Vol. 8, No. 2 (March 2004)    


___Max Bächer
  Much Ado about Nothing



A Critical Comment on the Establishment of the Bundesstiftung für Baukultur (Federal Foundation for Building Culture)

Baukultur” is “hip”. Some people start to clean themselves again. And some even more so, the longer they thought it wasn’t necessary. Architects and designers have been striving for decades to protect, support, and promote “Construction-“ or “Building Culture”, but the phrase has changed over night into a hip catch phrase, which could even supersede the slightly overused term “sustainability”. Today majors, heads of municipal departments and politicians court “culture” as their mistress, which – not so long ago – was the “Sports Department”. However, culture has the advantage that it endows with an aura of refinement, that it is not quantifiable, and that it always allows to retreat into the shady area of free artistic expression.

Nowadays it is in constant demand everywhere, gives rise to public awards, proclamations on occidental values, and to a critique of our environment. Anyway, everybody believes to know everything about Baukultur and that’s the reason why we don’t need to define what we actually understand by using the term: One has a wet cellar, the other is against the reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace. Thus the respect for the professional skills of the architects disappeared, while the term “architecture” established itself as a hip multifunctional metaphor for holistic services: “the Architect of the German Re-Unification”, “the Architecture of the Social Security Reform”, or even “the Grand Architecture of the European Constitution”. Not surprisingly, the physical shape of our environment has taken a backseat next to so much pathos and presently it is the politicians and self-proclaimed cultural critics who put a lot of effort into making us aware of what we have done wrong, by saying that we just need Baukultur – after several years where they couldn’t care less.

The so-called “First Convent of Building Culture” has just passed, lengthy protocols have been written, and soon the German Federal Parliament shall discuss the issue and make “Baukultur” come to pass. The king called and all, all came to the preliminary establishment of the “Federal Foundation for Baukultur” in the old parliamentary hall in Bonn. If they were personally invited, that is. Even though free tickets were traded under the counter, one nevertheless took care not to invite heretics and rogue thinkers. For example that one notorious Berlin clique. And a few other dissidents. In the end law and order has to be ensured. The categoric language in the appeals and in the treatises to raise awareness leave no doubts about it, by which the New Testament of building culture vaunts for itself. Even though most pages are empty, they are nonetheless bound in linen. The emphasis is not yet on contents. “Where ever terms are lacking a word in time is bound to appear.” knew already Mephistopheles. I would like to refrain from thinking that the laboured words are there to compensate for the lack of meaning. But why bother? A convent will remain a cloister, the convent of its inmates or the meeting of professors of a university. The student convent or the “kofent” – the common term used in the monastic community for watery ale – were not meant to be understood by it. The “Founding Members” and the “Winners of the Award for Baukultur” – this is how we have to call this mixed assortment of architects, whose work has already been decorated elsewhere – were not invited, but rather “appointed”, which has been obviously confused with academic practices. It is infuriating if terms are simply appropriated in order to bestow oneself with more importance. Why not even “Council” or “Conclave”? The lack of culture, which is the object of this meticulously prepared initiative, makes itself felt even in the announcements of said initiative.

But this is all supposed to get better. A derelict “Deutsches Architektur Zentrum Berlin” has been artificially revived as “Plattform Baukultur”, a managing director has been appointed – who hasn’t anything to do with the field, but who as leader of the pack made “the first step to the foundation” straight to Bonn and showed many people for the first time the rare experience what a packed former plenary hall looks like, an experience which many people will lament for a long time.

But why the trouble and what shall be founded by whom and for what aims? Yet the convent would first have to discuss that matter. According to general opinion, the architects are chiefly deemed accountable for the mourned desolation of our environment as they were impudent enough to claim exclusive responsibility for the design of our built environment. Such things come back with a vengeance and now we have been sitting for years in the lions’ den, waiting in vain, that somebody releases us.

