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The Power of Authentic Locations

The Power of Authentic Locations
with Barbara Holzer by Yves Kugelmann

“The important thing in harrowing locations… is to open up windows for reflection.”
At memorials, the place itself is already a part of the narrative. The courage to leave gaps is necessary. Visitors must have the opportunity to react and interact independently, as Barbara Holzer explains.

tachles: You’re an architect, but you have also specialized in the design of exhibitions and cultural spaces. Notions such as “dramatic staging” and the “idea of the room” are central for you. What do they mean?

Barbara Holzer: “Dramatic staging” is in principle a kind of spatial narrative form. With an exhibition it’s always important to consider what it’s about and how that content is conveyed, how it is brought into the room. A collective experience is created, unlike the individual one of, say, reading a book.

When you enter an empty room and imagine uniting it with a theme, do you conceive of the themes in terms of content or right away in terms of space?
I always keep the location in mind, but the most important question is about the nature and the number of the objects to be shown. With powerful individual objects such as works of art, what counts most is staging them so that their particular impact can be felt. Historical collections require an entirely different kind of presentation, as the historical narrative is often told by way of objects acting as pieces of evidence – that is, the objects help to illuminate historical events.

So the idea is to design a narrative that the viewer understands?
Right. And one of the most creative phases of the process is entering into dialogue with the others involved in it, such as curators. Switzerland has less of a tradition than other countries of exhibitions and museums, of a culture of remembrance that tries to convey information in a modern way. That is true, even if I don’t know exactly why. In Germany, for example, a museum has a clear mandate as an institution, and, unlike here, its staff is recognized accordingly by society. We have a less academic understanding of museums than in Germany. But still, some institutions in Switzerland are fairly avant-garde.

Do you work abroad more because this culture is missing here?
It does exist – just less so, and the museums are also much smaller. Swiss museums have a high level of quality. And it is often tourist destinations that have great potential, for example the former artillery fort Sasso San Gottardo. It’s different with art museums, although their exhibitions are seldom shaped by professional designers. Thematic art exhibitions are an exception. In my view, this is a missed opportunity.

You won the competition to design the new exhibition at the Buchenwald memorial. What can we expect to see there in 2016?
As it does now, the new permanent exhibition will illustrate the history of the concentration camp. The permanent exhibition on view in the depot was designed directly after German Reunification, in an archival, neutral style. The historical narrative and its popular perception change continually, though.

And what ideas do you have for it?
As a designer you’re confronted with finalized exhibition concepts that must then be implemented in a way that suits the space and is convincing to the viewer. In other projects, the concepts have been worked out theoretically, but they don’t work in the space. So you have to work with the curators and scholars to create new structures. Museums often want to communicate far too much information – something we also have to be careful about at the memorial. Our approach is to work with the smallest possible number of select objects and media, and also to adequately address young people as an important contingent of visitors.

At Buchenwald, as opposed to a museum, the place itself is already a part of the narrative. How do you deal with that?
The site has a very strong impact because it’s authentic, and it’s not in some strange state of historic preservation. The exhibition designers and the institution have to keep in mind that viewers’ perceptions change over the course of decades. Our task is primarily to help communicate information. Our partners at the memorial have impressive expertise, and as scholars they are constantly presented with new sources. Memorials especially raise the question of how remembrance should take place. How emotionally or factually should information be conveyed? Ideally, a good exhibition remains current and engaging for ten to 15 years.

What is the upshot for the crematorium, for example?
It will be left as it stands, empty. A dreadful site of remembrance. Visitors move freely around the former concentration camp; whether they visit this building or not is up to them. Not everyone will want to see it. The historic depot is also on the grounds. We’re going to move the entrance back to its original location and modify the building’s structure to reflect the original form. The gatehouse, the depot, the crematorium, and the former inmates’ canteen are the only original buildings remaining. The outlines of the other buildings and barracks are marked on the ground. The former SS area was modernized and is now used for visitor services, a cafeteria, and a hostel. This functional reorientation stands in stark contrast to the historic remains.

In your opinion, which memorials offer good solutions?
Sachsenhausen, for example, has some very good moments. But nothing can outdo the power radiated by authentic locations. I was most enduringly shaken by the tunnels in Mittelbau-Dora. I was speechless for three hours afterwards. In my opinion, the important thing in harrowing locations of this kind is to open up windows for reflection. Exhibitions don’t always have to be full of information. They must also have the courage to leave gaps and empty spaces.

Does this courage to leave gaps generally get neglected in the architectural or design approach to such projects?
I do think so. Sometimes the greatest hurdle is wanting to transmit something so perfectly. I believe that places like memorials need to leave things open, so that visitors can react and interact independently.

Does an architect have a different kind of responsibility with respect to a public space? Is it conceived of differently than a private space?
I’m keenly interested in how social cohabitation works in private spaces, too. The question is how communication and interaction among human beings develops in a space.

