Some thoughts about Design, Architecture and Architects


Author:STAUCH, Hellmut Wilhem Ernst

Hakahana perhaps portrays Hellmut's architectural philosophy more clearly than any other, but in 1959 he wrote for his partners a rather revealing memo, describing his approach to architecture.

H.W.E. Stauch

I always thought it was very easy to see my approach to architecture because I think it is very simple. I now recently realised that although a thing may appear simple to me it is perhaps not quite as simple to others. To understand my thinking one will probably have to know a little about the background and for this reason I will just tell you the story of my architectural evolution.

I was beginning to become a human being with its own thoughts after the First World War, at the end of which I was 8 years old The world was then in turmoil; the Communists gained the upper hand in many parts of the world; in Russia there was a revolution and my native country, Germany, was in the grip of very similar circumstances. For reasons unknown to me that country did not become a Communist satellite, which it might have very easily become. In 1923, with the big inflation, in Germany and all of central Europe, fortunes were dwindling, people losing their assets, insurance being worth nothing at all, security in any form being non-existent and values of any sort had disappeared. This did not only go for material values but also for spiritual and was very noticeable in the art world.

Anyway, for us young people, anything of the past had to be rejected and this was a time when apparently some grown-up people had the same emotion. Angry men got together and founded a school for Art-Education and Architecture which was based on, as they thought, entirely common-sense and did not fall back on any tradition. This School was called the "Bauhaus." It was founded by Walter Gropius, who gathered a band of fantastic characters who all turned out to be very famous artists later on. There was Klee, Kandinsky, Itten, Schlemmer, Schreyer, Marcks, and others, who got together in Weimar and taught a conglomeration of young people from all over the world about basic forms, basic design, basic approach to art and architecture. The originator of the "Vorkurs", the introduction to basic design, was a painter - Johannes Itten - who had the profoundest influence on me.

The amusing thing about the approach and philosophy then was that since everything conventional had to be rejected, even the roof, which is the primary element of a house, in the conventional form, was taboo. In those days a house consisted of a cube, which was opened up where light and air was required and where one had to enter it, and there was no roof visible, and the ideal form seemed to be something which had the same finish all round - walls, roofs etc. Any embellishment, ornamentation, etc, was absolutely taboo and anything curved or not at right angles was suspect. All planes were even surfaces with pure basic colours, or preferably, white and black. To show a brick texture, for instance, was already very daring.

Unfortunately, the very idealistic examples of this approach, which were built, showed signs of wear and tear and did not stand up well to the elements. A good example is the Weissenhof Siedlug in Stuttgart which was built in 1927 and which was the first big statement of the new approach to architecture. Nevertheless this was a most interesting exercise and I have to admit it made a terrific impression on me. Apart from Corbusier's two houses, the most outstanding work there was Mies van der Rohe's block of flats, which was designed as a series of open floors, which were freely sub-divisible by moveable walls and furniture. Mies had hardly built anything at all at that time excepting Exhibition Buildings and other temporary structures such as the "Barcelona Pavilion" which is known to all students of architecture and the house "Tugendhat." He did, however, create some, for that time, remarkable designs for skyscrapers, which formed the basis for his later successful work in America.

With this considerable impact that Mies had on me at the time I am still a great admirer of his, although I have to admit that I do not agree with all the things he does. He is a purist and not a functionalist in the extreme meaning of the word, he likes to make the buildings to look well and be "neutral" so that they are not specific for one purpose only. What could easily happen with him, as it does, is that a Church, an Art Museum and an Administrative Block look exactly alike. This is not necessarily a fault - it's a matter of opinion. His famous slogan: "Less is more" is still one of the wisest things ever said.

My own first practical experience was working with a Hungarian architect, Fred Forbat, who was office manager for Gropius at Weimar for many, many years. He had a friend, also a Hungarian, who also had an office in Berlin, by the name of Marcel Breuer and these two collaborated quite often and so I had an opportunity to do various schemes with Marcel Breuer too. This was in retrospect not very interesting for me because whilst Forbat was one of these straightforward purists, I then already sensed that Breuer, although apparently working in the same trend as the others, really did architecture for the sake of what it looks like more than for what it does. I probably am a bit harsh when I say this but he would certainly decide on a solution because of its form, the shadow it casts, the perspective and impact it gave, rather than how practical it was and when you see his development and his later jobs (he is now in America) I think you will see what I mean.

