Preservation from necessity

An interview with architect Muck Petzet by Konstantin Budarin

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An interview with Muck Petzet

An interview by Konstantin Budarin

The practice of heritage preservation is based on the idea that some objects are more valuable than others: that one form of architecture is more important than another. It affirms that we can find the best examples of architecture and preserve them. Actually, we don’t even need to find anything. There already are specialized organizations to do it for us, such as UNESCO. But is this approach still relevant today? Is ‘value’ the only criteria for preserving buildings? Can we look forward to a future where the idea of heritage preservation has evolved beyond creation of fetishes?

Muck Petzet is a German architect. He and his bureau specialize in preservation projects. In 2012 he was the curator of the German pavilion at the Venice biennale, Reduce Reuse Recycle.
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In 2012 you were the curator of the German pavilion at the Venice biennale. Your project was called Reduce Reuse Recycle. Can you explain what it was about?

I realized that architects don’t place a lot of emphasis on, or see a lot of value in transformation projects. At the same time – in Germany, for instance – they are the most common type of architectural work. There’s a big gap between what society needs and how we perceive the role of architects. Often when you make a very good transformation the result is not visible: in some ways it is better than it was before and in most other ways it stays the same. But typically both the architects and the public want visible results.

To show the value of this kind of work I was looking for another set of values, from outside the world of architecture. I found a set of values from the waste production and processing field, called Reduce Reuse Recycle. It’s a waste pyramid, in fact. It isn’t just three different methods for treating waste – it’s a system in which reduction or avoidance is the best thing to do. Reusing things in more or less the same way they were used before is second best. Recycling is kind of seen as a bad thing because it requires extra energy and resources.

I was wondering how we can transplant this value system into our treatment of existing buildings, and what strategies we would need to achieve that.

German pavilion in Venice 2012

German pavilion in Venice 2012 /​Photo by Nico Saieh /​Arch​daily​.com

In the 1920s, Bauhaus brought the factory and the proletariat into architectural practice; in the 1960s, architects were crazy about cars. Maybe the new ecological, energy-​reduction agenda can also provide new meanings for architecture?

Naturally, everybody is talking about sustainability at the moment. In Germany, at least, the discourse is very fixed on how much energy we consume when we use buildings. Everybody wants to save energy. That’s the main focus. There is this big discussion, but on the other hand, nobody can bear to hear about it anymore. Now every company declares in every advert that it’s trying to be more efficient, more sustainable.

The idea that you have to create something new only really appeared at the beginning of the last century

Focusing on this is completely wrong, because the energy spent when buildings are used is just part of the total energy consumed. We must think about the whole lifecycle of buildings. It starts when we extract resources and transform them into building materials. Cement production is especially energy-​intensive, for example. Then we turn the materials into buildings. These processes are neglected at the moment, at least in Germany. The only country where this process isn’t neglected is Switzerland, where they are trying to find a way to measure, compare and certify the whole lifecycle of a building. From an energy perspective, we need to look at a building’s construction and usage costs. We also need to count transportation costs, because materials need to be shipped; and mobility costs, which are determined by how well a building connects to the city. At the end of a building’s life there are dismantle costs. All of these parameters seen together give a picture of a building’s energy balance. That is quite interesting.

Meanwhile, Germany is completely focused on the energy consumed by buildings during their use, on things like heating. It’s all about insulating existing buildings and upgrading them. A lot of buildings have been dismantled for this reason, replaced by beautifully efficient new ones. Nobody notices that by doing this we consume an enormous amount of energy and release tons of CO­2 into the atmosphere.

You are suggesting that working with existing buildings is a better approach for the present day. But is there a place for architecture in this new world you are describing – in a world where all the buildings are already built?

For me personally, working on a new building has never been any different to working on an existing one. They are tasks of equal importance. Society currently sees an architect as a creator of new things, even though there is a long tradition of architecture as something else. That tradition always set out to develop existing things further. The idea that you have to create something new only really appeared at the beginning of the last century. Now architecture is a kind of public art. Of course, there are a lot of parallels with history of art. I think that this situation is wrong, especially in architecture, where you always work within existing ensembles or patterns or surroundings. Naturally, every architect says that their work is site-​specific, but hardly anyone’s really is. Lacaton & Vassal also talk about this. Even if you have an empty plot, there’s no difference – it’s never totally empty.

Cedric Price’s architectural drawings engaged with existing landscapes. 1966

Cedric Price’s architectural drawings engaged with existing landscapes. 1966

I was part of a big group working on a city planning project in China; the territory was flat and undeveloped, seemingly perfect for a development of green office-​blocks. Perfect, of course, but when you looked closer you always saw little villages, streets, nature, holy-​ground. I think that in the near future – or let’s say mid-​term future – architecture will be about dealing with the existing environment, at least in central Europe. We will work more and more in this field. It already makes up about 70% of the work. That’s why it’s so important to see this as an equally worthy, or at least as an interesting task for us architects. 

Strelka has been obsessed with heritage preservation from the beginning. We are especially interested in the preservation of modernist buildings. What does it mean to save a prefabricated building? How can you show the quality of something which is not unique?

