Crystal Talk
Text: Amber SayahPhotos: Klaus Mellenthin, Roland Halbe


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"Inside is different from outside" was the title of an exhibition featuring buildings by Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei that toured German architecture galleries a few years ago. In Berlin and Munich people may well think that the motto, which the Stuttgart-based architects still use today, is no more than a platitude. In the Baden-Württemberg region, where generations of post-War architects have worked on eliminating the difference between inside and outside, the solution sounds to many like a provocation – if not a betrayal: the betrayal of the kind of modern architecture that favors light, transparent, open constructions. And it's true. The architecture of LRO, with its predilection for walled facades and sculptural arrangements is heavy and emphatically corporeal.

An obvious conclusion would be to detect foreign influences behind this renunciation of regional traditions. After all, German names are in a minority on the letterhead of LRO. But if the truth be known, local Swabians enjoy a majority of two to one. In 1992 Stuttgart-born Arno Lederer and his Icelandic colleague Jórunn Ragnarsdóttir (who studied architecture at the University of Stuttgart) were joined by a third person, the youngest of the partners, Marc Oei, a Chinaman born in Fellbach (right next to Stuttgart). Since then, the trio has made a name for itself beyond the borders of the state with a series of public buildings, in particular schools, cultural edifices and ecclesiastical buildings, almost all of which have been awarded architecture prizes.

On the side, in the early 2000s, Jórunn Ragnarsdóttir was involved in stage design and costumes at theaters in Reykjavik. Arno Lederer, who, having held chairs at the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences and the University of Karlsruhe, has headed the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of Public Buildings and Design since 2005, contributes to the high profile and the success of the bureau on a rhetorical level, too, with controversial publications and lectures. As an example, the subject of one of his first seminars at the architecture faculty in Stuttgart was: "What I have always wanted to rip down in Stuttgart…"

And where the power of the spoken word alone is not enough, he takes up his pencil to further his cause. In order to get across to the Hessian Minister of Science and Art the difference between refurbishing Staatstheater Darmstadt in purely technical terms and in architectural terms, he drew a holey, shabby jacket. A second picture showed the patched jacket – its holes had been darned and its rips mended. This, explained Arno Lederer, is how it would look after a purely technical, engineering-based overhaul, functional, but not particularly attractive. In his third sketch the jacket had red cuffs, green lapels and gold buttons –this was the architectural solution, combining practicality with an attractive appearance. The minister got the message. Darmstadt’s theater could be made more attractive – at a slight additional charge.

A sense of the practical combined with a decided flair for the sensual qualities of architecture and space particularly characterize the buildings of LRO. It is indeed the case that the story in the tired 1950s building in the west of Stuttgart where the architects have their offices is quite clearly dominated by the sober principles of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Black linoleum in all the rooms is the only concession to their own sense of aesthetic appeal; otherwise Lederer, Ragnarsdóttir and Oei have made do with what was on offer: a long passageway, office cells.

When they design buildings for others, however, in addition to the long-term benefit of a brick façade, such as the one on the school building in Scharnhauser Park, the sensual quality of the material and of the space is also always a factor. The roughness of the surfaces, the bricks with their extra-wide grout, the reddish color of the bricks in contrast with the yellow mortar, display a strong materiality that invites touch and feel, a stairway, a kind of cross between an art deco sculpture and a Frank Lloyd Wright spiral, that opens up over all stories behind the low entrance to the EVS building extension, offering a surprising and gratifying sense of space.

At any rate Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei are not content to voluntarily restrict themselves to brightness, minimized constructions, reduced shapes, flowing footprints, technology and the functionality typical of modern architecture. They insist on the entire panoply of possibilities: the kind of light that features all shades between light and dark, focused and unfocused, direct and indirect, spaces that can be broad or narrow, high or low, closed or open, construction techniques that include solid, simple mechanisms and colors that are not interested in the dictates of taste. The Catholic Academy in the Hohenheim district of Stuttgart, for example, houses its seminar participants in a choice of pink or turquoise rooms. One slightly disgruntled critic described them as “the kind of colors you get with department store pajamas. Similar shades are to be found in the Darmstadt theater – as there was insufficient funding available for new covers for the ventilation openings, flues and sprinklers in the upper foyer, the architects painted everything black, and hung up ceiling sails that flutter around like a flock of birds in light blue, light green and powdery pink against the severe black and white of the interior.

Their architectural range includes a predilection for sometimes reducing things to a pointed, thoroughly aphoristic minimum of what is functionally necessary and, at the same time, a facility for integrating their projects into the urban context. Again, this is particularly noticeable in the case of Staatstheater Darmstadt, for which, above and beyond the scope of any refurbishment commission, it became the objective of Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei to rescue the theater from its isolation in a public park.

In order to provide the 1970s drive-in theater with a portal, they placed a white concrete structure directly before the almost entirely closed front, leaving absolutely no doubt as to where the entrance was located. As curvy as a baroque commode, it is itself playing the part of a theater – the wide-open red leaf doors on its balcony giving the impression of a stage curtain, in front of which the audience finds itself in the limelight. Architecture could scarcely express more unequivocally that the theater is part of public life.

But at LRO they are still not completely satisfied with what they have achieved. In order to integrate the building more fully into the inner-city axis network, the architects would like to redesign the park so as to make it a kind of forecourt to the theater. The balcony of the portal commode would then be ideal for outdoor performances, from plays to open-air concerts, and the architectural gesture would be able to extend further into the city. So far, however, their suggestions have not met with a great deal of approval. When it comes to complex urban planning contexts, the didactic efficacy of analogies with a jacket has obviously reached its limits.

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