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Think globally, act locally

18 of November '20

The interview with Dietmar Eberle appeared
in A&B 7-8'2020

Dietmar Eberle 's architecture is characterized by excellent analysis of local conditions and user needs, going hand in hand with uncompromising minimalist form. The main design idea is to find a solution that meets the requirements of both the present and the future. The designers at Baumschlager Eberle Architekten therefore create sustainable buildings in the broadest sense of the word. It's not just about their energy efficiency or environmental considerations, but also about cultural, social and aesthetic aspects. In its design methodology, Eberle puts transparency in the design process first. All solutions must be logical and easy to understand. In February this year, the architect gave a lecture in Katowice as part of sarp's "Masters of Architecture" series.

Dietmar Eberle and Justyna Boduch during the talkDietmar Eberle and Justyna Boduch during the talkDietmar Eberle and Justyna Boduch during the talk

Dietmar Eberle and Justyna Boduch during the interview

photo: Kinga Golabek

Justyna Boduch: At the very beginning, I would like to ask you about your book "9 × 9 - A Method of Design", in which you describe your own approach to architecture. Do you believe in the existence of one best design method?

Dietmar Eberle: The design method has to be adapted to the changing reality. There are more and more people influencing the creation of buildings, and each of them has different interests. The book "9×9 - A Method of Design" is nothing more than an answer to the question of how to adapt our design strategies to the growing complexity of architecture, taking into account the needs of people and the world. The book is a follow-up to the first part - "From City to House" - which was successful among architects. After its publication, I realized that there is a great need for education on the subject.

: So what is the "9 × 9" method based on?

Dietmar: "9 × 9" means that in a project you go through nine individual steps, and for each step there are nine different methods or strategies for finding the best solution. In order for a good architecture to be created, a good answer must be found for each of these nine aspects.

: In your book you divide architecture into five categories: site, structure, facade, function and interior. Why do you mention place first?

Dietmar: In the 20th century, I thought that the most important things in a building were function and spatial program. When I talked about high quality architecture, I thought primarily about the comfort of its users. But now that we are in the 21st century, I think the most important thing is the contribution a building makes to society, and a building that does not make such a contribution at all is not right. The most important space in a city is public space, not individual buildings. And this is the challenge of architecture - to design such a building that contributes to the quality of public space in the city. This is why the relationship between building and place is a priority for me.

However, there is another argument for this. In your question you listed five categories that define five different time frames for each building. The longest of these is the relationship between building and place. When we make a decision about a place, it is a decision for about two hundred years. That is why it is the most important one. Immediately following is the structure of the building, for which we make the second most important decision, given the durability of the materials. Third is the facade, whose average lifespan is also long, for example, windows in a building are replaced on average once every fifty years. Next we have the function of the building, as defined by its program. The time frame for this category is usually twenty years. This is a short period of time, covering just one generation. I often ask people if they would like to live the way their parents lived or work the way they worked twenty years ago. Most answer that they don't, because lifestyles and ways of working have changed a lot. Therefore, every twenty years the use of buildings also changes. The last time frame concerns the interior. Its typical duration is ten years. This includes floors, ceilings, walls or doors, but also technology - lighting, ventilation and the like.

What I am talking about may sound a bit philosophical, but in reality it is very pragmatic. All of these timeframes are based on specific studies, determining how often individual building elements are replaced, or how often buildings are adapted to new needs.

Therefore, in my book, I emphasize that in order to create a sustainable building, we need to realize that we are addressing different time frames through different design decisions. We should therefore focus first and foremost on those decisions with which we affect the longest time frame.

budynek e-Science Lab on the campus of the Federal University of Technology (ETH)budynek e-Science Lab on the campus of the Federal University of Technology (ETH)budynek e-Science Lab on the campus of the Federal University of Technology (ETH)

e-Science Lab building on the campus of the Federal University of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland, design: Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

photo: Eduard Hueber

Justyna: So how do you define the role of us architects in the modern world?

Dietmar: First of all, as architects, we should devote energy to developing our ideas. The realization of these ideas is handled by many other industries and many other people, while the responsibility of an architect is to develop ideas so that they are as good as possible. This is the basic task of an architect, but I also have my own more personal understanding of the architect's role in the world. I believe that the architect must represent all those people who are not sitting at the table. By this I mean that when decisions related to architecture are made, city authorities, developers, investors and sometimes users sit at the table. However, we often forget about the others, for whom there is no place at that table. Future generations are not there either, and when we create architecture, after all, we are not doing it for the current generation, but for four, five or six generations ahead. Investors and developers think only in the context of their own generation, so we architects have to think in a much longer time frame.

