Interview with David Chipperfield
Buildings should create a good place for people
In Germany in particular, David Chipperfield hardly needs to be introduced. With his German team, he was responsible for such prominent projects as the Neues Museum and the James-Simon-Galerie on Museum Island in Berlin. Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery will reopen next year, also renovated by the British architect. He also has offices in London, Milan and Shanghai and oversees projects around the world. FSB met the 66-year-old for an interview in his Berlin office and got to know him as a serious, highly concentrated and at the same time friendly and mischievous conversation partner.
Mr. Chipperfield, with the opening of the James Simon Gallery last year, your work on rebuilding Museum Island came to an end after around 25 years. Alexander Schwarz, one of your Berlin partners, once said that the time was like a second degree for him.
Yes that's true. The Neues Museum in particular was our training. Due to the technical difficulties and the design issues, but above all politically: How do you deal with a project that everyone in Berlin has an opinion about? It was very controversial and also confrontational. Too confrontational for my liking. So our office developed a collaborative way of working to bring everyone together. The town planners, the monument office, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the curators - everyone should believe in the project and help us to make the right decisions. Without this way of working, we would not have mastered the project, which is why it is so extremely important for the mentality of our office. I think it's getting more and more important that architects work collaboratively. We shouldn't act like aesthetic geniuses.
A current museum project is the renovation of the New National Gallery, which is to be reopened next year. You called your concept "invisible architect".
I don't think we had a choice. The task was not to turn a Mies project into a David Chipperfield project. The task was to get Mies back in good shape. Some measures were simple technical innovations, others required cultural interpretation or functional reassessment. But ultimately nobody should notice the facelift.
What was the hardest task?
The facades of the glass hall, because they had been planned incorrectly from the start. We could have said, well, let's design them so that they work. But with Mies, the detail is the design. Changing the facades would have meant changing the whole building. So we had to weigh up cultural and technical aspects. It's a museum after all, you can't spend that much money and then it doesn't work on the opening day. It was really a challenge.
Why did you decide as a young man to study architecture?
I went to boarding school and didn't do very well in school. Half of the time I played rugby and the other half in the art room, which is where I felt good. My art teacher was a special teacher, he encouraged and encouraged me. And because he was interested in architecture, he steered me in that direction.
They also develop furniture and everyday objects. To what extent are the design projects relevant to the work of the office?
Good question. I don't think these projects are particularly relevant to the work of the office. But when I started my office in the 1980s, it was in a recession. There was hardly anything to be done. For the first ten years I only had small jobs such as shop fittings, so the subject of interiors has always occupied me. But I can answer the question differently: I believe that many architects see buildings as objects. We, on the other hand, understand it as a setting, like a scenography or a theater stage. Buildings should create a good place for people.
And if you understand architecture as a setting, then you are also interested in the objects in it. But we only design something when there is an idea, an idea that expresses a certain lifestyle. When I designed the dishes for Alessi 15 years ago, I wanted a set of simple bowls for my home. I don't like all the different plates and platters of a typical service.
Finally, what would be the most important question I should ask you?
Well, the most important question is what role architecture should play in the current situation in which the world is facing immense social and ecological challenges. I don’t know the answer.
A major conflict: On the one hand, buildings are responsible for a considerable part of carbon dioxide emissions ...
For 50 percent!
... and on the other hand there is a housing shortage in many cities. We have to build. Has architecture become an impossible task?
How we build naturally has an impact. But although we as architects are part of the problem, there is little we can do about it, we are in a strangely weak position. Because when we get an order, the biggest sustainability problems have already been caused. Why is the building being built at all? Why was an old one torn down for it? Should the building really be that big? Shouldn't it be built in a different location? These planning questions have long been decided. We architects shouldn't be satisfied with the end of the food chain, we should get involved sooner.
Are your colleagues aware of this?
Yes. But in the past 30 or 40 years the profession has moved further and further away from the political planning processes. It was different after the war when architects were involved in developing a city. We should prove to society that we have something to contribute. However, the planning is more and more determined by investors. Our role then is to use our skills to commercially upgrade the projects. We should use our skills again to solve social problems.