It is said that only 35% of the total construction volume in Germany is planned by trained architects and that less than half of them is actually commissioned with the overall execution, which is indispensable for drawing up a qualified plan of a building. In the meantime uncalled helpers offer to take on the remaining services: general contractors, project managers, and planning consultants offering dumping prices and the fight over the prey resembles primetime features on the Discovery Channel on the “wildlife” in the Savannah. The victims don’t look much different afterwards. Architectural competitions are advertised and the best results will receive a prize. But the winner has to be glad, if he is actually commissioned with “guiding details” or if he at least receives the right to have his say in the sense of an artistic consultation for a project that will be in reality a hundred to two hundred times bigger than the design plans. It bears likeness to a gourmet recipe of a master chef being prepared without his supervision in the canteen of a prison. Today it is even sufficient to find somebody who as “plan editor” signs a drawing and confirms that the legal requirements have been met.

To what avail shall be the nice words of a German Federal President in his festive speech on Baukultur or those of a sandwiched Federal Minister for Construction, whose department resembles a general store, or those of a Savonarola, who offers to do an illustrated presentation of architectural disasters and barbarism? Yet seismographs are not responsible for the earthquakes they register and disasters have their causes. We are not dealing with aesthetic recipes for the restoration of the “goodness and beauty” of our environment or even with the formulation of quality criteria or the “Tendencies of Baukultur”, how it can be read in strangely laboured language in the brochures of the “Plattform Baukultur”: “The convent of Baukultur [...] defines the direction” or “discusses the propositions of Baukultur in the 2
1st century” or even more outrageously “the convent throws the switches”! There is yet a generation, who gets shivers running down the spine in the face of such language.

You can’t command, ordain, define, plan, or sell Baukultur. It is always the result of the preconditions and environment of its times and in so far it is always a reflection of society, its aspirations, desires, its weaknesses and strengths, its errors, and its incapacities. It is not an architectural museum in which the best buildings of the century – and even less the ones of a decade – will be presented under glass. It is a cultural process which encompasses great and small. It is not an issue of styles or forced consensus. Not the single work demonstrates the building culture of its time, but rather the conscious and co-ordinated interplay of all parts in a diverse whole.

Yet the failure to understand the interdependencies of society, politics, and their influences on Baukultur is shocking, as may be seen in a couple of words by the German federal president Johannes Rau: “Baukultur is certainly a luxury, but it is a luxury, which a rich country, claiming also to be a cultured nation, shouldn’t forsake.” Just to remind us: the often repudiated
Weimar Republic was ever too poor to afford itself any luxury, yet it afforded itself a high Baukultur, both aesthetically and socially. It afforded itself the smallest and most beautiful pavilion on the 1929 World Exhibition with borrowed materials, which was thus at the same time the most prominent demonstration of a new Baukultur, by which the German Empire first presented itself again alongside other nations in Barcelona.

The Ulm University College for Design created the foundations of visual communication in post-war Germany. Its success made it known even far beyond Germany. It was closed, because the Geschwister-Scholl-Foundation could not financially support it any more on its own and because it was on top a political nuisance. But the poor school indulged in the luxury of creativity, quality, and independence, which made it famous.

Another platitude is the appeal of the Federal President “that it might be time that the architects descended from their high horse and put more effort into conforming to the tastes of the owners and built accordingly.” Who has prompted him to say such things? Didn’t he know that according to an opinion poll of a German newspaper, the smurf-architecture of the painter Hundertwasser enjoyed the biggest public acclaim? What kind of Baukultur may he be thinking of if he reminds us with his words of our responsibility towards the owners? Apparently there exist also in that respect quite different concepts of Baukultur.

