FREE SPACE an all-around talent – GRAFT Architects

12 min read

January 2018 in icy cold Berlin, near the main railway station, in Heidestraße, back yard, 4th floor.


The POINTS of contact editors have an appointment for an interview with the founding partners of GRAFT, Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit. On our arrival, they are still in their fixed weekly Biennale meeting with Marianne Birthler and other members of the Biennale team. The reason for this interview with POINTS of contact was, of course, their appointment to the team of curators for the German contribution to the upcoming Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Under the heading of “Unbuilding Walls”, the three architects, together with Marianne Birthler, former Commissioner for Stasi Documents, are planning the contribution and implementing it for completion in Venice by May. In conjunction with the overriding theme of “Freespace”, under which the architects from Grafton act as curators for the entire Biennale, there was a wide range of topics for discussion. Also: GRAFT and POINTS of contact will both celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2018. A more fitting basis for POINTS of contact could hardly be imagined.


What were the first thoughts coming to your minds when you heard about the overriding theme of FREESPACE for the Architecture Biennale 2018?

Wolfram Putz: This theme follows up the last Biennale in perfect continuity. Then, Aravena had opened up an excellent range of new topics to present architecture in the light of its comprehensive responsibility and complex social dimensions. That was a good start. With the two Grafton architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley Mc Namara, we can be sure that we will not, after a small aberration, fall back into formalism and
traditional professional debate, but stay in line with the contemporary spirit, which has now been expressed very clearly by the concept of Freespace. The two curators are women, something I welcome from the heart. They are a pair and do not stand in the first row like pop stars, but stand out by their subtle, sublime architecture and curatorial quality which does not cultivate spectacular effects.

Lars Krückeberg: Whatever was a bit fuzzy about Aravena and perhaps failed to hold the exhibition together completely, seems to be remedied now. So which actual socialphenomena lead to which definite, recognizable gestures in urban development and architecture? What is the response of human interaction rituals to real, existing or newly built spaces? These are the kind of questions I expect – and maybe some statement or other to answer them.

Lars Krückeberg, Thomas Willemeit, Marianne Birthler and Wolfram Putz
Lars Krückeberg, Thomas Willemeit, Marianne Birthler and Wolfram Putz /// Photo: Pablo Castagnola
Part of the series:

Freespace [#3] – See you in Venice …

More about this theme

What does free space mean to you personally?

Thomas Willemeit: I always associate the term free space immediately with freedom. In architecture, this is invariably the point: our intellectual, emotional and creative freedom and the definition, consideration and preservation of free space. It is invariably a matter of finding different answers to the same, unchanging question. The issue is never to seek the final, valid, correct answer, but always to explore that little bit of additional ground which goes beyond answering the question. We need to understand that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth. There are all the possibilities which lie beyond, the variations, the heterogeneous mentalities of the world we live in and the differences in our cultures, which we must learn to recognize, to accept and to appreciate.

Wolfram Putz: I just love that expression. It removes barriers and describes primarily a potential. Free space does not say how we should behave, but that we have potentials for which we are responsible. I also think it is necessary in our time to combine the term free space with the concept of freedom. Both terms imply confidence in the champions of architecture – regardless of whether they work with the programming template of the floor plan or on the meta level of creative design. They allow us to let go of the reins every now and again, to leave out a wall, to create a flexible instead of a rigid frame, and to promote fewer rather than more rules and regulations.

And the two Grafton architects take a friendly, relaxed approach to everything. They are not the Jeanne d’Arcs of the architectural scene, they simply present their definition of free space in their buildings, their theories, their teaching and their own personalities.


How do you define your sphere of responsibility, which you should observe in connection with your architectural understanding of free space?

Lars Krückeberg: We think that we can all get up every morning to investigate something new that is still unfamiliar to us or pursue a question to which we have not yet found a personal answer. This has something to do with a particular attitude with which we approach things, communicate with each other, and which accompanies us throughout our lives.

Wolfram Putz: And of course, our stage of life plays a part. At which point in your lives are you finding yourselves at present? What lies behind you, and what expectations do you have for the present and for the future? Personally, I had the most intense feeling of freedom right at the beginning of my career, during the prelude, so to speak. We had nothing to lose, no reputation, no history, we were rebellious and provocative. I found the middle game very difficult. Then we were already responsible for staff, but had no reserves in terms of manpower or money. Today we are fortunate in having good success which is unlikely to come to a sudden end the day after tomorrow. So now we are free to invest in dealing with a free space which seems important to us, we can take the entire company along on a daring expedition– without threatening our existence.
But basically, free space is not a cosy concept – that is where the wind blows, it can be either hot or cold, and it is where real life takes place.

Thomas Willemeit: Now, after so many years, we carry on our backs quite a sizeable pack full of heterogeneous, contradictory and valuable experiences. And we have now reached an altitude which gives us a considerable audience. Our voices are heard, our ideas are discussed, but basically taken seriously. Somehow, this also has a positive effect on the depth of our freedom. Greater audibility, more conscious perception, more presence in society and in the media – that means more responsibility.

Wolfram Putz: Again and again, I catch myself feeling that I am hemmed in by worst-case scenarios through my increase in life experience. I find it difficult for me to preserve my inner intellectual free space, a certain amount of naiveté and the readiness to take risks. Very often, I have to struggle against an inner reflex which tries to induce me not to follow certain paths I remember having taken once before in the past. At such moments, I do not realise that the direction perhaps has the same parameters, but that we, as architects, have changed, and our environment has changed as well, so that we would now follow that direction with totally different know-how and under totally different circumstances.

