Crystal Talk
Text: Benedikt HotzePhotos: Hans-Peter Böning, Fred Plassmann (Stills)


Profil graft

At number 52 you can get a massage: “Ring Grafe” the sign says. Just next door. The next building, 50 Heidestrasse, is where Graft are located. One storey of a factory, rear building, 4th floor. From up here there is a fantastic view of wasteland, warehouses, second-hand car dealers. Somewhere around here the labor exchange gives early risers day jobs. Just a stone and a half’s throw away from Germany’s newest main station it looks like an open freight station in Detroit. A long asphalted strip leads to the building. “Our runway” the architects say jokingly.

The studio’s location is par for the course. As Thomas Willemeit says “You’ll always be able to find us where there’s upheaval.“ Whereas the Berlin studio of gmp recently move out of its chic storey in a factory in the Kreuzberg district because Chinese visitors are unable to grasp the concept of an architecture studio in an industrial building, Graft deliberately goes for the undefined, non-uniform, tattered.

It was like that after they had graduated. With their degrees from Braunschweig in their pockets, Lars Krückeberg and Wolfram Putz added a Master’s in Los Angeles. It was there, in 1998, that they founded Graft. Thomas Willemeit, the only one to have worked for an international star architect, Daniel Libeskind in Berlin, came on board in 2001. The three of them are the owners of the studios in Berlin and Los Angeles. Gregor Hoheisel, the “fourth” Graft, had worked for gmp in China and since 2003 has been a partner in the Graft Beijing studio.

Alone and without any form of protection in the hell hole that is Los Angeles, where dynamism and success are just as shamelessly visible in public as misery and violence: The young architects from Germany started out here doing anonymous garage conversions. When things were not yet going that well, they at times had to move heaven and earth just to get their Green Cards prolonged. They fought things through and made it – to Hollywood. That is primarily attributable to the positive mindset of the three of them. The superficiality of many Americans is not their thing, but they simply adore the fifth field of operation Graft is also involved in (in addition to architecture, urban planning, exhibition design and music): the pursuit of happiness.

Anybody expecting to encounter arrogant pop stars, whose Blackberry is constantly peeping, is disappointed. Sincere, focused, attentive and with no airs and graces is how they come across – always. All three of them are quite simply pleasant from the outset – such that I have to admit occasionally having got them mixed up previously, despite the fact that they look totally different.

The human factor is certainly the main reason for their success. In their business they have to convince people, and in their case in almost all the corners of the world. You can only achieve that if you don’t see the developer as a vehicle for realizing your own artistic ambitions. For Graft the developer (they actually refer to the “client”) is always a partner, never an enemy that destroys what was a lovely architectural idea. “If you impose restrictions, you are the one that makes the puzzle more difficult”, is how they see things.

“A few chic interiors plus Brad Pitt” – for a long time that was the formula Graft worked by. At the latest by the time of the Aedes exhibition, which is now touring, and currently on show in Dornbirn, things had changed completely. Never before in the history of Aedes Gallery had there been such a thick exhibition catalogue. Graft is involved in building projects all over the place, and all at the same time. It is not always entire high-rises, often “just” facades, hotel fittings, shops and restaurants, but the number and scope of the projects definitely puts them in the premier league. Just one such project would stretch many an architectural studio to its limits. From converting an enormous Interhotel in Georgia to an apartment tower in Las Vegas, from a lakeside villa in Berlin to a marina in China, they cover the whole gambit.

The FAZ newspaper refers to them as the “curve constructors”. Actually their architecture is extremely dynamic. The boundaries between inside and outside, between the wall and ceiling, between architecture and furniture become blurred and disappear. Motifs such as these are by no means unique in the present-day architectural scene; in fact you can even call a lot of them fashionable.

Yet as opposed to the Libeskind, Hadid and Gehry generation that began building late and is now condemned to delivering its branded architecture to the very end, Graft has several years in which to develop ahead of it. You can rest assured that in ten years from now the architecture Graft is producing will have totally different focuses.

It is their education that is the basis for this. If you don’t know them the statement, on which they all agree, as to which teacher influenced them most as students comes as somewhat of a surprise: of all people it was the one who taught the history of building. Harmen Thies continued the principle of the search for structure in architectural analysis that the art historian Hans Sedlmayr had introduced around 1930. He divided up the entire structure of a building into individual elements before piecing it together again by describing its constituent elements.

Graft as Deconstructivists, who dismantle architecture and reassemble it? As dynamic Baroque successors to Borromini? Rock over Baroque (Wolf D. Prix)? Perhaps. They analyze the structural wealth in the history of architecture and, using new materials, transpose it to the present-day.
As such Graft architecture is totally different from computer nerds’ machine-generated blobs. At Graft they know when and why something has beauty because their roots are the classic architectural benchmarks.

And this could well be the second main reason for their success: They win over developers not with their personality alone, but precisely with their architecture too. What they do is interesting – in the eyes of architectural laymen as well. And it has brought them worldwide success – of which in the meantime many are envious. Yet what is actually wrong with young architects from Germany being in worldwide demand on the back of their ideas?

If you think the success has been handed to them on the “Hollywood plate”, you’d be wrong: It is the result far more of ability, integrity and a whole lot of work, performed for the most part in the rhythm of foreign time zones. But it is worthwhile.

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