»Space for the subversive energy of the students«

Xaveer de Geyter, Dan Budik, and Antoine Chaudemanche in conversation with Bernd Kracke, Jochen Krimm, and Ellen Maria Wagner

Photos: Felicitas von Lutzau

Ellen Wagner: When you came to Offenbach for the first time after the architecture competition and your selection by the jury, what was your impression of this place? Were your expectations of the city confirmed, or did you have to revise what you knew or thought you knew about it – and the conceptions you had had during the design phase?

Xaveer de Geyter: In actual fact I’d never been to Offenbach before the competition and didn’t have a clear idea of the city. From a distance we were able to get a pretty good impression of the immediate surroundings, of the building sites in the harbor, the skyline looking out towards Frankfurt, and so on. What surprised me the first time I came here was the size of the city, but above all by the fact that 60 percent of the population here has a migrant background – a truly remarkable context. My impression is that the various cultures get on wonderfully well with one another.

EW: And what was your impression of the university itself?

XDG: When we enter competitions like this, in places that we don’t know beforehand, we gather a lot of information from our network: from friends and colleagues. We were told how pleasant the city is, vibrant and full of opportunities. As outsiders, we expected that Frankfurt was a sort of “capital” with Offenbach functioning more like its satellite. Our reality check revealed that the situation is completely different to what we’d expected, that as a city Offenbach has qualities of its own, in part owing to the HfG, and is much more than just Frankfurt’s smaller sister. Essentially, the situation is just the same with the university. We were already aware that the HfG enjoys an excellent status in Germany but also internationally, and is one of the leading universities in the field of art and design. This was more than confirmed by our tour of the HfG, which demonstrated the high quality and immense diversity of students’ artworks. Evidently, they do excellent work in a large number of areas, and the university addresses a host of different topics. What really surprised us, though, was the way the university and city mingle and interact. We didn’t have such a strong emphasis on this close connection in our design. It’s also interesting that the university appropriates urban spaces that are not being used. The relationship of the university to the city definitely presents us with another challenge in elaborating and modifying the details of our design.

Jochen Krimm: How did you actually work together, given that your offices are located in Brussels, Zurich, and Berlin?

XDG: During the competition we tend to examine and discuss a range of different options. We use models to try them out and look at their respective advantages and disadvantages. Consequently, until we arrived at this final design we had more or less played through all the designs submitted by the other participating architectural practices. Basically, it’s a matter of trial and error. As far as the actual collaboration goes: Naturally, it’s not easy to work with two offices in two different cities. In practice, what we did was to meet through video conferences initially and bat the proposals back and forth. It was certainly an advantage that Dan had worked in Brussels for a while, and we already knew each other pretty well. That makes a lot of things easier.

Dan Budik: When it comes to making a decision we weigh up the pros and cons of the individual designs, whereby the overall concept is always important. Naturally, every architect involved brings with them a certain affinity for something, a desire to express themselves. Ultimately, however, it’s about letting go of something and trusting in the expertise and experience of the other partners.

Bernd Kracke: Do you recall the moment when you decided to pursue this concept in particular?

XDG: Basically, from the start what we had in mind was a unifying spatial organism. An important point for us was to develop a building that brings together the various clusters and disciplines – with a central core that would serve as orientation for everyone.

DB: In the end we opted for a large communal courtyard as the typology for the outdoor space. All the variants involving a campus with several buildings would have meant focusing primarily on the architecture, but that would always leave a number of questions unanswered: Why are these buildings all located on one plot? How are they connected to one another? What does the space between them look like? None of the designs like this that we discussed was able to convince us.

XDG: When you prepare for a competition, there is always this moment when you still have two or three different options on the table. Then there’s suddenly a strategic discussion and that can be dangerous – often this is the very moment when you win or lose a competition. When we are unable to agree on what would be the best direction for a design, we consider what would be the best project for the client or the user(s). Ultimately, we can only hope that the jury shares our opinion. Meaning we are all the more delighted that you have chosen our design as it’s also the one that we believe in most.

JK: You chose specific design concepts for the courtyard or garden on the campus. Did you get those ideas first and then think of using the space for studios afterwards, or was it the other way around? How did these various design aspects interact with each other?

XDG: On the one hand, we wanted to create an area that unites all the sections of the building around it. On the other hand, though, it’s not just a piece of “Central Park”, as you once named it, but actually a space for activities. That’s really the most important thing. And it was clear to us that the garden’s the only place where you can accommodate the logistics. This also lends it a kind of “brutalist” aspect. However, we also wanted to have areas that are more finely elaborated – and in the end, we also suggested something like a cinema or screen in the outdoor area. We thought it was extremely important to create a variety of different usages. And the long, elongated proportions of the courtyard facilitate an intelligent arrangement of the different areas whereby you can have quieter and louder zones existing alongside one another.