I am personally very fond of modernist buildings. I appreciate their attempt to solve problems in an ingenious and technical way. Of course, many of these efforts didn’t work perfectly when they were implemented. But still, the whole craftsmanship side and the industrial building methods – especially from the ‘60s and ‘70s – are amazing. Later, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, everyone started dismissing it as total shit – flawed thinking and so on. It doesn’t work, that’s what I learnt at my school. But I secretly always thought that somehow it had a real charm and made a genuine attempt to solve the problem of housing.

I’m also very fascinated by the attempt to make a perfect housing-​block in the most effective way – to create a building as a good thing in itself. Now our building techniques have in some sense degenerated to the lowest point of the ‘50s. There are no skilled craftsmen anymore, so everything is done on a very, very cheap level and everything just gets glued together. It’s not about engineering anymore, it’s about fabricating something which looks like architecture and fits with the times.

This technical approach of pre-​fabricating everything you possibly can is much, much better and much, much more advanced. It’s not used anymore. Now you get all these cheap materials and you have no skilled labour on site. I much prefer transforming a modernist building from, say, the ‘60s or ‘70s, than an industrial building from the 19th century which is ok. Everyone already loves the 19th century buildings – there is no change of perception. 

There are no skilled craftsmen anymore, so everything just gets glued together. It’s not about engineering anymore, it’s about fabricating something which looks like architecture and fits with the times

There are always hidden qualities to exploit if you look beyond the poorness. Or you can add qualities to make buildings more interesting, or richer. That’s also an interesting part of transforming. I’m not talking only about preservation…I’m not talking about changing everything either, but I think it’s important to give things feet for the future. If you’re working on a very poor building then that’s an aspect you can improve – you can make it fleshier or more interesting. Sometimes you don’t have to, because there is enough spirit in the building already.

Сurtains by Lacaton & Vassal

Сurtains by Lacaton & Vassal /​laca​ton​va​s​sal​.com

Can you give a few examples of implemented projects which are close to your approach to architecture?

Lacaton & Vassal are pioneers in many ways. I think my favourite project is the tower Bois le Prêtre in Paris. I even went to Paris to see it. It is so impressive how they managed to look at all the resources stored in the existing architecture. The main part of that is the social pattern connected to the building.

They changed the whole ground floor to give it various social uses, and now it houses a number of meeting rooms for the community. In this way, a building that used to be hermetic is becoming part of a larger community. They also took the residents very seriously and developed a method to transform the building without moving everyone out, because usually when we move people out and transform their home into something beautiful they don’t come back. They worked intelligently with the existing structure: changing the internal distribution, dealing with fire protection complications – everything. It’s about asking yourselves: “how can we really add value, how can we change the function only where it’s really necessary?” That’s the whole principle. It’s setting out to give people more space, and then saying, “but space is a luxury so let’s do it with very cheap materials”. That’s the spirit of the pioneers of modernism.

Lacaton & Vassal used technical curtains from green houses, which are both very cheap and which added to the building interesting, even theatrical, aspects. It’s a very clever use of low cost materials to create more value for the existing social fabric and to connect it to the wider environment. So this is really one of the best examples. Recently they have been getting a lot of commissions for large buildings and I hope their example will lead the way.

In Germany nobody is able to build affordable apartments anymore. Now is the start of a serious housing crisis

Naturally, we have also done some projects along these lines. We recently transformed a large seventies’ community centre; it was great fun to work with this architecture although there were big technical problems due to the architect’s conceit of having the load-​bearing structure outside the building. You have a concrete and steel structure with cross-​beams that penetrate the façade. It was fun to solve these problems in a way that didn’t destroy the original idea. The interior was thoroughly uninteresting, so we transformed it, but we still tried to think like the original architect who was a real visionary and pioneer – he had totally crazy ideas. In the end we stripped out all the suspended ceilings which were concealing the structure, painted everything in crazy colours and showed all the inner workings of the building. We wanted to work in a way that did justice to the outside. I think it’s really interesting not to just invent your own language and plaster it on top of things, but to get inspired, to feel your way into the existing architecture, and to go on with it.

I have a strange thought that this energy agenda can also have implications for our ideas about space. We currently want small apartments because of energy efficiency. How can the new agenda change the physical features of architecture, or our perception of architecture?

The main direction now is that still everybody wants more space. In Switzerland I think it’s already 45m2 per person. Which is really crazy. It would be more interesting to think not in terms of growth of quantity but in terms of growth of quality.

In the future we won’t be able to consume as much energy and resources as today. We have to think about how to build for an age of less because we have to reduce what we already consume. That will be nearly impossible to achieve because nobody wants to step back from the level that we’ve reached.

But sooner or later we’ll be forced to, because if the world continues to expand at the current rate, and everyone’s living space keeps on growing, at a certain point it will simply no longer be possible. There will be rents that force us to take a step back, if we don’t get there first.

All of this gives us a real chance to think about what is really necessary, what is really quality? In Germany – also as a result of the rising standards in efficiency, comfort and size – nobody is able to build affordable apartments anymore. Now is the start of a serious housing crisis, but I hope that it could also be the beginning of something else, that in the future people will think in terms of quality, rather than quantity. That’s my big hope.