Interview with Graft’s Wolfram Putz
Our aim was to design a thoroughly democratic product!
8. November 2016 | Words: Tim Berge
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 10 seconds
Firms of architects that polarise? In Germany, Graft of Berlin does for sure. The expressive formal idiom of the projects it has completed all over the world has caused quite a stir in trade circles whilst also exciting a wider architectural audience. The firm has now designed a door-lever handle series for FSB. FSB spoke with Wolfram Putz, one of Graft’s founding partners, on the subjects of Berlin’s latest architecture debate, working with Jan Kleihues and the smile of the Mona Lisa.
You ran a great many projects in the USA early on in your career, but the focus of your work now seems to have shifted to Germany. Is that an accurate impression? And if it is, why has this occurred?
It is an accurate impression, but the picture’s currently in the process of reverting again. Our three-locations set-up obviously allows us to track market patterns relatively well. In America, the entire construction industry faltered from 2009 as a result of the economic crisis there. That necessitated downsizing our location in Los Angeles by natural means and led to our targeting our resources to a greater extent towards Germany, where the house-building market has been growing and growing. It was a very organic process all in all. Like other architecture companies, though, we are currently cranking up canvassing activities in America, where a re-energised economy has also seen construction pick up.
Has the way your architecture is perceived in these parts altered over recent years?
We are subject to a different set of constrictions in Germany than elsewhere in the world. Here, there is still control from above in the form of municipal building commissions with a remit to watch over design processes. And architectural debate is somewhat more conservative as a whole, too. But, seeing as we always want to actually build our schemes and have no desire to live a life of unsung obscurity, we are compelled to busy ourselves searching for a quite different kind of compromise where Berlin is concerned. That is inevitably frustrating at times – in a city in the process of resurrecting its royal palace.
So how do you view the architecture debate in Berlin?
It is rather self-enclosed – in a way that is unique to Germany! The line of reasoning adopted at the building advisory board here would reap derisory laughter at any podium in Los Angeles.
On the subject of architectural debate in Berlin: how is your collaboration with Jan Kleihues on the Eckwerk Project by the River Spree proceeding?
It was essentially a shotgun wedding but has now turned into a loving marriage. There was absolutely no desire to work together at first; everyone was reluctant and intent on catapulting the other side back out of the project. We were ultimately manoeuvred into relating with each other by an outside force, the builder’s client. And after working together for a couple of months we entered into a state of symbiosis. We are learning within the context of a real project how to transcend barriers in thinking and attitudes. The feel-good factor is being writ large! By a lucky coincidence, moreover, curiosity and quite a bit of humour are to be found in both camps and there was a universal zest to engage with the other side. There are, of course, still moments when one or the other party shake their heads over some act of impulsive intuition perpetrated by the other side. But we usually just grin at each other and bask in the mutual adventure that fate has bestowed upon us.
Do your fluctuating domiciles impact on your architecture?
It would be nice to think so, but I don’t believe they do. We spend far too much time on aeroplanes as we go about negotiating the world in any case. Besides, our staff are far too heterogeneous in nature: of the hundred people we have working for us in Berlin, maybe 15 have lived here for quite some time, whilst the rest come to savour the city’s alluring leisure-time potential (laughs).
What role does good architecture play for society in your view?
High-quality aesthetic experiences play a key part in our system of coordinates – and are also partly what the sustainability debate is all about. The reason we as a company are also so heavily involved in poorer countries is because quality strikes us as being particularly crucial there. We believe that – in the context of resolving problems – good architecture is difficult to define. For us, good architecture signifies a vibrant, pluralist debate within a city conducted through the process not of talking but of building. A city is capable of coping with, and concurrently mapping, far more attitudes than has appeared possible in the debate over Berlin in recent years. Ours is by now an older, well-established firm and we would very much love to be able to witness younger architects and their work in the city.
What feelings is your architecture meant to evoke in its users?
We have no creed in that respect but we are keen on dynamised, expressive architectures, a stance that also equates more closely to the perceptual parameters of the younger generation. We are additionally great fans of the term “ambivalence”, furthermore: we are very attracted to complex, contradictory, incompletely concluded states, i.e. that which Michelangelo referred to as non finito. What is it that makes Mona Lisa’s smile so timelessly haunting? It is the non-explicable!
How did you come to work with FSB?
Having been extensively active in housing construction for several years, at some point we felt the urge to spin the story of a home’s identity out a little further – by means not just of its facade and ground-plan but also of its fitments. We recruited a few product designers and proceeded to draft a variety of items such as basins, taps, light switches and, well, door handles too. We initially thought we would be able to oversee their production ourselves – but that was just one more naive Graft attempt to re-invent the world. So we took our draft designs to the respective market leaders, i.e. including FSB. FSB’s championing of architect authorship let us know we had come to the right place. They went over everything with an experienced eye and the course of events after that was very straightforward. Our projects, it has to be said, are such that we could commit ourselves to sufficient quantities. That simplified matters somewhat (laughs).
In what ways does your FSB 1246 door-lever handle differ from other handles?
We didn’t want to make a Graft handle for which is there is ultimately no demand owing to its being dysfunctional. We were, instead, driven by the Bauhaus notion of producing something contemporary that has the wherewithal to become a classic without impairing interfaces with other design attitudes. As well as addressing the issue of ergonomics, we were also intent on subjecting the door-lever handle to the same methodological sequences we adhere to when designing houses. That our handle has its roots in geometrised ergonomics is plain to see: the lever section is fashioned with line-edged curves and arrised faces.
What type of house is suitable for your door-lever handle?
That was the difficult part: paring the handle down in such a way that it appeals to as many people as possible and works not just in a Graft house but also in any building by Jan Kleihues. Our aim was to design a thoroughly democratic product!