»Reinventing the HfG as a 21st-century art college«

Interview with Bernd Kracke By Anna Scheuermann
A new internal and external structure for the HfG

Photo: Felicitas von Lutzau

Anna Scheuermann: Bernd Kracke, after no less than 17 years of groundwork, an important milestone was reached for you in 2023: During a special press conference, Kees Christiaanse, who chaired the jury for the new HfG campus at the harbor, announced the winner of the architectural competition. The mixed European team comprises Xaveer de Geyter Architects from Brussels with Topotek 1 Architektur from Zurich and Topotek 1 Landschaftsarchitektur from Berlin. There seemed to be a great sense of anticipation, even unity, among everyone involved. What was your experience of this happy moment?

Bernd Kracke: Absolutely, it truly was a major milestone for all of us and also for me in person, being able to award first prize to this design after such a long run-up. And it very much is what we had in mind: It’s not an ostentatious, impressive building, but rather something functional that, thanks to its very restrained garage-like aesthetics, will not in any way obstruct the various creative forces of our students and teachers from developing but rather promote them. The winners did an excellent job of meeting the requirements we have of our future art academy. We are delighted that the subsequent tender procedure went so well, and that the winning entry can now be realized. A special coincidence was the close connection between our architect Xaveer De Guyter and Rem Kohlhaas, whom he collaborated with for over ten years and whose legendary book “Delirious New York” has accompanied me since it was published in 1978. The pairing of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building on the dust jacket in Madelon Vriesendorp’s illustration forever formed a fascinating role model for me for our future HfG, in which art and design meet and interact with one another. That said, the functionalist studio building of Kunsthochschule Kassel by Paul Friederich Posenenske, realized at the end of the 1960s with its industrial and no-frills rigor and generous transparency, might also be considered a reference for the design of the new HfG harbor campus. As regards the contemporary development of art colleges, I would like to draw attention to the new International School of Design (HITSZ University) in Shenzhen, China, which was designed in cooperation with Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), among others, and realized by the French architecture firm Ateliers 2,3,4 during the Covid-19 pandemic. It includes aspects comparable to the design for the future HfG in many functional areas such as the installation of the workshops on the ground floor.

Rem Kohlhaas: “Delirious New York” (1978), cover photo “Flagrant Délit Version I” (1975) by Madelon Vriesendorp ©Madelon Vriesendorp

AS: That said, not only the entire university but also the State of Hessen and the City of Offenbach played a role in ensuring that the new building becomes a reality. After all, this is also an important development for the state and the city – it’s the first new building of an art college in very many years – and represents a shift away from modernizing and adapting existing buildings. How would you describe your collaboration in the past 17 years?

BK: Well in retrospect, things seem to have progressed in a logical, consistent manner, but in fact it was a long arduous journey with many twists and turns. We’ve been working on this project since 2007 and all kinds of options have been considered over the years, from expanding the existing building through to various sites in the harbor area. There was even talk for a while of a merger between the HfG with the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts (HfMDK) and the Städelschule to create the Frankfurt Rhine-Main University of the Arts, but this option was thwarted at an early stage due to massive political opposition. It’s fair to say that a lot was examined, evaluated, but then rejected in this period. We were therefore really happy when in October 2015 Boris Rhein, then Hessen’s Minister for Science and Art and now Minister President, was able to push through the decision to realize an entirely new HfG building in Offenbach’s harbor using HEUREKA funds. The land in the harbor was then acquired in 2019 at the initiative of the then Minister of Science, Angela Dorn, and three years later in 2022 the international architectural competition was announced. These are important milestones that mark the consistent progression to the current design and realization of our new building. Moreover, the idea of a new university building has also become increasingly firmly established in people’s minds so that we can now talk about a new reality: The harbor campus is coming! Both the Hessen Ministry of Science and Art as well as the Ministry of Finance, which is represented in the project management by the Landesbetrieb Bau und Immobilien Hessen (LBIH), have supported the project significantly and with great commitment from the start. It is also a prestigious project for them, as not all universities are being completely rebuilt as part of the HEUREKA overall investment program (University Development, Expansion, and Renovation Program in Hessen); often it’s only sections or just single buildings. As such, embedding this major project for the HfG in the framework of an international competition is especially important as a means of generating international visibility for the state of Hessen.