Antoine Chaudemanche: There were other possible design options for the garden. Having the path run right through the entire garden would have taken away its simplicity, though. It would also have made the garden seem less like a cohesive whole. That’s why Topotek 1 and we at XGDA came up with the idea of having the garden extend from one façade to another and consequently be more in contact with the wraparound gallery on the ground floor.

DB: We are always looking for spaces that can flexibly accommodate different uses. So when we talk about the gallery, we should not only emphasize its continuous, unifying quality but also its ability to function simultaneously as an entrance, meeting zone, work area, and exhibition space. Naturally, this also goes for the garden, which has a unifying function but also presents itself as a series of spaces with different concepts that can be used in various ways. Designing is always an attempt to find and unite elements that can be read and used in different ways. For example, the gallery is also a kind of climate buffer, so it plays a role in terms of sustainability. An element becomes particularly interesting when different uses, interpretations, and values can be attributed to it.

JK: When I look at the strict façade grid of the building, I wonder why there isn’t a real grid in the garden and why the sections don’t quite fit in. Was it a conscious decision to ignore the grid in the inner courtyard, or was it a natural result of the design process?

XDG: It’s possible that the grid will change going forward. We don’t yet know the right dimensions because we don’t know exactly what structure we will have. I recall that we played through a number of ways the area could be divided up in the garden. The current solution is more about what we felt was a good number of different usages in the garden.

DB: Exactly. We looked at the garden and mulled over various functions or options, e.g., a terrace, different areas that are more suitable for working or logistics or for events. In the end, we identified seven such functions or areas, and we created seven equally sized sections in the garden – all of them of equal importance. That’s why they don’t fit into the larger grid. Not everything has to fit into the grid; it’s all about this flexibility – in some places we go by the grid and in others we don’t. The grid is supposed to act as a basis for a free approach and not as a requirement that is restrictive and constraining.

XDG: Absolutely, the grid is meant to make things easier – it does not embody the principle of “order is essential”.

BK: The briefing was very complex with all the cluster programs. You had to deal with a lot of details. Did you have a kind of basic philosophical discussion about what it entails to design a 21st-century academy of art? Were you influenced in your design by certain models of other institutions and universities with which you are familiar?

XDG: This is definitely not a design that would work for just any university building. For example, if you think of a business faculty we would have had far fewer multi-purpose areas. And you would spend much less time considering the role light plays. In other words, this is a highly specific building and not your run-of-the-mill university. The inner courtyard is also special – we’ve already mentioned a few of the factors that informed its development. One aspect is of course the fact that the building is framed by a sprawling urban environment with huge open spaces around the harbor. The design thus forms an excellent contrast, as it constitutes a spatially defined communal space.

EW: Like you said, you are designing an art school. And you don’t yourself conceive of it as an “architectural sculpture” but rather consider the special, practical requirements of such a university. Can you give us some more detail on what was important to you in terms of a flexible architecture that can be filled with many uses, as it were, and yet in this case serves a very specific purpose for our institution?

XDG: Not every building has to be an icon. That doesn’t mean that we never design iconic buildings. We designed the administration building for Antwerp province, for example, an institutional building with a lot of foot traffic that also acts as a venue for conferences. In this instance, I felt it was fitting to design an iconic building because it’s about presenting a certain image. Of course, the HfG Offenbach also has a representative function, but in its particular case it is more important to have a “machine” that works well, and which can meet a large number of practical requirements. I think the strength of the university will also prove to be the strength of the building, so it will be perceived as strong architecture even though it doesn’t have an iconic design.

AC: Perhaps one should also consider the question of how and in what kind of system students are educated today; in other words, what aspects are conducive to university life aside from the size of seminar rooms and the service areas. For an art academy, it is certainly important to absorb the “subversive charge” that the students bring with them and first and foremost to create a place where they can develop their potential productively.
That’s why the building itself needn’t be iconic, but it must support and sustain this charge, this productive energy because then, as you can see in the gallery, for example, creative ideas can be developed. Students are full of craziness, innovative ideas, and energy. The university of the future simply has to let them bring all of this into the building.

XDG: I think students will find greater freedom in such a building than in a building that makes a strong architectural gesture.

