Interview with Graft | Unbuilding Walls German Pavilion Architecture Biennial 2018

Interview with Graft

Walls coming back into fashion

28. March 2018 | Words: Ann-Kristin Masjoshusmann
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 15 seconds

Four for Germany. Politician Marianne Birthler and architects Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit from the Graft practice are overseeing the “Unbuilding Walls” exhibition in the German Pavilion for this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice. FSB in discussion with the three Berlin-based architects about the walls in people’s minds and about gaps as statements.

What was your first thought on discovering the overall theme for this year’s Architecture Biennial was to be “Freespace”?
Wolfram Putz: It’s a brilliant sequel to the theme of the last Biennial. The then curator, Alejandro Aravena, launched a new thematic complex in 2016 that showed architecture in terms of its overall responsibility and its social dimension. With the present curatrices Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, we can be sure we won’t be returning to conventional disciplinary debate but will be remaining in the mindset that the term “freespace” lends very overt expression to. The two curatrices are women, they are a couple and, rather than standing centre-stage like pop stars, they acquire prominence by virtue of a subtle, sublime architecture and curatorial quality that foregoes showy effects.

Porträt Marianne Birthler Graft Putz Krückeberg Willemeit

Four for Germany. Politician Marianne Birthler and architects Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit from the Graft practice are overseeing the exhibition in the German Pavilion for this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice.
(Photo: Pablo Castagnola)

What does free space mean for you personally?
Thomas Willemeit: One thing I immediately associate with the concept of free space is freedom. Intellectual, emotional, creative freedom and the definition and preservation of free space are precisely what architecture is all about.

What responsibilities do you have in that respect as architects?
Lars Krückeberg: We all feel we can get up in the morning and look into something we’re not yet familiar with or pursue an issue for which we have yet to find an answer. That has something to do with a certain way of applying yourself to things, of going through life.
WP: The stages of a person’s life play a part, too. What point have they reached along the line of their life? What’s behind them, what are they expecting of the present and the future? Personally, I felt most free right at the beginning of our career. We had nothing to lose, had no reputation, no history, were rebellious and provocative. I found the following period very difficult. Though we already bore a responsibility for our staff, we had no cushion as regards either manpower or money. Luckily, we now enjoy the sort of success that will not simply disappear in the near future. So we can easily invest in addressing any free space that seems important to us – without being beset by existential worries. Free space isn’t actually a cosy concept, though – it’s where the wind blows; it can be hot or cold – it’s where real life transpires.

Unbuilding Walls – converted, demolished, deconstructed, not-built walls in reality and the mind… what are your intentions in the German pavilion?
TW: The term “unbuilding” does seem a little strange in the context of an Architecture Biennial that is by nature devoted to “buildings”. The trigger for us was an architectural debate in Berlin on the subject of removing things. What interests us is what can take shape at the place where something has been taken away. In a more specific way, of course, the issues surrounding the Berlin Wall were the trigger. What we can now see, along where the Wall once stood, is a heterogeneous string of pearls, the kaleidoscopic upshot of social and urban-planning debates.
WP: It was a topic, for a start, that we were latently attracted to. Berlin is where we have chosen to live, and we are now going through a period in which walls are regrettably coming back into fashion as ideological tools. The point of departure for our entry, therefore, is this site in Berlin, in Germany 28 years ago. It is an indicator of how we Germans are coming to terms with our history architecturally. Places as steeped in history as these have one more layer of meaning than others, and their architecture – be it built or unbuilt – does, too, as a result. An empty space, a gap, is just as much an attitude or statement, as one that is filled; indeed, it can sometimes be more formative and articulate than its built counterpart. It is ultimately the case that architecture also gives a lay public great scope for projecting itself – as long as the debates involved are not conducted on too high an academic level. And that’s not in any way our intention.

Marianne Birthler is a member of your Biennial team. Why her?
TW: None of it would be possible without her. She is magnificent. She is a woman, she comes from the East and she is a likeable personality and eloquent conversationalist whose value for us is inestimable. She experienced the fall of the Wall and all that had gone before at first hand, having been 13 years old when it went up. She headed the Stasi Records Agency from 2000 until 2011 and was also, at various times, a member of the GDR and the Federal German parliaments and a Federal State Minister. Marianne Birthler is neither embittered nor does she proselytise. We realised very quickly that it is impossible to treat an issue of such social importance, one that has a lot to with the public domain, from a purely architectural perspective. The outcome would be abject failure.

So what awaits us from May onwards in the German Pavilion in the Giardini?
WP: Our exhibition submission embraces three spheres: an emotional opener with the question “What was German partition?”; an architectural exhibition in which we present 25 or so projects; and, finally, a journalistic documentation of six walls from corners of the Earth as far apart as Israel, Korea, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Cyprus and Spain. Visitors may initially think walls are what the exhibition is about – but by the end they will have noticed that the subject is actually their non-existence, noticed that, even if a wall comes down, it is still necessary to consider either what it originally concealed or the walls that live on in people’s minds.

FSB will again be in on the act in Venice: during the opening days of the Architecture Biennial, we will be inviting the public to our Points of Contact meeting point in the palazzo by the Grand Canal. Click here for further information and to register.