AS: What scale of investment are we talking about here? And how many students will the new HfG campus accommodate?

BK: In 2015, we received approval for the first tranche of funding – amounting to some EUR 90 million. Following the purchase of the land in 2019 a further tranche of EUR 50 million was released, as it was evident at the time that it would not otherwise be possible to realize our spatial planning. As things now stand, we anticipate that construction will begin in 2026 and the new campus will be up and running in 2030. The new building is not designed to accommodate a larger number of students, but is intended to secure our current demands while allowing space for future expansion. In other words, we reckon on having the same number of students at the new campus. The additional main usable space of roughly 5,000 square meters and the future spatial program are based on needs assessments and site surveys from 2007 and 2009.

AS: You talk about new premises that can be used flexibly. Can you explain how that works if the individual usages are not fully defined in advance?

BK: Well, we have developed a modular spatial program with various clusters and in addition allowed for a further expansion stage, which was already part of the competition brief. With the Ministry of Finance, we always talk about a “breathing” new building that offers certain options for expansion and alterations; we see important development potential here. We are presently planning joint workshops with the architects, the LBIH, and members of the university so as to specify and refine the spatial program for the new HafenCampus. In the run-up to the competition, the program wasn’t fully defined to allow for a certain degree of flexibility in the approach and for the potential of the architectural design to unfold. The latter has absolutely delivered the desired flexibility by creating a kind of modular framework which allows for many interior options.

AS: Let’s take a closer look at the location in Offenbach Harbor, which is only about 1,500 meters away from the university’s current main location at Isenburg Castle. In 2008, the first designs for the so-called Inselspitze in an exposed position on the Main riverbank already existed – produced by architecture students at Darmstadt Technical University for their final-year project. Did you want to move to the harbor from the very outset, or was that more what the City of Offenbach wanted?

BK: At the time, the harbor was in a very early stage of development so we instinctively focused on the most attractive places like the exposed tip of the island. Moreover, this former port area with the opportunities for development it offered was one of the most interesting places in Offenbach. From the very start, several factors made this spot highly attractive: its waterfront location, the view of Frankfurt, and the direct connection to Offenbach’s Nordend and the creative industry emerging there, for example in the Heyne factory and many backyards. Years before the harbor was actively developed, the HfG was on site as an interim user of the Ölhalle and a warehouse. We had wanted to be the first ones in the harbor, and now we are the last ones and will close the remaining “gap” with our new university building. The architects positioned their design very well on the two plots on Hafenallee and responded to the specific competition brief with the public thoroughfare and the inclusion of the Ludwigstrasse. With their design of a building that encompasses the spacious park, they have managed to virtually eliminate the sense of separation between the two construction sites and create a “hothouse” for art and design that is flooded with light.

Melopee School in Ghent, Belgium, XDGA Architects, photo: © Maxime Delvaux

École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, France © ArtefactoryLab/XDGA

AS: Nonetheless, there are always people who will complain about the university moving out of the city center. After all, as a university you have often managed to address important issues in the City of Offenbach in recent years and present them in different locations. Will you continue to do this, or do you intend in future to focus on the first exhibition spaces of your own in the new building?

