Crystal Talk
Text: Oliver ElserPhotos: Torsten Seidel, Kraus Schönberg Architekten


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kraus schönberg

What a start to a career! At the beginning of 2009, Niklas Maak, architecture and art critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, devoted an entire half page of the Arts section to one small, 105 square meter family house on the outskirts of Hamburg. The title of this hymn to the “Haus W” designed by the young architects Tobias Kraus and Timm Schönberg, was “New German Architecture - it exists after all.”

If you want to form your own opinion the developer and his family are more than willing to oblige, and during the viewing enthusiastically throw in such suspiciously expert jargon that it soon emerges the young W also studied architecture and was as equal and open a sparring partner for his architects whom he knew from student days and had learned to think as unconventionally as them, but who now earned his money in a different field. Even when approaching the house in the Ohlstedt district it is evident that this is a place where the laws of German front garden culture have been abandoned. Between two neat, red clinker brick buildings cowering behind their fences a gravel path leads to a small cul-de-sac enclosed by the neighbors. No gate blocks the way. The mini gravel tract ends right in front of the front door, up to which a few steps lead, where - can you believe it – the handrail to stop you falling was forgotten. The entrance to the house is somewhat higher than ground level as the solid wooden part of the building is separated from the ground by a glass joint. Though hackneyed the term “building which seems to be hovering” ( as if the architect were a fair ground magician) really is the best description of what for once, is not just an end in itself: The upper half of the house is a wooden screen, the crown in which the W. family lives, featuring small rooms which, nevertheless - and one

cannot discern this from outside – offer a wide range of views. They vary in height according to needs. As the house is topped with a grass roof, the rooms descend like stalactites of differing lengths into the open communal room, thus creating not only an “interesting” view down but one in which the kitchen and living areas are gently differentiated. This open zone of the house is dug a half-storey deep into the garden. Building regulations here would have permitted one and a half storeys, but in this way they managed to achieve two complete storeys.

Several weeks ago the critic wrote a follow-up. Under the title, “The New Generation” Maak introduced his theory that the most interesting trends can be found on the edges of cities. He mentions Haus W. again, saying, “if anything you would think it were in Tokyo.”

There’s something to that. On the other hand: Kraus and Schönberg are down to earth in a sympathetic way. Sure, they think Tokyo is an interesting place, but the house is in Hamburg and pulls off what it does because it fits the inhabitants like a glove the architects tailor made with them. The fascinating thing about their work is not that it is reminiscent of some images or other of areas of architectural trends that are currently considered particularly in, but that the duo go their own way accompanied by a large reserve of stubbornness and do not seem to care about what is particularly fashionable. Put in a positive way: They are part of the generation of young German architects who do make a huge fuss about developing an unmistakable signature or giving the architecture press particularly chic buildings. Starchitecture was yesterday – that is the message their work sends out, and it is a good thing someone is actually saying it out loud.

Between the two FAZ articles things have been happening for the two architects. They received the German Timber Prize, were featured in numerous architecture magazines, and in Konstanz - Tobias Kraus’s hometown – what is currently their largest current project is now emerging from the excavation pit. At the heart of the Old Town of Konstanz they are closing a gap between tow buildings with a residential and commercial building - when I visited the concrete for the slender street facade was just being poured . By adding little clay beads to the concrete they avoid having to add extra heat insulation. The Konstanz office is located at present in a small neighboring building at the back of the construction site. From here they can keep a daily watch on progress. As Tobias Kraus explains in an interview, this not only gives them the chance to monitor things but also to develop details in unison with the workers. It is apparent in all the architects’ projects that they take the building and not just the design seriously. While Haus W was being built, Kraus lived in Hamburg, enabling him to supervise the construction on site.

His professional partner Timm Schönberg, has lived in London for the past nine years. He takes care of their joint projects in the UK. These include smaller construction sites in London as well as renovation projects in Bradford, an industrial city in northern England. In the German village there, an industrial district erected by German merchants, they are restoring and expanding the existing stock of amazingly “German” looking brick buildings. Just how different German and British building traditions are is an important theme in the following interview.

KrausSchönberg are also regarded as promising young talent in Great Britain. The Architectural Review featured a report about them in conjunction with the AR Award for Emerging Architecture and in the “Young Architect of the Year Award” (YAYA) they took third prize back in 2008.

Terence Riley, a respected critic and curator who until a few years ago worked at the MoMA in New York, came up with the fine phrase “un-private house” to describe what an immensely important role the single family home has played in the experimental environment of new architecture at least since Modernism. Though designed for a private client, architects have repeatedly attempted to wrest it away from the private sphere in order to transport the ideas accumulated in it to different standards or to make it know as an experimental building beyond the exclusive circle of the developer. At the latest during my visit to Konstanz it becomes clear that for the architects Kraus and Schönberg the justifiably much publicized Haus W is likewise far more than a “private house”. It is also an incubator for architectural ideas that point far beyond it. On the shelf there are models which transport the principle of the “house as small city” - nothing new, but realized. in a more compact version in Haus W - into other dimensions and building tasks. The architects are primarily interested in the question of how social relationships are presented in architecture in a way which is different from the norm, and how these can be stimulated. There are several elements in the single family home in Hamburg which actually require an urban planning vocabulary to describe: There are plazas, traffic intersections, viewing perspectives, intimate retreat areas and balcony situations which reappear in other larger, not yet realized projects. A hotel designed for Konstanz would not be a bunker full of beds but a labyrinth of caves, and a new residential area opposite the Old Town of Konstanz would adopt its medieval structure and create any number of opportunities for communication: Between the residents and, so it would almost appear, between the individually planned building lots, on which the architecture presents itself as if it had just grown over from the Middle Ages to the present - even if the buildings were absolutely contemporary ones in which Kraus and Schönberg set out to make such strong images real.