Already nearly a century ago the Deutscher Werkbund with its managing director Theodor Heuss strove for the improvement of the design of our environment – ranging from spoons to landscapes. Exemplary contributions to Baukultur were created to answer the problems of the times, such as the model housing districts of the 1920s in Frankfurt/Main or Berlin or the experimental Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart. In 1956 Richard Neutra wrote “Survival through Design”, the Marl Manifesto “Against the Great Destruction of the Country” was published in 1959, in 1961 the arch-lawyer of the German Social Democrat Party Adolf Arndt wrote his much quoted essay “Construction in Democracy”, since 1963 the critical exhibition “Homeland: Its Buildings” toured 50 German cities with an inventory of demands for better architecture, in 1965 Alexander Mitscherlich published his pamphlet “On the Unhomeliness of Cities”. Showcases such as “Stop on Green” were widely recognised, the provocative paper “Profitopolis” as well as the “Manifesto for Architecture” appeared, which was even included in a couple of school books, yet all of them were self-funded private initiatives. You get the feeling that the “Founders‘ Circle for Baukultur” or the “Society for the Support of the German Architecture Centre” never heard of these.

The appeal to improve Baukultur isn’t new and had once quite succeeded in raising the awareness for values in architecture and urban design. Today we don’t need either a John the Baptist or a penitent preacher for their rediscovery. Apparently the heralds of Baukultur haven’t understood yet that Baukultur is always the mirror of society; they are trying to remove the symptoms without asking for their causes. The problems have shifted long ago from the design of our environment by qualified experts to the rank growth of capitalism, which commodified architecture and which changed real estate companies and investors into pirates, who are descending on the land and who are only interested in its marketing. They are being supported by politics and the selfsame groups, who are now mourning the destruction of their environment. If this is not hypocrisy, it can only be unbelievable naiveté or stupidity. Meanwhile we have here to sadly realise, that the legal framework promotes the increasing lack of design of our environment, so that the chances for its improvement are ever decreasing: thus the former major of Stuttgart Rommel wondered disapprovingly, where it would lead us, if an investor wouldn’t be able any more to decide what to build where and how. Who doesn’t close one’s eyes to the interdependencies of society, law and design has to realise with disappointment that the state so far hasn’t done anything to promote Baukultur and this complacent initiative won’t change anything, because it is apparently unable or unwilling to see the actual problems. We don’t owe anything to the state, but the state owes quite a lot to those, who despite the catastrophic aggravation of conditions still strive to make a positive contribution to the Baukultur of their times. It is therefore to no avail if the same people preach the same to the same converted, as long as the “convent” believes it has first to discuss the definition of Baukultur or the establishment of quality criteria, or even claims to pass judgement which direction is the right one to take in architecture, engineering or landscape design. We have to keep in mind that the 1920’s modernism was slandered as cultural Bolshevism in the 1930’s and was later on listed for protection and that rationalist architecture is today labelled by superficial critics simply as fascist? Principiis obsta! you would like to shout at all those people who expect to receive from this federal initiative guidance in what style they should build, because the selection has already started in their heads!

We have to address at last the shortcomings on all levels and make the responsible ones publicly known without false consideration. For some time now we seem to strive in Germany to make a fool out ourselves both nationally as well as internationally – and not only in Baukultur – for example on World Exhibitions, which are actually meant to present a country to the public. Major and successful competitions have lead once to significant examples of German architecture as in Barcelona, Brussels, and Montreal. Today, such projects disappear in the bottom drawer like those for Sevilla, Lisbon, or Hanover, because petty bureaucracy and complacency prevents their execution or because amateur smart asses claim the competence to decide over them. Why not buy or lease? Bland prefab houses ready to move in will be delivered straight to the door, without concept, without trouble, without responsibility, even though there are plenty of highly qualified architects -– both old and young – in one’s own country. And then our Mr Federal President worries “whether German architects are sufficiently present abroad”?

In general the architecture of public buildings and companies doesn’t need to shun the comparison to other countries, neither in the cities, nor in the so called province. Especially there we can find excellent buildings which were created as a joint achievement of open-minded and responsible owners and their architects, even without being awarded a prize for Baukultur. Many smaller and bigger municipalities may be justly proud of themselves and you can find all over the country town halls, museums, banks, gyms, youth clubs, and residential building which have been decorated by regional awards. Some places would be worth of an architectural pilgrimage if the media didn’t orient itself as much on “stars” as on quality. If the landscape is nonetheless spoiled, why isn’t anybody asking who planned and approved all the new residential areas, commercial zones and supermarkets in the suburbs? Wouldn’t it be more important to research the causes in order to learn and prove why things are as they are, rather than to ask how long deconstructivism or postmodernism may be tolerated or what Mr Rau thinks of the chancellor’s office? Wouldn’t it be an important contribution to Baukultur to find out who is responsible for the “unhomeliness” and how it comes to pass.