: However, the world is developing incredibly fast. Are we able to anticipate people's needs several generations ahead?

Dietmar: Of course, we cannot predict the needs of future generations, but we can create various possibilities for them. What remains on people's side, however, is how they will use these opportunities. If there are no such opportunities at all, the building is doomed to demolition. Anyway, we often see this today, when buildings created by previous generations are destroyed. Every demolition is accompanied by various arguments, such as technical condition, bad sunlight or economics. However, I believe that buildings are demolished for other reasons. Just ask a simple question: do we like a building or not? We wonder if there are enough rooms in it, if it has enough capacity and the like. These are the key questions that determine whether a building survives or is demolished. By the way, look at the space we are in right now [the grounds of the Silesian Museum in Katowice - editor's note]. We are surrounded by many buildings that have been preserved and given a new function. Despite not being in the best technical condition, they have not been demolished, because they are decent buildings that people like. Therefore, thinking about future generations, let's create valuable architecture that people will simply like.

: What about ecology? Does climate change pose new challenges for architecture?

Dietmar: Global climate change is of course a fact, but it is not the most important issue for me. What is important is what we can do with our buildings. That's why I pay attention to three aspects when designing. First, reducing a building's impact on the environment; second, reducing its need for non-renewable resources; third, using materials that can be reused in the future.

biurowiec 2226biurowiec 2226biurowiec 2226

Office building 2226, which houses the headquarters of Baumschlager Eberle Architekten, Lustenau, Austria, design: Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

photo: Eduard Hueber

Justyna: One of your best-known projects is the 2226 office building, which houses the headquarters of Baumschlager Eberle Architekten. The building has no mechanical ventilation, air conditioning or heating, yet it maintains a constant temperature between 22 and 26 degrees Celsius? How did you manage to achieve this?

Dietmar: Everything is a matter of physics. In Building 2226, we use what we have available to us on a daily basis, but in a more intelligent way. For example, we have fresh air available to us on a daily basis. Everyone likes to open a window, which brings the circulation of this air inside the building. In addition, depending on the season, we have different amounts of sunlight in the building. Going further, we have the humidity specified for our climate, and even the standard behavior of people due to their habits. These are all ordinary things, but we consider them as resources that can be used to supply the building with energy. Let me now give you a simple example. We are just sitting in a café, which is illuminated by artificial light. And this artificial light can get another dimension, for example, by using it to heat the building. Instead of putting in additional systems, we try to use what we already have more wisely. Building 2226 is based on this way of thinking. As a result, we need much less technology, but we are helped by software that analyzes what is happening inside and outside the building and controls the building's responses accordingly. It all comes down to know-how.

: So should we set global design, technological and environmental standards?

Dietmar: I have designed in different parts of the world, and it amuses me that there are different design standards in different countries. Standards in Switzerland are different than in Germany, Poland or China, and I often ask myself - why? Do different countries have different physics? It is what it is, however, instead of standards, what matters to me is the ambition of the people involved in creating our environment. After all, in practice it's about people's concrete knowledge, and let's not take standards too seriously.

: You are also a professor and university lecturer. What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in education and transferring knowledge to a young person?

Dietmar: It seems to me that in architecture the most important thing is to build a sense of confidence in young people. Students should look critically at the surrounding reality and try to think independently. The amount of knowledge that an architect should acquire is enormous, and five years of study is definitely not enough to assimilate it. Moreover, knowledge changes over time. Thirty years ago, the physics of buildings was completely different, and I often observe that people who graduated thirty years ago do not understand today's world. Therefore, instead of imparting knowledge, I'm concerned with developing a certain attitude in students. Young people must become aware of their social responsibility, they should want to create better and better buildings. During their lifetime, knowledge will change many more times, so what counts most is attitude.

: I remember that at my university we didn't learn much about business. Today, an architect must be proficient in this field. Do you think a good architect can be a good businessman at the same time?

Dietmar: I think that being a good businessman is a matter of talent, but the combination of a good architect and a good businessman is rare. On the other hand, it is important for an architect to have a basic knowledge of the field. Of course, it is not a matter of trying to become a business specialist yourself by force, after all, you can network with people who are good in this field. I often observe naive thinking that architects can learn everything by themselves. This is not true. If you want to develop your own architectural business, you need someone who can give you specific knowledge in entrepreneurship.

