Breaking the mould

1st January, 1970

Breaking the mould

Identified as being in the vanguard of a new generation of international architectural leaders, Jürgen Mayer believes in creating “active” architecture that goes beyond merely answering questions by asking us some of its own. The Berlin-based architect and artist speaks to Phin Foster about the influence of dominant German discourses upon this approach, the importance of ambition and why it’s sometimes okay to go a little crazy.

It is difficult to think of a time when notions of national identity have been in greater flux, with global interdependence and hyperconnectivity engendering an age in which tribes are defined less by shared passports than shared ideals. We are fast becoming global citizens.

This is nothing new for the field of architecture, in which the multilingual ‘starchitect’ dividing his or her time between mega-commissions from Baku to Brooklyn, has long been a stock parody figure. Jürgen Mayer personifies a number of these post-nationhood traits: German-born, but with a sensibility in large part forged studying at Cooper Union and Princeton; Berlin-based, but with only one completed building in his adopted city of more than 20 years, a period during which he has gained serious international recognition, becoming arguably best known for an iconic project in the south of Spain.  

Last year, the 52 year-old was selected by the New York Times as one of a multinational cadre of architects entering “that fertile period” in which the profession’s “next generation of leadership begins to make its mark”, the connotation being that this mark far transcended the domestic.

Even Tillman Prinz, the secretary-general of the Federal Chamber of German Architects, describes his friend as a “very un-German sort of architect” – and he means it as a compliment.  Mayer may be a part of his country’s architectural milieu, but he is also apart from it. His aesthetic is playful, inquisitive, sculptural and visible, sharing little of the stereotypical Teutonic humility and straightforward efficiency so often associated with the country’s contemporary built environment.

“I do feel that, at the moment, German architectural production is very controlled; rectangular, punched windows, gridded facades,” he says. “I think my work sees the city more as a place of adventure than a site of investment. It’s perhaps a more artistic interpretation of architecture, which does not ignore economic performance or sustainability or programmatic needs, but looks at how we explore and activate those things.”

This, Mayer acknowledges, is a dialogue unfettered by national borders, but it is interesting to hear how his upbringing near Stuttgart helped shape his thoughts on what architecture could and should achieve. It was glimpsing photos of Erich Mendelsohn’s Schocken Department Store in Stuttgart (1928) as a 16 year-old that first piqued a serious interest in pursuing the discipline – “It looked like Metropolis,” he exclaims – and the prevailing architectural output of his youth that gave the young architect something to kick against.   

“Back then, the dialogue was dominated by lightness, transparency, democratic building. Gunther Behnisch was perhaps the leading figure in all of that,” Mayer recalls. “Nothing should happen behind closed doors anymore; everything should be visible to everyone. Every school building, every town hall looked like that when I was growing up.

“I felt there was an architecture missing that talked about containment, secrets, conscious distinctions between inside and out, discretion; some of the spatial conditions that make architecture so rich.”

Against the grain

The first building completed by his studio, J. MAYER H, founded in 1996, can be seen as a distillation of a number of these themes. Mayer won the competition to build Stadhaus in 1998, a multifunctional town hall in the Stuttgart suburbs fusing real, mediated and virtual spaces.

“It was the opposite of that kind of transparent, democratic architectural discourse,” says Mayer. “A solid box, a huge cantilever, interactive elements, virtual rain patterns, a very spatially complex interior; out of all of that, you do see a counter-statement to the status quo of the time.”     

Going against the status quo has been a theme running through his studio’s work ever since, and Mayer agrees that such an approach may not have always chimed with the somewhat conservative German climate. Having set up shop in Berlin only a few years after the fall of the Wall, he found post-unification priorities were centred on a different set of values.

“It’s been much more about repairing the city fabric,” he says. “The buildings don’t look that different to each other; they’re repeated, creating the grey mass of a city, somehow. That is a necessary process, but I still think something is missing; recognition of the city as an organism that’s constantly changing. It’s driven by efficient rebuilding – the ‘let’s not go crazy’ part – and you lose a lot of what makes a city special.

“In Berlin, we have been spoiled with so much extra space and experimental locations, but all of that is disappearing step by step, being replaced, with very few exceptions, by boring buildings. You’ve seen the same thing in Munich or Stuttgart or Dusseldorf, where the architecture is really not that interesting and just fulfilling needs.”

Mayer puts much of this approach down to the sense of loss among an older generation engendered by the extensive damage sustained by Germany’s cities during wartime, a sentiment that has driven developers to look backwards, rather than risk creating something new. “It’s why we didn’t have much work at the beginning,” he acknowledges. “But things are changing and there are lots of young architects now making fantastic contributions.”

