Interview with Benedikt Schulz | Competitions and public buildings

Interview with Benedikt Schulz

Spurred on by sporting notions

3. February 2017 | Words: Tim Berge
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 50 seconds

The brothers Ansgar and Benedikt Schulz began entering architecture competitions while still undergraduates – and there’s hardly another German firm that has made it to the winner’s rostrum so often. The upshot are public buildings praised by trade circles and users in equal measure. One of their favourite themes is school construction, to which Schulz and Schulz devote not only their time as planners but, in addition, their own research scheme. We spoke with Benedikt Schulz about the latent megalomania in his new home of Leipzig, the problems inherent in the German competition system, and lecturing right by Dortmund’s football stadium – as a member of Schalke 04.

You hail from the Ruhr: What ever made you, a member of FC Schalke 04, move to Leipzig in the early 1990s?
We entered the competition for Leipzig’s central railway station in 1994 – and that was essentially what occasioned us to pay the city a visit. That was a very special and exciting time, the air was abuzz with the sense of a new beginning. It was the era of the Schneider building sites, every other building was under scaffolding, and hydraulic drills were to be heard everywhere. It was extremely pulsating! We were fresh from the Ruhr, where absolutely nothing happened. Nothing was being built and, if it was, it was nothing to write home about. And when we came second in the competition and were invited to submit further tenders as a result, my brother and I simply remained in the city and started up a firm there.

Benedikt Ansgar Schulz und Schulz Architects Leipzig Church Trinitatis Portait

Ansgar and Benedikt Schulz (photo: Joachim Brohm / Valentina Seidel)

In what way does the Leipzig architecture scene differ from that in the Ruhr?
Everything is open and permeable In Leipzig, whilst at home who you know plays a big part. Self-employed architects can merely choose between joining both the Rotary and golf clubs or confining themselves to one of the two: those are the channels for procuring orders. Not only were there no end of competitions In Leipzig in the 1990s, they were all decided purely on the basis of quality criteria. We had plenty to do from the outset as a result. On top of that, it was a likeable city with a penchant towards latent megalomania: there was the bid to stage the Olympics, for instance, and public ventures such as the central station and airport tend to get built a little bit too large. Such self-confidence appealed to us!

Do you feel at home in Leipzig?
Yes. But for the past six years we’ve also been working in the Ruhr again: we lecture and research there at the university in Dortmund. And we continue to be season ticket-holders at Schalke! In this way we inhabit both worlds, though our home is definitely in Leipzig.

Is it conceivable lecturing at the university in Dortmund as a Schalke fan?
The important thing is that we don’t have to actually look at the stadium. The view is blocked by a neighbouring building, thank God. And any student turning up to a lecture in a Dortmund jersey is thrown out of course! (laughs)

How were your first years as a self-employed architect?
We were brought up in a household of freelancers and never wanted to do things any differently. As a result, we always tried to look on the positive side, even if things were nerve-racking of course. We did a lot of competitions in the initial years and financed ourselves in that way. Added to that was restoration work performed on Leipzig housing estates without the residents moving out: We found that to be a stimulating task from a logistics point of view, and it also squared with our strategy of gathering building experience. We didn’t want to win a competition and then hear people say we couldn’t design buildings. And by the time we won the tendering procedure for the Leipzig cleaning service in 1997, there was absolutely no doubt on the part of the awarding body that we could put the project to effect.

Your firm’s focus appears to be directed towards public buildings. How did that come about?
We were always spurred on by the sporting notion of pitting one’s strength against others that underpins any competition! And competitions relate, after all, to public remits for the most part. Added to this is the fact that my brother and I are not all that good at canvassing for work with private clients (laughs). We prefer to hide behind six figures at the top right in the corner than to travel around with a bottle of cognac in the boot. A further reason is that more complex building remits with a high functional density are of greater interest to us.

So when does a building become complex for you?
When it constitutes a living space beyond that of single persons and delivers a large number of functional correlations. A school, for instance, is a very densely occupied building: incredibly many people convene here over very little space and for long periods. It’s not just a matter of learning and working but also of the life in this structure. Teachers and pupils spend several years in one and the same school building – so it needs to be lent a strong identity. And the buildings need to be able to put up with quite a bit and hence be very rugged!

Can architecture impact on the learning process? Or is it more about creating a good living space?
That is a very wide-ranging subject, and we would like to conduct research into the issue. the experience we have gained as practising school-building architects has led us to come up with the following thesis: schools whose typology is too strongly geared towards specific educational concepts are not sustainable. On the contrary, they need to be sufficiently resilient to changing concepts. There is at present a trend towards cluster schools with learning landscapes: and we are convinced that school buildings radically tailored to this trend will all have been torn down again within the next thirty years, simply because teaching concepts are constantly being modified – and architecture needs to be able to respond to that. Surprisingly, buildings from the boom years of the Wihelmine period (1870s onwards) achieve this most effectively.

Entwurf Visualisierung Architektur Schulz und Schulz Gemeinschaftsschule Campus Rütli Berlin

Extensions to the Campus Rütli comprehensive school in Berlin, illustration: Schulz und Schulz

Entwurf Visualisierung Architektur Schulz und Schulz Schalke 06 Fußball Stadion

Tor Auf Schalke fan centre, illustration: Schulz und Schulz

You mentioned your interest in competitions: so how would you describe the German competition system?
It’s a huge problem, from the point of view not just of vocational strategies but also of architectural culture. Conditions in the competition scene are incestuous, i.e. it’s always the same people who hang around in it. That can’t possibly lead to anything worthwhile. How bad things are is demonstrated by the way certain design patterns invariably persist for three or four years in competitions only to then fade away again. But no real contribution is being made to architectural culture any more! Because requirements are becoming increasingly concrete: we have to calculate facade areas and write reams on barrier-free building. Then a whole army of surveyors arrive to check all this bumf as part of their evaluation of a competition before submitting a report to the jury containing the words “conditionally barrier-free”. What use is that to anyone? Some six to seven thousand euros are spent arriving at these two words – and that’s not even taking the costs the architects incur into account. That’s of no relevance at all to any architectural concept.

What’s behind such fanatical attention to detail?
Clients seek to hedge their bets in every conceivable direction. That, in my view, is the main reason why competitions today no longer possess the innovative thrust they once did. Architects are seriously weakened by the giant catalogues of requirements they are forced to meet and have far less time to focus on their actual concepts.

But how do you stand on limited access to competitions – and hence opportunities for young architects to acquire assignments?
We have been conducting this debate for years, though it is something that could be resolved in our view. If you are a young firm, you could also link up with established architects, as has just occurred with regard to the competition for the visitors’ centre in the German Parliament complex. Two young architects joined forces with a larger firm and won. Whining on about not having access is a bit hackneyed. My brother and I didn’t even have official endorsement when we started up, so we looked for someone who could provide it on our behalf. But we are also advocates of open competition. Our theory is that, if calls for competition are opened up, entrance levels will look after themselves.