La Maison du SavoirLa Maison du SavoirLa Maison du Savoir

La Maison du Savoir, a building on the campus of the University of Luxembourg, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, designed by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten in collaboration with Christian Bauer & Associés Architectes

photo: Eduard Hueber

Justyna: What has helped you succeed on an international scale?

Dietmar: I have consistently followed my own principles throughout my life. I have established partnerships with people in many countries, but only if they shared my approach to architecture. Today my studio is quite large, while its success came from simple things: sticking to my own principles, following my ideas, and trusting myself.

: How do you recall the beginning of your career?

Dietmar: When I was finishing my studies at the polytechnic, I had a friend who was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts at the same time. That friend was Carlo Baumschlager, and we both felt that the architecture around us was of very poor quality. Together we decided to set up a small studio, where we created our own projects, following our own rules. These principles were: our buildings are to be very inexpensive, their energy requirements are to be reduced, and social interaction between people is to be created. Today this approach is very fashionable, but we used it back in 1978-1980. At that time no one understood what we were talking about. Newspapers such as Die Zeit from Hamburg and Der Spiegel wrote about us in very extensive articles, because we were a huge curiosity for them. In the early 1980s, architecture was treated as a craft, and it was unthinkable that young architects did not want to create typical architecture. We refused to do projects for the authorities and for developers, because they had completely different goals. However, they knew our projects and ten years later some of them started coming to us. They said they understood our approach and wanted to follow the same values. So we started working with them and quickly became successful. It happens that today people tell me about social responsibility in design. Then I just smile and reply, "OK, do it. I've been designing this way for forty years."

: Roughly three hundred people from twenty-one countries, in fourteen locations, work in your office. What problems are you facing at this stage?

Dietmar: I believe in the idea of social networking. In different branches of the office, the quality of the architecture has not always been at the same level, this I could consider a problem, but de facto we don't have too many worries or reasons to complain. Everything works well, which is the level of the office and projects, people support each other. Naturally, the essence of the matter is the place where you design, and the quality of architecture defined by specific people. There are many differences between branches, all of them are at a very good level, but they are different from each other. I believe very strongly in regionalism and a local approach to design. In our studio we try to understand and support the local traditions, background, culture of the local community, to support these local values through the best international solutions. There is a saying that fits our conversation, and you may have heard it many times before: "think globally, act locally."

La Maison du SavoirLa Maison du SavoirLa Maison du Savoir

La Maison du Savoir, a building on the campus of the University of Luxembourg, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, designed by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten in collaboration with Christian Bauer & Associés Architectes

photo: Eduard Hueber

Justyna: You are the author of many books. What books do you like and what literature are you currently reading?

Dietmar: At the moment I am reading two books. The first is a new edition of a biography of Hannes Meyer, modernist architect and urban planner, the second director of the Bauhaus. The book is politically motivated, which doesn't make it universal. I very much appreciate Hannes' attitude and was pleased when another biography of him came out. Another book is "History of Beauty" [Umberto Eco's "Storia Della Bellezza" - editor's note], a literary work that reflects the varied notions of beauty that have appeared throughout history. I really like the overall formula of this book. It starts with the phenomenon of beauty itself, and as we read we begin to understand it better, perceiving its impact on today's society and even the economic background. I have read many books on architectural theory in my life, firstly because I like to discover other new things and then consider them, and secondly because I am often asked for my opinion on them. I hope to publish more than one more book myself.

: Changing the subject. House or apartment? City or countryside? Which habitat do you prefer?

Dietmar: To be honest, I am a person for whom a relationship with nature is important, and such an encounter is easier in the countryside or small towns than in a big city. Culture, on the other hand, tends to develop in metropolitan areas. I am fortunate to live in a small city with a significant amount of culture. When I think about where I live, I care about two factors: the relationship with culture and art: museums, exhibitions, opera, modern art, and the relationship with nature. However, if I had to name my favorite cities in Europe, they would be Madrid, Paris and Rome.

: What do you want to convey to the people who came to hear your lecture?

Dietmar: I would like my lecture to motivate people to think for themselves, to follow not the crowd, but themselves and their passions.

Justyna Boduch

Illustrations provided courtesy of the Katowice branch of SARP.

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