In many cities exist design councils with independent architects. Their effectiveness depends on if they just have an alibi function to help the municipality to pass unpopular decisions, or – councils for example such as the well organised and model design council of Salzburg – if they have the legal task to evaluate and supervise projects from the building plan to the final execution and who, if needs be, have the power to also reject them. These are practical building blocks by which Baukultur may be achieved, and for that it doesn’t need Federal Foundations nor “Convents”. Finally I would like to recall that also individual architects were able to shape the Baukultur of whole cities by their work, such as Fritz Schumacher in Hamburg, Ernst May in Frankfurt/Main, or Karljosef Schattner in Eichstätt.

Competitions contribute essentially to the Baukultur of a time. But it would be wrong to think that Baukultur only shows itself in the built or decorated projects. Thus it was quite significant that the hosts of the Bonn showcase of decorated works completely failed to acknowledge that these represented in their stead the works of the hundreds of architects, who expose themselves again and again to competition in public contests. Who considers that contests not only serve to find out who wins the first prize, but represents in its totality a contribution of enormous cultural significance, as it shows alternatives and inspires projects which do not portray a world like it is, but like it might be. There is no other professional group, who on their own account and on their own risk expose themselves to such a rigorous procedure, which in turn reflects and elucidates the tendencies of a time better than all preconceived quality criteria, which increasingly limit Baukultur to that which can be achieved. It would be pure cynicism if precisely those who have received an “award for Baukultur” have to be reprimanded to improve Baukultur, while the state threatens at the same time to abolish their fee regu
lations. And what kind of perverse conceptions are behind the absurd idea of the Bundesstiftung Baukultur, which shall be financed by exactly those, who on account of their profession strive for Baukultur and have even been decorated for it. Imagine that the Federal Republic asked all novelists to pay a fee for them to write better books. Pay a hundred bucks and you’re in!

Not by talking, but by actual deeds can the lamented circumstances be improved, the cause of which lie chiefly in the political, social and economic chaos. If capitalism is our fate – and all predictions seem to confirm this – we can’t but search on that basis if and how capitalism influences the concept of Baukultur and if our country can claim culture under these circumstances, like the German Federal President simply presupposed culture as a given fact. We are facing the power of the lobbies and the inability of politicians, who have handed over the rudder a long time ago under the hopeful pretext thus to be able to guarantee freedom for everyone and everything. But they are confusing here democracy with vulgar anarchy without restraint. We don’t need new programmes, convents, or a strategic crusade which is scheduled for several years and we don’t need a design enabling act, which would give whosoever the right to command over Baukultur.

Aren’t those who cooked up this initiative just blowing hard into their own horns? The Federal Foundation for Building Culture rests on the assumption that our environment is bad, because our architects and engineers are bad. Nobody has claimed that we are better than other groups in our society. But no one should close their eyes to the cultural dilettantism, which celebrates ubiquitously the victory of incompetence over competence.

Don Quichotte de la Mancha took up his arms to fight for an idea that existed only in his imagination. When he was confronted with his errors and the reality at the end of his adventures, he simply collapsed. Before we let this happen to us, we could think of why we don’t take up the Finnish example, where every citizen has the constitutional right to a habitable design of his or her environment. This would be an effective contribution to “building culture”. I am afraid that such a proposal would be doomed to fail in Germany. It is simply too simple.

First published in ’ach, egon’, journal of the Chair of Construction Studies and Design, University of Karlsruhe




Vol. 8, No. 2 (March 2004)