How can an architect see to it that concepts are also functional, that they actually work in practice?
Urban development is dominated today by the logic of economy and growth. This gives architects less and less latitude. In the development of a new project, there are many different interested parties, and all of them want to profit. The construction of high-end condos in large numbers seems to be the most alluring product on the development market. The result is an atomization of property in cities. I consider this to be a fundamental problem of urban development trends, both now and in the future.

But in cities there is a larger plan in the background.
Yes, of course. There are many different planning instruments. But much ultimately obeys the laws of economics, and I am skeptical of the concept of urban space that ensues. Architecture follows established rules until they can no longer be applied. Novelty and surprise can only emerge when financial success is no longer the chief criterion in project development. In addition, the legal requirements for building projects keep growing; building is getting ever more complicated and expensive.

Have you realized projects in which you broke out of this mold?
Certainly. I fight all the time to break out and to incorporate new ideas. But big building projects are ultimately always tied to big money.

Are there any positive examples, instances of success despite the odds?
In my view, a good example is Jean Nouvel’s convention center KKL in Lucerne, a lighthouse project with public use. The KKL is a large-scale and radical structure. I think it is extremely important for a city to authorize projects of this kind and to create locations that offer people more than was available before.

Can the use of a building or structure benefit from the right architecture?
I’m thinking of the Encants flea market in Barcelona. It was given a new reflective roof that has already become a minor architectural icon. The roofing serves to make the flea market a prime location; people know exactly what’s going on there. Architecture of this kind is a small catalyst for its use, which is then perceived differently. Another example is the High Line Park in New York, built by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Former mayor Giuliani was critical of the project, but the architects believed in it. And they made a dramatic difference: five million visitors each year discover the park! There is a need for public space of this kind, which must be discovered and programmatically overlaid with images. It gives rise to incredibly poetic locations. I want locations like this in Zurich, too.

In Switzerland, though, nothing big has been done with such public spaces yet.
That’s because of the legal situation here, where the general public must give its approval. You have to develop projects that will convince a majority of voters. That was the case with KKL, and it reflects the great effort put into PR. In Germany things often take a different course, for example the situation in Stuttgart or Berlin’s Tempelhofer Park. In Berlin the general public was simply kept out of the loop for too long, and now citizens are resisting through the available legal means. Quite simply, cooperative procedures are important, and they will grow more important still.

Another issue in Switzerland is land-use planning, which is increasingly being considered in the context of immigration.
Urban planning must address above all the question of redensification in cities. In connection with growing population statistics, we must ascertain the consequences that demographic shifts and the ever-growing per capita demands on living space will have on land-use planning. When urban spaces are planned in the future, it is essential that areas be developed with an eye to social diversity.

But isn’t Berlin, where you have your second office, one of the cities that has massively developed in the briefest period without any master plan?
Yes. Decisions were made, building projects begun, and property disposed of, all without consulting the general public. But there were overarching rules for urban development – back to continuous frontage, high-rise buildings concentrated in specific locations, stone façades, punched windows rather than glass-fronted buildings. The question is always: what vision of the city guides construction, what rules are imposed by urban planning?

What is urban planning like in other countries?
In some places it barely exists, like in Tokyo. A lot is possible there, as long as safety regulations – for fire, earthquakes, etc. – are followed. In London there is no body to coordinate among the various districts, no city-wide institution to make centralized decisions about urban development goals. So a group of architects, on their own initiative, had a model of the city made in order to see how many high-rises are currently under construction or in the planning stages. They arrived at 230 – a number, they noted, that will change the skyline entirely. High-rises are usually built in places where there are few neighbors with the financial resources to raise an objection to their construction.

What are your current or future projects?
The smallest is a live-in studio that we’re planning for the courtyard of our Zurich office – an attempt of our own to build cheaply and practice redensification. At first glance, the site does not seem suitable for a building, but I think it is important to apply one’s own programmatic ideas to one’s own life, too. We are currently also working on several apartment building projects, both co-ops and smaller and larger private projects that are interesting from the point of view of community. How do diverse social systems work with one another today? How can the formation of a community be strengthened with public space? In Weimar, we’re working on the conception of a new permanent exhibition for Bauhaus in addition to the Buchenwald memorial, although both projects are still in the early planning phase. The exciting thing for us in all projects, be they in the realm of culture or commerce, in office or apartment construction, is that we can be active in the entire spectrum of architecture.

The room of the scribe (Sofer) in the Jewish Museum Berlin.
paläon Research and Experience Center Schöningen Spears – The newly built structure is a landmark in the undulating landscape, which is itself mirrored in the reflective exterior.
Cattaneo – A conversion of former industrial property into a residential area.


© Jan Bitter, © Jan Bitter, © Jan Bitter