Crystal Talk
Text: Oliver ElserPhotos: Torsten Seidel, Hans Christian Schink, AFF



Right at the end of the street stands the Berghain, the Berlin club that just about everybody has heard of. Otherwise, where AFF Architekten have their studio is a peaceful place. Hidden behind the still huge site for the newspaper “Neues Deutschland” in a, stylistically speaking, extremely charming area, at least if you appreciate 1950s classicism, that is, typified both by the nearby Karl-Marx-Allee and by the tranquil Wedekindstrasse. “Hans Kollhoff would live it here,” the brothers Sven and Martin Fröhlich joke during our conversation. Indeed he would, as their studio is located on the former premises of a “district library” from the German Democratic Republic‘s National Development Program, with walls boasting fine wood paneling and everything kept in the neo-Prussian style. Ten employees (“including two interns”) currently work at AFF Berlin. And of course there is also AFF Chemnitz, the branch managed by the third partner, Alexander Georgi. This was established in order to be closer to the construction site for their largest contract to date, the conversion and extension work of a Saxon Castle, Schloss Freiberg, destined to become an archive and mineral museum. The place is simply full of crystals, wherever you look!

This, however, is not the reason why a visit to AFF was long overdue. For some years now, the brothers have been running what is regarded as one of the most interesting “young” studios in Germany. Martin Fröhlich was born in 1968, Sven Fröhlich, in 1974. They were both born in Magdeburg, studied Architecture in Weimar and Sven Fröhlich studied Visual Communications as well. The interesting thing about these two, though, is that unlike many others, who simply want to do a “good job”, they tend to go overboard. And the two projects that they recently completed are extreme, each in its own way. In fact, seeing a coherent whole, an office philosophy, is no easy task. The reason being that at one end of the spectrum is a concrete block, what used to be a wooden “shelter” in the Erzgebirge mountain region, directly on the German- Czech border, which the Fröhlich brothers converted for their own use. It is a building that could have come out of the Manufaktum catalogue; no, more like a building that could beat those Manufaktum bores at their own game! More about this later. The opposite end of the AFF spectrum, as one might say, is occupied by a school building constructed in line with the cheap building regulations currently in force in Berlin, the Anna Seghers Gemeinschaftsschule, a comprehensive school in the Adlershof district of Berlin. Its outer sheath is the opposite of the concrete fortress that is the “shelter”, because it consists of a composite thermal insulation system, but one that has had a dot matrix spray-painted over it. Inside, all the corridors are bathed in a garish yellow. The school buildings looks like a constructed picture and the holiday home, by contrast, like a sculpture.

The brothers’ very first project, a loud pink group of containers housing toilets and showers on the grounds of an open-air swimming pool in Magdeburg, succeeded in transforming the everyday into something magical. The containers are still recognizable, but have been given wacky “hoods” and a coat of loud paint. The result of this finger exercise in design is a prime example of why we need architects. Not to prettify or act as guardians of good design, but because they have a feeling for how to handle large structures such that they look neither coquettishly modest nor far too brash – although , in this case, the uproarious shade of pink quite clearly exceeds the bounds of what is generally considered tasteful.

That AFF‘s work is so appealing without doubt also has something to do with the fact that to date they have tended to handle anything from simple to slightly curious construction projects, whose tight budgets have forced them to improvise. At first glance, their website only lists five projects: alongside the ones already mentioned, no more than a series of residential buildings in the prototype building area “Am Horn” in Weimar. Actually, however, there have been a large number of smaller projects alongside these five major ones: residential buildings for the most part, either conversions or new buildings, most recently designs for exhibition architecture, as well. Only recently they won first prize in a competition for redesigning the foyer of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (what a name!) in Bonn. Also known as the Gustav Peichl building with its peculiar sugar loaf peaks.

Their largest and most comprehensive project to date, Schloss Freiberg, provided them with enough opportunities to get up to speed with interiors, right down to furnishings. And indeed, the Freiberg project is something of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art): the interior decorations were made to measure, even down to the handrails on the fire escape. They were also commissioned to design the permanent exhibition of the mineralogical collection. And they regarded the materials entrusted to them in this context – all those minerals, crystals, druses, all that specialist knowledge about how to mine it in the deepest depths of the Earth – as a metaphorical mine, shoveling them together into a whole in their design. And the “crystalline” theme was repeatedly worked into the design, right down to the sloping table legs in the library‘s furnishings. Producing “narrative architecture” so aggressively in this way might easily incur the suspicion of being kitsch. This would be unfounded. However it should be noted that since Hans Hollein’s volcano museum (1994-2002, Saint-Ours- Les-Roches, France) nobody has attempted to abstract natural products in so many different ways and to translate them into architecture.

For AFF, minerals and the mining tradition in Freiberg, Saxony, are not only a formal theme. It is possible to find another twist to the idea of thinking in metaphors and images in their treatment of the large archive body that was set inside the protective covering of Schloss and, once again, is now revealed to the outside world via “hooding” (with AFF, many things are “hooded”). The giant concrete building, for which even historical substance was sacrificed is made of concrete, whose surface was attacked by building workers with pneumatic drills. But isn‘t that...? Yes indeed, it is a similar process to the work miners perform underground at the mine face! A number of the great thinkers of Postmodernism would have taken great pleasure in this way of thinking, first and foremost, the founder of the Architecture Museum Heinrich Klotz, who championed countering the soulless functionalism of the post-War era – he liked to call it “construction industry functionalism” – with a new, fresh fictionalism. In short, he wanted buildings to be able to tell stories. Anybody who knows the Fröhlich brothers would doubtless agree that science-fictionalism would also be highly appropriate for describing this rare case of architecture that is not nobly selfreferential but has many sparkling sources.

Their latest and most radical work, the concrete shelter in the Erzgebirge mountain region is no exception to this rule. This building, too, can be interpreted as a narrative – more on this in the following interview. It too is strong and mysterious. The hard, simple life that this concrete buildings promises us is probably much harder and more simple than what we are familiar with from the feel-good purism of the Manufaktum catalogue. This building is a political statement that is important to the brothers: a plea for less comfort and more sense in our approach to finite resources. In its own way, a “green building” in grim gray.