Wolfram Putz

What range of topics do you expect in Venice? What kinds of themes will be included in the Freespace concept?

Lars Krückeberg: We expect entirely traditional architectural analyses of houses, as well as simple re-designs of lobbies and opera house foyers and new workplace concepts, along with social analyses and also radical political statements, even extreme, utopian and formalistic contributions. The theme of “Freespace” is an all-round talent. We know where the curators come from and what interests them about the theme – as to the rest: 50% of all participants and contributions will have nothing to do with the theme.

Unbuilding Walls – converted, demolished, dismantled, not built, real and mental walls in the present and the past, with or without shadows ... what are you planning for the German pavilion?

Thomas Willemeit: The term “unbuilding” is quite unusual for an architecture Biennale, which focuses on “buildings”. For us, the starting point was an architectural debate in Berlin about removing things. We are interested in what will be built or can be built to replace something which has previously been removed. The actual trigger, of course was the Berlin wall – and the turn of the era: On 5 February 2018, the Berlin wall had been gone for exactly as long as it had previously existed: for 28 years, 2 months and 26 days. Now our special concern was to look closely at how the removal of that border proceeded, and how haphazardly it was implemented in some places. What we see now, is a
heterogeneous string of pearls along the line of the former wall, a fascinating reflection of societal and urban development-related debate. Therefore, at the very beginning stands the removal, the “unbuilding”, and the discovery of the new free space, a new surface.

Wolfram Putz: To begin with, this was a theme we were latently interested in addressing. Berlin is our chosen home, and we live at a time when, unfortunately, walls are coming back into fashion as ideological instruments. So the starting point of our contribution is this piece of land in Berlin, Germany, 28 years ago. Here people can see how we Germans deal with our history in terms of architecture. These historically relevant places have another level of importance compared to others, and their architectures as well – regardless of whether built or unbuilt. A gap also represents an attitude, a statement, which is sometimes even more formative or expressive than a building. The way the useless wall was dealt with from November 1989 onwards can be regarded as a therapeutic session. What are the various stages in coping with grief?


When does anger permit nothing except tearing down, destroying and wanting to forget, when are people again able to take a look without reopening old wounds?

Lars Krückeberg: The turn of an era is a type of access door, which provides us, as well as every visitor in Venice and everyone coming into contact with our topic, with a personal and emotional way of entry. Most Germans still remember the time of the wall, know exactly what they were doing on this historic Thursday, 9 November 1989, have memories of their life behind the wall as former GDR citizens, or perhaps of crossing the border as a “Westerner”, which always used to be a bit spectacular and scary. Once more it becomes clear that a process of remembrance is always dynamic, and that when architecture becomes an expression of such a process of change, it is not necessarily always the right solution for all time.

Wolfram Putz: Finally, we can certainly say that architecture also offers a large projection screen for the non-professional public – as long as the relevant discussions do not take place on too high an academic level. And this is certainly not our intention.


Marianne Birthler is a member of your Biennale team. Why her?

Thomas Willemeit: We couldn’t do it without her. She is fantastic. She is a woman, she comes from the East, she is invaluable for us as a likeable personality and an eloquent discussion partner. She had first-hand experience of the “turnaround” and the events leading up to it, she was 13 years old when the wall was built. From 2000 to 2011, she was the Commissioner for Stasi Documents; she has been a member of the GDR Volkskammer as well as the German Federal Parliament, and has served as a state minister, too. Marianne Birthler is not embittered and has no missionary zeal. We very quickly realised that it is not possible to address such a socially relevant theme, so closely connected with public affairs, exclusively from an architectural point of view. If we did that, this would lead to complete failure.

Axel Springer high-rise, the new Axel Springer building
Axel Springer high-rise /// Photo: Axel Springer SE
Axel Springer Campus
Axel Springer Campus /// Photo: courtesy of OMA

So what will await us from May onwards in the German pavilion in the Gardini? What part will history play in the pavilion built in 1909 and remodelled in 1938 by the National Socialists in Germany?

Lars Krückeberg: In planning such an exhibition it is certainly not possible to completely disregard the building in which the stage is set. Without wanting to attach too great an importance to the turn of the era: If we go back another 28 years and 2 months, we will land in the year 1933… a fact to which we will certainly make no direct reference, but it will still be a hidden line of reference to be read between the lines.

Wolfram Putz: Our approach to the exhibition consists of three areas: an emotional introduction asking the question “What was the division of Germany?”; an exhibition of architecture, in which we will present about 25 projects; and finally a journalistic documentation of six walls worldwide: in Israel, Korea, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Cyprus and Spain.

At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors will perhaps see the theme of walls, but at the end they will realise that the real topic is the absence of walls, and that, even when a wall comes down, we have to look at what was originally hidden behind it, or at the walls still existing in people’s minds. The buildings around us are invariably of only secondary importance. The crucial point is to consider them in the context of their special history.


20 years of Graft. What does that mean to you?

Thomas Willemeit: We have never had a master plan. In retrospective, life explains itself looking forward to the present. It is lived intuitively, full of curiosity, but not with a clear-cut logic.
It really is a great privilege for us to engage in “Unbuilding Walls” in such a milestone anniversary year. This really fits the occasion. We can look back on many personal encounters with this wall and the former GDR. The transit route from Hanover to Berlin in those days went past Brunswick. This was where we studied, and we got to know each other almost exactly at the time when the wall came down. When the excitement about the Architecture Biennale has subsided a little, we may initiate a
convention. And of course we will also celebrate. Every now and again when we have time, and in the near future also at your POINTS of contact meeting point at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac on Canal Grande.

Many thanks!

We look forward to seeing you!

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