erben’s wall becomes an encounter with the observer’s own ability to think imaginatively and to speculate sensually.
Indeed, man does not live by bread alone, but in the architecture of his thoughts and in the painting of his own memories.
(from: »Das Haus, das neue Gebäude des niedersächsischen Sparkassen- und Giroverbandes mit seiner Sparkassenakademie Hannover, Niedersächsischer Sparkassen- und Giroverband 1994)