Bright ideas

Two quite different projects in Dusseldorf, one completed earlier this year, the other scheduled for delivery in 2019, indicate that Mayer is benefitting from this mentality shift.  The latter, Rhein 740, is a 19-storey mixed-use medical services and residential high-rise cloaked in horizontal ‘cloud-shaped’ aluminium strips, with planted terraces and balconies looking out upon the Rheinaue parkland and Duesseldorf skyline.

The former, FOM Dusseldorf, designed for Germany’s largest private university and located in Le Quartier Central, a new mixed-use development sitting on a former freight yard, was completed in October. The building riffs on this railway legacy, of railway tracks, bridges, ramps and pedestrian connections. The first floor connects to a bridge with a projecting platform, forging a link between the different urban levels.

“By pushing balconies and stairs to the outside, we created an interesting exterior that has this sculptural quality, creating connections between levels, but also more square-footage inside,” the architect explains. “Taking that as our context, the different elements of interstructural traffic layers, creates a specific architectural appearance and quality. This is what we try to achieve; finding the unique starting points of each project and turning that into an architectural gesture.”   

Financed by private enterprise, but serving to activate shared spaces and alter urban topography, a project such as FOM somewhat blurs the lines between the private and public spheres. Of course, this is a distinction that is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout our cities.  

Mayer is unsure of the extent to which this shift is transforming the sort of architecture commissioned, but still senses a lack of ambition. “Germany’s public buildings, at least in the past few years, have tended to be far duller than those that have been privately commissioned,” he argues. “Companies see that architecture can work as a kind of advertising banner, whereas politicians are all too often tempted to stay on the safe side.”

Mayer’s highest-profile commission to date, Seville’s Metrapol Parasol, makes a strong case against such risk aversion. Purported to be the world’s largest wooden structure, the giant latticed canopy consists of six parasols – popularly known by locals as las setas (mushrooms) – straddling La Encarnación square in the city’s old quarter. Constructed between 2005 and 2011, it was not without controversy, but has since become visual shorthand for the city as a whole, as well as regenerating what was an under-explored corner of the Andalusian capital.

“There were financial difficulties and the process was not entirely smooth, but you only have to look at its impact,” Mayer says of Parasol. “Seville has been named at Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. I’m not saying that’s entirely down to our building, but projects such as these radiate a certain excitement and feel for something new going on.

“Contrast that with Stuttgart 21 [one of the costliest individual construction projects ever undertaken by the German Government, running massively over budget and behind schedule] or Berlin Brandenburg Airport [under construction since 2006, with an initial completion date of 2011, but now not expected before 2022]. These were designs that were intended to be economically feasible and deliverable, but through mismanagement, they are spending so much more. Imagine the fantastic buildings they could have been built with those sorts of budgets. Germany has done quite well compared to Spain financially, but perhaps saturation of money makes people quite lazy.”

Mayer has also taken on ambitious public works in Georgia, but, for now at least, it is Germany’s private developers with whom he is enjoying most success at home. Within this context comes VOLT Berlin, a shopping mall and ‘urban experience’ near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. The development combines retail outlets, various experiential offerings, and a hotel, all housed within a single cubed complex organised in several smaller boxes placed within an uneven grid. A luminous horizontal glazed line runs like a tension fissure all the way through the building. This ‘energy line’ will host indoor skydiving and a surf wave. Construction started earlier this year and, once complete, it will be Mayer’s second building in his home city.

“Despite being controlled in a private way, a shopping mall is still very much a public space,” he argues. “Through these two activators, in the form of the wave and skydiving, we create a very different dynamic from what one traditionally sees as the sole function of a space like this, which is to shop.”

New horizons

Quizzed on where else his attentions are currently focused, Mayer points to two competitions in his hometown and the Miami Design District’s Museum Garage, a development curated by Terence Riley of K/R Architects that will feature six facades, each created by a different firm.

“That’s been a unique experience, as you find yourself communicating with the architects to either side,” Mayer says of the latter. “Sometimes the difference is clear-cut, sometimes it’s more like a puzzle that interconnects with your neighbour. It’s a really exciting process. I’d like to engage in similar projects in the future.”

Collaboration now lies at the centre of his practice as well, with Mayer taking on two partners in 2014: Andre Santer and Hans Schneider. “It brings a different kind of stability to the office,” he says of the shift. “There’s a broader outreach you can have, and it feels good to have a more solid base to work upon, what with there not just being one person who is in the position to make all the decisions. We push each other and that creates a dynamic that is very constructive.”

A fierce curiosity about the future – Mayer describes his studio as working at “the crossroads between architecture, communication and technology” – means changes in dynamic are something he strives for rather than seeks to avoid. The generational shift the architect believes he is witnessing at home might mean that being labelled a “very German” architect will come to carry quite different connotations in the years to come. If Mayer is entering “that fertile period” of his career, it will be interesting to see how great a role he plays in helping to reshape those expectations at home and beyond.


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