Nikolaus Hirsch: To reveal the impact of destruction and construction, as we do in our project in Cologne, is an architectural statement as well. During the debates we experienced an unusual mingling between the 'for' and 'against' factions. Those who were against the project, because it involved the disappearance of open space, included the 'Pro Köln' action group, a populist right-wing set-up that was also against the central mosque in Cologne. The usual camps, which is to say, 'reconstruction = conservative right wing' versus 'undefined open space = left wing', that we are familiar with from Berlin proved to be more complex in Cologne.
Oliver Elser: Do you think there's a European scene, a European discourse?
NH: There is a discourse about the 'European city', although it is a conservative one that is of no relevance to our work. Of greater importance for me would be if we were to talk of a European building culture. This refers less to images of the past and more to the dispute about architecture. I am talking primarily about competitions, in association with public debate about the results. I assume that at some point the debates so typical in Europe will emerge in Asian mega-cities like Beijing and Kolkata.
Wolfgang Lorch: China now takes its cue from North America. In several countries, though, people look to Europe with envy or a certain degree of recognition.
OE: Who is envious? Just architects?
NH: Not just architects, the citizens who are affected as well. Architecture can be defined as an instrument that produces not just buildings, but more especially debates. Our competition system is certainly not an ideal world, but it does allow certain forms of democracy that other countries do not have. In our work we have always regarded it as an enrichment, being part of a public debate as architects.
WL: That is how our joint work began, with Börneplatz in Frankfurt, our first competition. It was an open competition; in fact, any architect or even artist could take part. And I mean anyone.
NH: From the outset we were thrown into a political circus ring and were forced to argue on a political and cultural level, as well as from the point of view of craftsmen and engineers. It is precisely the breadth of these fields that we are interested in.
OE: You have both worked frequently as exhibition designers, indeed still do so. What attracts you to it?
WL: Architecture is a slow medium. Exhibition design, on the other hand, means working quickly, altering space in a very short time.
NH: We frequently carry the experience gained from exhibitions over into our 'slower' projects. Exhibition architecture was an integral part of the inner shell of the documentation centre in Hinzert. We experimented with printing on wood instead of paper. The inner shell became the carrier of the information.
OE: How do you deal with the fact that sections of the population regard your buildings as a provocation? I am thinking in particular of the synagogue in Dresden, which can easily be misunderstood as being blunt, reserved, expressionless.
NH: The provocation was, in fact, in the building assignment itself, for a synagogue. And also in the fact that a new building was to be constructed on such a central location. It was the time when 'Old Dresden' was being reconstructed. We came up with architecture that was not intended to be provocative, but which speaks a language of its own.
OE: That is exactly where I was heading…
WL: Let me ask a counter-question: what would the alternative have been? Our synagogue features contemporary architecture, but we also wanted people to feel the 'break' in history, the fact that there hadn't been a new synagogue for 50 years. This is a very different approach from the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which was being reconstructed at the same time.
NH: I can think of examples of architecture that had a 'provocative formal language' from the outset, in other words, that are much more expressive. However, we are not bothered about expressiveness per se, but about processes of perception. The synagogue's distorted geometry is not immediately perceptible. At the same time, by separating the synagogue and the community building, we created a public space in between. The synagogue is now a structure that is highly rated by the city's population and the numerous tourists.
It is clear that we are interested in independent architecture, we aim to discover something that is new to us as well. And what that contributes to the architecture debate. As such, it is obvious that only a few of our buildings are completely absorbed by the context.
OE: At the same time you have this tendency to create something, which, at first sight, does not appear to be 'new'. The documentation centre in Hinzert almost looks like something that has 'grown', like a rock formation.
WL: On the one hand it is about making something new. Not new in terms of appearance, but more in terms of the process involved, the construction and design techniques. At the same time we strive to find a way of making things look natural, self-evident.
OE: The Track 17 memorial in Berlin is an extreme example, with plants overgrowing the facade's steel plates. Might this building even disappear with time?
NH: It is not about a building disappearing, but about revealing the precarious nature of all architecture. Something like blurring – a term we talk about in several projects. In this way the documentation centre in Hinzert defies any unambiguous interpretation. The geometry of the footprint is so winding that it can scarcely be drawn from memory. When we were asked what colour the artificial stone for the synagogue in Dresden should be, we replied 'dirty colours'. It is meant to look almost dirty, but should also collect new dirt, acquire patina, which is a very special quality.
WL: We didn't want to use genuine sandstone from the Elbe. Pollution means that at some point it would just have been a black cube.
NH: But apart from the Track 17 memorial, I don't think that disappearance is a major issue for us, as most of our buildings have a striking presence and are loaded in terms of their function.
OE: In your opinion, which have been the most interesting buildings in Germany over the last ten to fifteen years?
NH: Not that we are fans of Daniel Libeskind's architecture, but the Jewish Museum is probably the only building constructed in 1990s Berlin that will find its place in the annals of architectural history. Despite the enormous amount of construction work in Berlin there really isn't much else. I can't imagine the government district being a future talking point.
OE: Libeskind's Jewish Museum is a statement and at the same time an ending, not something from which as an architect you can move forward.
WL: Libeskind hit the nail on the head, especially when the building was still empty. They would have done better to do without the exhibits.
NH: Just so there is no misunderstanding: on a design level we are totally uninterested in this strategy. We are interested in what architecture can achieve as a topic of discussion and how it is possible to create a political, historical image. Whether you like a building or not. Many architects are afraid of accepting the fact that architecture is part of a political image machine.