BK: As I see it, our move will establish a new creative mile from the harbor to the Design Park in Offenbach, but also extending towards Frankfurt and its famous Museumsufer that runs along the riverbank. This will create a new center with the HfG acting as the hub of the creative mile in Offenbach Harbor. So far from getting worse, the situation will actually be better regarding the university’s incorporation into and connection to the city and also the Rhine-Main region. Thanks to the public thoroughfare and the new access to the campus for visiting the university, the exhibition spaces, or the cafeteria, completely new constellations and opportunities will be generated that will inevitably lead to greater interaction of a higher quality between our university and the city. The interventions in the city that you have mentioned will continue. We’ll address various topics such as the Radraum (Bike Space – exploring the bike as an ideal mobility option) in the Rathauspavillon, the Diamond Project (creative events in a former jewelers), and the Offenbach Institute for Mobility Design (OIMD) in the Kubus on Berliner Strasse that I was just thinking of. I would also like to remind you of the Höchster Porzellan Manufaktur (HPM), which was taken over by the HfG in 2023 and will remain an additional location in the Rhine-Main region after the completion of the HafenCampus, and which stands for the university’s role as a wider regional locational factor. For a good many years now, we have repeatedly used empty buildings for our activities, occasionally in collaboration with partners like the Klingspor Museum, Haus der Stadtgeschichte (Museum of Municipal History), or the German Leather Museum. As such, I don’t see any reason for doubting that such collaborations will continue and indeed become even stronger. Moreover, as a cultural institution we will set strong accents in the university’s new HafenCampus with various event formats such as exhibitions, film screenings, performances, and entire festivals like the B3 Festival of the Moving Image, symposiums, and conferences. Naturally, the annual tour of the HfG will be a recurring highlight.

AS: If you look at your university now, at the professors, the staff, and the students, has a sense of community emerged following the efforts of recent years and the recent selection of the design by de Geyter and Topotek 1, a new motivation to shape the future of the university together?

BK: We are glad that a decision has finally been taken and we can be sure the project will go ahead. It was a grueling, open-ended, iterative process lasting so many years and with no guarantees as to the outcome. We had to do a lot of convincing over a long period of time both vis-à-vis the public but also within the university. At the same time, we are still undergoing a comprehensive generational change at the HfG. There are many new colleagues in the university for whom the development is now very topical and relevant. The awarding of the contract is a clear reminder of how concrete the new building project is and how important it is for the future of the university, the faculty, the staff, and of course especially for the students. This is the new reality that we can now help shape and contribute to – something that is an incredibly challenging opportunity for everyone.

AS: Not only the previously mentioned thoroughfare but also the exhibitions and housing on the campus will produce a certain vibrancy and create a new public space. How important is this new public space for the university? Do you consider it to be an asset or perhaps more of a major challenge?

BK: To my mind, it’s only logical to open up our HafenCampus because as a university we don’t want to be an ivory tower or a fortress, but rather to be at the interface to the public. The central park – or the seven gardens as the architects have named them – is to be used primarily by the university, especially on the larger eastern construction site which is to accommodate most of the rooms for teaching and research work. However, use of the open space for exhibitions and other activities means there will always be a certain amount of vibrancy and activity; this is where the public will mingle. We still need to develop a concept for the specific access to the university’s rooms. The current design allows the façades to be opened and closed using roller shutters. This also produces an interesting transparency from the inside to the outside and vice versa.

AS: You could say the new building goes hand in hand with the re-establishment of the HfG Offenbach. What are your greatest hopes or expectations for the new HafenCampus in this respect?

BK: In recent years, as the plans for the new building have taken shape, we have indeed been talking about the internal and external restructuring of the university, which is tantamount to us reconstituting ourselves as a 21st-century art academy. We put our words into action with the long-planned curriculum reform and the introduction of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in autumn 2022. With an eight-semester Bachelor’s degree and a four-semester Master’s degree, the standard period of study has been extended from five to six years and the curriculum of both departments has been planned to be synchronous, offering many options for interdisciplinary learning, teaching, and research. This not only meets our students’ current and future expectations of contemporary teaching, but also reinforces the HfG’s profile as a strongly research-oriented art academy that has been offering the Dr. phil. degree since 2010. The external restructuring with the new building now creates the spatial situation and architectural identity needed to suit the internal restructuring. We want to collaborate with lots of different partners at this new location, with the special working and presentation options it offers, and further raise the profile of the HfG as an important cultural institution, opening it to a wider audience. Our teaching and research will focus on topics such as AI and robotics but also material design, mobility research, and sustainability in art and design. The current pressure for renewal and transformation in society, which has been building up for decades, has now become so great and unavoidable that we have to face up to these challenges as an institution. At the new HafenCampus, we have the ideal conditions for doing just that.

International School of Design in Shenzhen, China, by the architecture firm Ateliers 2,3,4