DB: And also more freedom than in a building whose design is completely “finished”. But this building is still capable of altering and expanding. We’ve already spoken about the public space outside of the building, but I think it’s also about the public space inside the university. And these spaces can still develop; the students, lecturers, administration staff can quite literally vitalize the building and consequently alter it.

XDG: For an art academy in particular, it seems immensely important that, on the one hand, you have a secluded space for working, and, on the other, a kind of “showcase” to the world.

BK: A major topic for us, also going forward and in dialog with you, will definitely be the adaptation of room use. What ideas are there regarding rooms for students, for professors? Are there rooms that belong to a specific person or persons, or are all the rooms to be available for everyone? How can we really make space available in future for those that need it and not allow it to be restricted by certain assumptions about who it belongs to?

DB: It will be exciting working on that. However, maybe we won’t have to opt for one of these systems. We can also very well imagine having “kingdoms” on the third floor, for example, along the lines of “this is my book, my computer, my drawings”. Conversely there should be more open, communal spaces for sharing, especially on the ground floor. Perhaps some of the walls are permanent and not intended to move, while others can be open and shifted. You don’t have to decide on the one or other system. It would be brilliant to say some areas are communal, really public, and others continue to be private spaces. A “kingdom” should have just 20 to 40 square meters – but over there we have democracy, as it were.

JK: What about the specific situation that we have with the relationship between the residential areas and the areas of the university all around? Have you produced similar designs on previous occasions and what were the challenges you faced here in combining the two?

XDG: First of all, certain requirements attach to the building site itself. Moreover, we had a specific concept. From an urban planning perspective, but also with a view to everyday life, we believe it’s important to generate a certain vitality inside the building. So it made sense to place the student residence right next to the inner courtyard. That in itself is guarantee enough that it will be animated, and not only during lecture periods.

JK: A key question among students is always how they can become involved in everyday academic life – und also in the planning of this building. Does your design envisage letting them participate in conceiving the connection between living and studying at the university? How can students, so to speak, help shape their own “interface”?

XDG: That is largely an organizational question. In the course of the project, we will receive specifications and deadlines from the state of Hessen which must be observed at each phase. Naturally, if there’s to be student involvement it must be from the outset. So if we really want students to get involved, then that has to be done at the start, i.e., from now. The same goes for the dialog with lecturers and other university staff.

JK: You talk a lot about transparency and show a lot of permeability in the renderings and layouts. How do you define transparency in relation to this project? How is it conveyed in our particular instance?

XDG: The decisive point is that everyone at the university is influenced and can be stimulated by the things other people do. That can be the case between individual persons, but also between disciplines. This is why we propose this particular arrangement of the spatial system, which doesn’t so much foresee self-contained isolated spaces. Naturally, this can still be modified and diversified, but I think an important reason why someone studies, teaches, or works at an art academy is to be able to respond to what others do.

AC: This is also linked to different levels of seclusion and openness that run through the entire project: on an urban level, within the university building, in every single room. The fact that we present a maximum of transparency, say, through the use of glass was often emphasized. That can also be seen as a means of putting things in touch with one another and creating a contact.

DB: My first thought is that it’s a public building and that there should also be an influence from outside, from the city, that you should be able to see what’s going on inside. That’s why we began with transparency. It’s simpler to begin with transparency and then to modify it here and there to also provide more secluded, more closed spaces, rather than working the other way around – beginning with a closed space and subsequently attempting later to provide transparency.

BK: As regards the glass façade, we’ll be concerned with the issue of climate control. Have you incorporated a comprehensive air-conditioning and heating system?

XDG: Yes, but that will only be developed in the coming stages. We will definitely have to think about some of the principles of natural ventilation. We have heard that the project is being supervised by someone with expertise in sustainability.

DB: At the moment, we have various sustainability strategies. The gallery is located on the south side, but the studios face north and consequently get less sun. The advantage of using concrete is that it’s capable of storing heat. So we have the concrete, the gallery as a buffer, and naturally a photovoltaic system – in other words, a number of elements that each in their own right represent sustainability strategies. Now we have to combine them all to produce a holistic project.

EW: Is there an aspect of the design that you especially like? If you were teaching or studying here, where in the building would we be likely to find you?

XDG: I’d be in the library.

DB: I would walk around the gallery. It’s interesting to be able to follow what’s happening on the street on the city side and be able to observe what’s going on in the courtyard on the other.

AC: If I were a student, I would display my work there because this place opens up to the public space: the perfect set up and a great opportunity for art and design students.

Presentation of the winning design at the HfG with the architects Xaveer de Geyter, Dan Budik, and Antoine Chaudemanche as well as President Bernd Kracke, moderated by Prof. Kai Vöckler