Thursday, May 26, 2011


I have previously written about De Carlo's Magistero - a building I've been fascinated with for years now - and how it's a reworking of a medieval structure into a functioning modern building. it feels like it's time to revisit that topic, though from a different angle.

Bensberg town Hall, outside Cologne - Gottfried Böhm, photo by SEIER + SEIERlet's start with Gottfried Böhm: last summer he seemed to be everywhere. to be honest 'everywhere' mostly consisted of someone at work mentioning him once and me reading about his Bensberg Town Hall (1962-67) in Peter Blundell-Jones and Eamonn Canniffe's Modern Architecture Through Case Studies 1945-1990 (a book I bought mostly because it featured said Magistero). the Town Hall is a concrete building set within the remains of a medieval castle and was so intriguing that the next time I found myself in a well-stocked bookshop I ended up buying a monograph on Böhm.

entrance to Hotel and Restaurant, Bad Godesberg outside Bonn - Gottfried Böhm, photo by TRiverthrough the monograph I found out not only that Böhm had done other projects in a similar vein – the first seems to be a hotel and restaurant in Bad Godesberg outside Bonn (1959-68) – but also that he designed a chapel on the site of Peter Zumthor's Kolumba Museum (1997-2007), a chapel now incorporated into the new museum. so let's take a look at these buildings and their attitudes to adaptations of older buildings*:

in Bad Godesberg** Böhm unceremoniously places his modern additions on and in-between existing wall fragments. while the original walls are of stone Böhm's additions are in fair-faced concrete, neither entirely breaking with nor blending in with the old ruins. in this way Böhm creates not a brand new building but an amalgamation: the new spaces are partly created by what built matter was already on the site. at the same time Böhm adhered to the often used modernist strategy of clearly separating the existing building and any new interventions: what is modern is undoubtedly modern: there is no mimicking of traditional forms or detailing.

Böhm used the same approach in his competition-winning entry for the Bensberg Town Hall***, although in a more extreme version. the old castle in Bensberg had been a ruin since the Thirty Years' War but in the mid-eighteenth century the ruin was converted into a monastery and later on also into a hospital. Böhm decided to get rid of these fairly recent structures and to only keep the medieval remains. in this way he had a podium of lower walls as well as one higher fragment curving around and protecting part of the site. the higher part of the wall ended in a high tower with a slate roof which he also retained. Böhm placed the council chamber against the higher wall fragment while placing all other accommodation in a C-shaped pattern around a courtyard open to the town. in this way the position of the council chamber, the complex's most important room, was shown to the surrounding town by the tower and from the building's courtyard by extensive glazing, two stories high.

detail of Bensberg town Hall, outside Cologne - Gottfried Böhm, photo by SEIER + SEIERonce again the interventions are modern, to say the least. the fenestration is in the form of ribbon windows thus clearly breaking with the romanesque windows of the original building (some of which were re-created from archaeological findings). in the more important parts - the stair tower and on the ground floor - the glazing is frameless which must be considered very advanced for the mid 60s.

just as in Bad Godesberg the junctions between new and old parts are not expressed in any particular way, rather new and old are juxtaposed with concrete simply sitting atop older stone walls.

after the allied bombing of Cologne during the Second World War most parts of the church of St. Kolumba had been demolished but left standing was a medieval statue of the Virgin Mary. in 1948 Böhm built a chapel to protect the statue and in 1956 he added a sacristy along with a boundary wall to the monastery just north of the chapel.

detail of Kolumba Museum, Cologne - Peter Zumthor and Gottfried Böhm, photo by Claus Moserin 1997 there was a competition for a new diocesan arts museum on the site of the old church where Böhm participated. Böhm didn't win, instead the victory went to Peter Zumthor. in a move very reminiscent of Böhm Zumthor's proposal places new walls directly on to the structures already present on the site, be they medieval masonry or Böhm's post-war concrete walls. these new walls are made of a brick Zumthor developed especially for the project: a thin long slab hinting at both old Roman brickwork and at the masonry employed in his Therme Vals. in a way these brick walls become a mediation between the different periods already represented on the site: the detailing of the brickwork is very abstract hinting at modernity but in no way does it seem more modern than Böhm's 1956 concrete walls, rather the opposite. in this I think Zumthor has managed to strike a perfect note, the additions are clearly marked out as such but also function as a backdrop highlighting both the ruinous fragments and Böhm's structures as parts of special interest.

though Böhm himself have expressed reservations against Zumthor's project it seems the major difference between Kolumba and the Böhm projects I've discussed above is the fact that Böhm was still alive when Zumthor's project was built. apart from that it uses pretty much the same strategies regarding retention and interventions on sites already rich with history. I guess if there's one major difference it is that where Böhm at Bad Godesberg and Bensberg create a true collage from two equally important parts – what's existing and what's new – Zumthor's new structure is so much larger and more important than the older parts it feels as if it's about to devour them. if this is down to a different attitude or just a reflection of the size of the programme he had to fit on to the site I'm not sure.

