Crystal Talk
Text: Oliver HerwigPhotos: Andrea Altemüller, Stefan Müller Neumann, Simone Rosenberg


Interview nagler

Here is someone there does decent work.
Florian Nagler in conversation

For the most part urgent matters get dealt with before important ones. How do you go about things, do you have a schedule for the day?

No we don’t. And I can’t say that some projects get preferential treatment, we have so many different ones, from cowsheds to the Free University in Berlin. We are interested in any project if it represents something exciting in terms of subject matter. We put just as much effort into the minor ones as the major ones.

And the major ones help finance the smaller ones.

As a rule if you put as much effort into the smaller ones as we do you’re going to make a loss. That’s why we only design single-family dwellings if we really can’t turn them down, if they’re for acquaintances, friends, and relatives.

You say a project has to be exciting. How can you be tempted to design a private house?

The developer needs to be someone with whom you feel you can really achieve something, but with whom there can also be friction. There’s nothing less interesting than someone who says here are two million, build me a house and do what you want. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

So is this restriction appealing to you?

Indeed. A limited budget and a clear vision, which need not necessarily be compatible with mine, are a good prerequisite. You can make something out of that. Of course it’s nice if we’re talking about an attractive plot of land, not one stuck in between other houses, but even that can be a challenge, to which you really have to give some thought about positioning and slotting in. What is important is a developer who challenges us, who gives us an opportunity to really come up with something.

But not just through money – through too many, or indeed insufficient means.

(He laughs). That’s always a challenge. But it has much more to do with wishes, and of suggestions for ways of satisfying them. In doing so you might argue, but you establish a viable working relationship. Anybody interesting in getting a result comes to us, someone, that is, who is familiar with our buildings, and realizes that you can’t lump them all together.

How do you land contracts? There can be very few people who are actually familiar with buildings in the vicinity, but there are newspapers, prizes, competitions...

We win our major contracts through competitions, and as a rule they are the ones that keep us going. The smaller ones we get through word of mouth, not through publications.

So in other words publications are all very well, nice among fellow architects, but don’t generate much business? What about specialist construction magazines that potential clients read, are they really not a source of business?

As far as developers in the public sector are concerned it is perhaps important to keep reminding them that we are here, that here is someone that does decent work. Not that I push it. It’s not as if we send information to magazines every week.

So you can sit back. Very nice too. It is the clients that do the approaching.

(He laughs). As a rule, yes. And we are of course extremely pleased if our buildings attract attention and get published.

Have you really never landed a contract on the back of a publication?

Not yet, though we did win the contract for the ‘Datenwerk’office building , which was recently awarded the BDA Prize through critical press reviews of our church center in Riem, attacking the 12-meter high walls.

The church fortress...

... exactly. Though Ralf Lemkau rather liked the fact that there was someone who is not as streamlined and who doesn’t just revise his plans.

He would seem to be an ideal developer. Did he leave things up to you or just provide opportunities for friction?

He knew what he wanted and had clear ideas about how things ought to be run. In terms of design he initially actually imposed hardly any conditions at all. Then of course we did get down to discussing design as well, in a very constructive way.

The ‘Datenwerk’office building has emerged as a sort of monastery...

... we never associated it in that way. It might well be due to the fact that the users are not ken on light, because they are working at screens, and in their previous office, with the shutters down, it was always dark. It was awful for the working atmosphere. So that was our first priority, light. There is no direct sunlight at all: The large window faces north, and to the south there is a projecting roof and the expanses of greenery, which has an additional filtering effect. According to Mr. Lemkau, previously there was always somebody ill; that is now no longer the case, because the working conditions are better.

Exposed concrete promoting health. What was reaction to the ‘Datenwerk’ office building like?

There was none, apart from fellow architects, who liked it. I assume that most people in Riem are still disturbed by it, but when it’s eventually totally green it shouldn’t be a provocation any more. As far as the showcasing of architecture currently going on there is concerned, if anything it’s somewhat reserved.

