Gunter Behnisch has run an office in Stuttgart for nearly half a century. It is best known for such masterpieces as the Munich Olympics complex and Bonn Parliament (AR March 1993), but beyond these, the firm's reputation is based on social buildings: particularly schools (AR February 1992; April 1995), but also kindergartens (AR September 1991) and old-people's homes. Knowing this social emphasis, it is surprising to discover that only in the late 1990s have they undertaken any social housing.
The opportunity came with a direct commission from a Catholic welfare organization in Ingolstadt, a city in south central Germany between Nuremberg and Munich. It is not far from Eichstatt where Behnisch & Partner built the famous university library (AR March 1988), and doubtless this work made them known in the area.
The new housing is the first phase of a large development planned among others of less exciting design in an unpromisingly flat open suburb at the edge of the city-a placeless place neither town nor country. Plans and photographs show in detail only the three blocks so far constructed, but these establish a pattern for the rest of the site. The whole scheme will eventually include 70 pensioner flats, 30 terraced houses for families and 60 student flats. They are laid out as a series of two- or three-storey linear blocks running north-south or east-west, juxtaposed to create a series of loose courts connected by pedestrian alleyways. First- and second-floor flats are approached by access galleries fed by lifts and staircases. These are placed consistently along north or east sides, leaving south and west faces for private outlook. Parking is restricted to northern and eastern edges, one parking court being included in the first phase at its most urban northeast extremity. Contrast between front and back is pl ayed up in ground treatment, for hard landscaping and flat surfaces define the public approach, while the landscape beyond and on the private side is softened by mounds of foundation spoil. Ground floor flats have small gardens on their private sides.
Built to a very low budget, flats had to be small and boxy, materials cheap and details simple. But Behnisch & Partner still managed to pursue their usual policy of irregularity and differentiation. Site-planning as a series of linear blocks only four or five units long kept scale down. The architects avoided the difficulties of designing flats to encompass the 90 degree turn. Instead they exploited corner conditions by giving flats side views and allowing them to become three rooms deep. Stepping front walls in and out on both private and public sides helps to add interest and variety, while producing an enhanced sense of enclosure. Longer end flats further help to contain and protect gardens and balconies in the middle of the block.
Most architectural effort evidently went into the articulation of the facades and their elaborated thresholds, which is also where the most interesting details occur. On the approach side this was a matter of developing the circulation network: an applied layer of lifts, stairs and galleries in concrete with glass roofs supported on galvanized steel posts. The contrast of materials is enhanced by a varied balustrade treatment: sometimes concrete with a steel rail, sometimes steel and wood, sometimes glass. Seats are added at the upper level next to the lift. On the more private side there is just as much layering, with projections and recesses as balconies or bays. Balustrades are lightly done with galvanized steel and glass, and the edge of the wooden balcony decking is exposed, so displaying construction and avoiding a coarse edge. The outermost plane of enclosure is strongly articulated with fixed and sliding wooden grilles: the latter can be deployed against afternoon sun. Both sides enjoy the shelter of upward projecting glass roofs supported on the public side by cold steel, on the private one by a warmer and more intimate timber structure. The provision of such a visible roof element on both sides is remarkably effective psychologically, for the real roof is almost flat, banal and invisible: the cheapest technical solution. This approach puts in question the often assumed need both for anachronistic technologies like slate and tile and for their redundant voids: there can be a sense of 'roofness' without a full pitched roof.
Further liveliness was achieved in all the blocks by special treatment to the ends, and by varying the cladding between timber boarding and painted render in strong colours. Applied colour is a major Behnisch concern of recent years, and he published a book entitled On Colour.  The general result of all the elaboration at lngolstadt is to make the buildings appear more varied and sophisticated than they really are: in fact they make cheap social housing look almost luxurious. The virtue of variety. Architects of rationalist or minimalist persuasion argue that social housing units should be identical as a direct expression of social equality, while lining them up in endless ranks is simply an honest expression of the rational process. Ever since the 1970s, however, their humanely-minded opponents - Behnisch among them -- have sought to produce as much variety as possible within the constraints of the budget. This can be achieved by responding to local conditions (Situationsarchitektur, as Behnisch calls it ) and by playing theme and variation at every scale, varying flat types, access arrangements, heights, grouping and so on. Rationalists find this lust for variety too artificial, claiming that, even when participative, it cannot work for long because families grow up and move away. But one can argue that it is not the fit that matters, simply the possibility of difference. Lucien Kroll has pointed out that in a row of identical houses it takes a real act of courage to repaint your door,  but if the doors are already different it is easy enough. A complex and untidy situation - 'normal landscape' as Kroll likes to call it - absorbs new gestures without problems, grows and changes. So deliberate or even artificial variety in design can serve as a catalyst for genuine gestures of appropriation, allowing the housing to grow and change with its occupants. A minimalist yearning for static and lifeless elegance will be threatened by this, so can only threaten it in return, proposing an insupportable ideal. Housin g by its nature is a dirty business, a continuing process that follows its own implicit rules and should not be hijacked by the aesthetics of the monument.
(1.) Behnisch, Gunter On Colour, Gerd Hatje, 1993.
(2.) Kroll, Lucien, The Architecture fo Complexity, Batsford, 1986.
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|Author:||JONES, PETER BLUNDELL|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2000|
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