* I probably should mention I haven't visited any of the buildings but rather have to rely on drawings, photos and other people's accounts.

** some more photos of Bad Godesberg can be found here

***and some very good ones of Bensberg can be found here

both of the beautiful photos of Bensberg are stolen from SEIER+SEIER, photo of Bad Godesberg by TRiver
photo of Kolumba by Claus Moser

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

the road to ruin (pt. 3)

here's the latest news regarding St. Peter's seminary from BD. I just hope something good will come out of all this.

I wonder a bit about what shape the restoration will take, and how they will handle the destroyed Kilmahew House that Gillespie, Kidd and Coia's scheme was designed around. will they just keep the ruined house or will they partially restore that as well? hopefully we'll see some plans in the next while and hopefully, hopefully, NVA will manage to find the money to go ahead with their plans as - although these magninficent ruins left half-forgotten in the forest do appeal to my romantic side - I'd be even more excited at the possibility of visiting a semi-restored seminary some time in the future.

Monday, May 09, 2011

this is radio etienne

my last post had me thinking about the strange ways buildings seem to upset so many people. how can one ugly building annoy people so much they keep insisting it needs to be torn down? one of the ugliest cities I've ever been to is Tokyo – most of the buildings there are horrible, drab post-modern eighties stuff – but that has never detracted from my enjoyment of the beautiful buildings standing next to the ugly ones. more importantly it has never stopped me from having a great time in the city, they're just buildings after all.

to make an analogy; when I listen to the radio and a horrible song comes on I have three options: I either change channels, turn the radio off or suffer through the song in the hope that I'll like the next song better. to follow the analogy your options in a city where you find a building ugly is to leave the city entirely to live in isolation in a building to your choice in surroundings you do like, to decide to never pass that horrid building ever again or to be happy in the knowledge you'll like that other building over there much more than the one you happen to be passing at the moment.

as the first two options have seriously detrimental effects on your quality of life the only feasible option is to learn to live with the ugly buildings without letting them affect you too much. it really doesn't seem it will be too hard to do and as ugly buildings will always be around as long as we can't agree on taste – and I hope few nowadays persist in the folly there is a universally agreeable taste – a stoic indifference to them will be the best way to handle the buildings we just can't stand.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


it's been a while. I can always try to blame moving cities and working too much, but it's probably mostly down to not having had any thoughts interesting enough to share.

but now I do.

my old college caught on fire earlier today. so far there haven't been any conclusive reports on just how bad the damage is. from photos in the papers it seems fairly clear that most of the lower parts towards Engelbrektskyrkan are severely damaged but it's hard to tell if it's worse than that.

I'd say huge parts of the residents in the surrounding areas are giving up a cheer tonight. after all the Architecture faculty at KTH is always voted in the top when it comes to the ugliest buildings in town. seems like the perfect time to revisit my ruminations on architecture and taste.

because I really can't understand all the abuse that's hurled at the building. yes, it's grey. yes, the ground floor is taken up by a car park. yes, the fenestration is repetitive. out of those three objections the only one I can find truly legitimate is the one concerning the parking. that parking is very unfortunate. it is also not the fault of the architect but of the city's planners and politicians. even more importantly it's something that can be mended.

we have to realise it's time to stop wasting our resources by tearing down perfectly sound buildings just because they're no longer fit for the purpose they were first meant for. we still look at individual buildings the way we look at our modernist suburbs (though – strangely enough – not the inner city): that they're works of art that should be protected in their entirety or torn down. but the way to handle any problems isn't to tear the building down instead we need to adapt what's already there to suit new needs. something must have happened since the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe*.

thankfully the idea of adapting and extending what's there seems to be spreading in Stockholm at the moment. the last couple of years have seen proposals for extensions/alterations from some of our most highly respected architects – Wingårdh at Thulehuset and Tham Videgård at Konserhuset most readily spring to mind – and the problem with them isn't that they're adapting an existing building but rather that they're adapting an existing landmark by making an extension that tries incredibly hard to assert its own presence, it tries so hard it pretty much overtakes the iconic building it's attached to. of course there are precedents for that, Markelius' roof-top extension to Centralpalatset is the obvious example in Stockholm, but that time it was an extension to a non-descript office building while Konserhuset is one of the most iconic buildings in Stockholm and Thulehuset's facade is one of the most recognisable and imposing buildings we have from its time. one of the profession's preferred ways to extend a building is to make an addition that is 'of its time' – to honestly separate new and old visually – and that is all well and fine, if a little boring at times, but when you try to outdo the host that's just plain rude. and rudeness, I'm afraid, isn't really that interesting.

so even though we need to adapt rather than to raze and build anew I just wish it would be done with a little more care. not because the city's authorities asks that of us (even if they might) but because the buildings themselves deserve it.

update 25/5: the low parts of KTH-A are indeed severly damaged but the higher parts escaped almost unscathed. some photos can be found in the latest issue of Arkitekten (pages 8–19).

* an event clearly demonstrating that Modernism as ideology was alive and well, rather than the opposite, whatever Charles Jencks says.