You mentioned the fact that fellow architects liked it. After all, it didn’t win the BDA Jury Prize, as opposed to the Public’s Prize, for nothing. What, then, are the reasons for these two worlds being so far apart, for architects speaking a language that the general public just doesn’t understand?

That is indeed the case, but I would claim that as far as we are concerned we are working hard on narrowing the gap. We managed to very well in the case of the church center. There was initially a huge amount of opposition, along the lines of “they’re building a wall around the places of worship”. Now that everything is finished it is actually very well received. To my mind architecture makes no sense if it is provocative, it shouldn’t be an end in itself, it stands in public spaces and needs to come to terms with that. I strive to design buildings that not everyone necessarily has to like, but that are aware of their responsibility in public spaces and are not intended to be provocative. The ‘Datenwerk’ office building could never have won the BDA Public’s Prize because it’s so difficult to portray as an illustration, whereas the jury actually went to see it.

Does modern architecture need hard selling?

I hope not. That was referring to the ‘Datenwerk’. The buildings have to speak for themselves. If you have to stand in front of them for a whole hour to explain what needs to be understood, there’s something wrong. Buildings need to be self-evident, to be understood in their context. Your average observer doesn’t ask why, was there any opposition, any problems?

You already mentioned some criteria for good architecture. Even though there can’t be a magic formula, what is crucial for you personally?

First: the location. It makes several demands that have to be met. Architecture needs clarity; we try to respond with a straightforward, manageable solution; things become complicated of their accord. Things ought to be “normal”. It’s easy for masons to build straight walls, and if there are special requirements, such as an apse in a church, things are done differently. Functional features are exciting and influence the building, but what ultimately interests me is the question of how things are done. I am not speaking of honesty with regard to construction, but for me it’s important for it to be a coherent construction that people can understand. This stems from the fact that I trained as a carpenter and want to understand how two beams are joined together. If anything it’s a bit old-fashioned. And I certainly wouldn’t want the developer and his requirements missing from the list.

Do you have a favorite building?

I tend to grow fond of whatever I’m involved with, which at the moment is the cowshed we’re working on. On the other hand there are no projects we need to keep quiet about. In the spot on which it is standing, each and every building represents a modest contribution to building culture.

You cover a wide spectrum. You’ve done a church, is there anything still missing, a museum perhaps?

(He laughs). Not really. A big office block perhaps. Until now we’ve tended to avoid them because you don’t have an opportunity to argue things through with the developer. For the most part you just read: “Competition 10,000 square meters.” I have problems dealing with that. But one thing I would like to prove is that we are indeed capable of designing a good office block.

Wouldn’t you have to alter the structure of your studio for that? Where direct contracts are concerned a lot clients demand, say, 60 CAD work places.

That wouldn’t be the sort of contract we want, I’m not striving for that sort of size. We’re currently about ten people, and, for the size of the operation, relatively successful.

What is the upper limit?

When my wife becomes more involved again, around 16. I would like a cut-off at 20.

Are you good at delegating?

Not really. If I think about it I was often faced with problems because I hadn’t made things known and delegated them in good time. I like to keep an eye on everything, which, given our size, works fairly well. For example with regard to the cowshed I’m also interested in things like the way screws are screwed in. It might be a lot of work but for me it’s important to enjoy work.

The role of architects is changing. What is your view on architects as service providers?

We are attempting to assume this role as well, as the developer puts up a lot of money and we have to deal with it in a responsible manner. We take costs and deadlines seriously and see service as an integral part of our activities. I have no problem with that as long as I’m not misused in the process.

Are you still brooding about EXPO?

No. We were fortunate enough to win the direct contract for the hall in Bobingen. Working on that project enabled us to drag ourselves out of the quagmire. We didn’t have a chance to even think about it.

In other words the right constellation of architect and developer is always necessary?

Yes, I think so. Without developers nothing at all is possible.

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