Crystal Talk
Text: Peter RumpfPhotos: Torsten Seidel, Werner Huthmacher


Staab Architekten

In the depths of Kreuzberg, Berlin, two courtyards back, a transverse commercial block, clinker facade, third floor, a spacious factory storey: the home of Staab Architekten. You can’t get much more typically Berlin than this. Yet somehow this relatively young studio and its 50 employees do not really fit in the Berlin scene, as it is seen on the outside and indeed as it sometimes sees itself: Prussian, clad in natural stone and a bit anemic, a dislike of ornamentation to the point of asceticism, square, practical, good, and easily mistakable for something else, people know each other, help each other, sometimes a participant in an invitation competition, sometimes a judge, flocking around Hans Stimmann, the almighty Senate Director of Building.

As opposed to the architecture produced by Staab Architekten, which certainly does not prescribe to a signature that is recognizable from afar. On the contrary, every project is noticeable for its own expression, unconventional spaces and new, surprising details. If anything a common denominator can be found in their concept of designing, in the "search for a reason for the shape", which is how Volker Staab and his partner Alfred Nieuwenhuizen attempt to define they way they approach their work.

So it comes as no real surprise that despite having a Kreuzberg address they have only actually worked on a handful of projects in Germany’s capital city, and far more in the country’s other federal states such as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Saxony, for example or, if need be, Mexico and Australia.

For 15 years now the studio’s success has been based almost exclusively on competitions it has won, starting with 1st prize in the nationwide open competition for the Neues Museum in Nuremberg (1991 through 1999) and 1st prize in the 1992 invitation competition for the extension to the Bavarian state parliament at the rear of the Maximilianeum, Munich’s defining Acropolis high above the River Isar. And as the only non-Bavarian studio to boot!

The fact that eight years later Staab Architekten was invited by the state government to re-design the assembly hall of the state parliament, won first prize and was subsequently awarded the contract speaks not only for the sensitivity it reveals in its treatment of historical, in other words difficult building fabric, but also for the liberal attitude of the developer. Much the same applies to the alteration work conducted in Klenze’s and Döllgast’s Alte Pinakothek in Munich, whose original entrance on the slender eastern side was re-opened. And, with a totally different outcome, to the Service Center at Therseienwiese, the home of the Oktoberfest, at the foot of Bavaria: an almost 100 meter-long block covered in copper sheet that conceals its facilities on the interior and in the basement. Each and every one an example of a successful liaison between Bavaria and Prussia.

Although neither Staab nor Nieuwenhuizen is Prussian by birth: one of them was born in 1957 in Heidelberg, the other, four years later, in Westphalia. Staab studied under Bernhard Hoessli at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Nieuwenhuizen under Gottfried Böhm at the RWTH Aachen University of Technology. They have known each other, they say, for ages, and when the order book (the building of a new chemical institute in 1996 in the Adlershof district of Berlin) demanded it, Nieuwenhuizen came on board as a partner of Volker Staab.

A sort of division of labor that stemmed not least from a focus on totally different building assignments quickly established itself: Staab concentrated primarily on exhibition architecture (in addition to the Nuremberg museum the Georg Schäfer Museum in Schweinfurt, 1997 through 2000, as well as others which were never realized, or have yet to be so such as for Porsche in Stuttgart, a granite museum in the Bavarian Forest and the Landesmuseum in Münster). His partner devoted himself to the design of institutes, such as in Adlershof (1st prize, 1995, completion 2001), a clinic for genomic research in Buch on the northern outskirts of Berlin (2001 through 2006), and university buildings in Heidelberg, Augsburg and Potsdam. Buildings of this nature call for different experience from that required for museums, whose method of function is determined primarily by urban planning and spatial qualities as well as materials and surfaces.

Talk of a division of labor that is if anything pragmatic says little about the innovational affinity of spirit with regard to their most important field, dealing with competitions. Well-functioning team work is the only thing that counts there. And as for how this leads to a solution, or to use the phrase again a "reason for the shape" it’s all revealed in the forthcoming interview.

However, verbal virtuosity, blowing their own trumpet or even chastising fellow architects is not their style, though in their branch you do come across people that do indeed conduct their PR work differently. So it comes as no real surprise that the biggest project the studio is currently working on, the enormous work plan for which, during the interview, is hanging on the wall behind us, hardly gets a mention: the spectacular alteration work on the Albertinum building, on the edge of the Brühlsche Terrassen in Dresden. The two-storey repository will be suspended to form a “roof” over the large, previously uncovered interior courtyard; hovering freely, there will be a befitting distance between its outer edges and the four surrounding buildings, allowing sufficient natural daylight to flood the new visitor hall that will be created below. The bold construction, which the architects proposed in response to the recent floods, when the River Elbe broke its banks, found favor in Dresden. So who needs work in Berlin?

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