Another man I admired very much was Hannes Meyer who for a very short became leader of the Bauhaus after Gropius had gone to America and just before Mies took over in the last few months of its existence, just before the whole thing was shut down by the Nazis. Hannes Meyer was a Communist and his approach was very straight, honest, and logical - that if you build a block of flats for instance, each flat must be exactly like the others and there must be no flats slightly better or slightly worse than any of the others. So, if you designed a block of flats consisting of a row of flats on each floor, you were not permitted to take advantage of the fact that the end flats had an additional exposure to the sides and therefore could be improved by additional light and ventilation. But no - the end had to be a blank wall and you were not allowed to gain the little space which the access passage, for instance, can give you. (Reminds me of the Policemens' flats for Community Development.)

One certainly had to be very disciplined to work in Germany at that time since means were limited and it is obvious that one's mind turned to getting the most out of the least. Being a poor student who nevertheless wanted his own surroundings I pondered the problem of the smallest space a normal human being could comfortably live in. I came to a room of approximately 7'x7' (2.13 x 2.13 meters) and to prove my point I lived in such a room for a few years most successfully. This brought the thought that the ideal would be if one could have everything one needs in one package, which can be carried by oneself. Today with folding or inflatable plastics and lightweight materials, it would quite possibly be possible to obtain this ideal - I wasn't far off it when I came to South Africa with drawing board, utensils, books and a Lilo in my suitcase. Out of this minimum one would develop extensions: UNIT furniture was developed by me in 1928.

This led to integrating home components with furniture: walls, floors, ceilings. I still believe that this is for many housing problems the answer. I have experimented with the expression of such prefab units and their aesthetic acceptability (Winckley's house etc.) I believe a perfect solution can be achieved - strangely enough this has not been accomplished yet in spite of numerous attempts by industry. I think the answer lies in avoiding the effect of too much regimentation.

I have always tried to achieve a system of orderliness in my buildings and even the very first jobs I did in Pretoria - Hochstetter House, Wheeler house, Marchie Mansions and my first own Villieria house etc. bear witness to this. In those days we hired a room in Bureau Lane (Rent £5) which seemed a lot of money so we partitioned it in the middle and shared it with an estate agent. Pulli Thoms was chief draughtsman (salary X10 per month) and when we could not affords this she worked half days and knitted pullovers for our clients for the rest of the time! Sometimes we had fantastic luck to get two houses per month to do and so we enlarged the practice - we got additional offices across the street, which was so narrow that we could communicate across it through the windows. Come to think of it control seems to be easier than now on two floors.

The first larger job I had the opportunity of applying my method to, was the Meat Control Board (1950) which happened to have a profound effect on architecture in South Africa and was the basis for the work we are doing today. It was the first building in South Africa to allow for flexible office space and we designed the moveable partitions ourselves.

The Windhoek Library competition, which we won, led to the establishment of the Windhoek practice. 'Lex Building', a little office block costing £l 0,000, led to the opening of the Pietersburg office, and Netherlands Bank gave us entry to Johannesburg, followed by our success in the Civic Centre competition. Just to show that we have no one-track mind, we found that one can conceive a logical building based on this same system, with free flowing forms, also provided that the materials at hand permit this - and we are now enjoying ourselves in the free discipline offered by thatched roofs on brick walls. (False Bay Tourist Centre, St Lucia.)

It is, of course, most interesting to meet one's colleagues and when you travel around the world and meet some of these fellows, you realise that they are made of very varying material. There is not just one approach to architecture but there are very many ways of creating edifices. I will give you just a few examples of some important people that I have met in this field.

The one is Oscar Niemeyer whom I spent quite a lot of time with in Brazil and who is a brilliant artist for whom expression and form is almost everything. We were in Rio de Janeiro in 1949 when this book "Brazil Builds" had just been published and we especially went to the various jobs mentioned in this book and when we went to the addresses we could barely find the buildings, because what in the photograph was a beautiful white, sharp, clean job now had streaks of grey, rust and brown over it and cracks and creepers were growing and corrugated iron lean-to roofs were attached in front to shade the facade, etc., and this is just one extreme case but there were quite a number of these. We then met Oscar Niemeyer and asked him about his views. He said it is not very important how buildings look after ten years; it is important what impact they make initially. A good example is that famous Church with a shell roof, and this church is built next to an old wooden structure. When it was completed it was found that it leaked madly and that the congregation could not use the church for services, they had to use the old wooden church for services but the new one was so famous that it attracted a lot of visitors. When I asked Niemeyer how he would construct this and do it, now that he has learnt this lesson he looked at me blankly and said, "Of course, I would do exactly the same."

He showed us a very exciting looking printing works with a most intriguing array of louvres, small, big, all colours of the rainbow - some spaces left without. I thought that a most intricate plan and internal function demanded this variegation, but looking at the plan I found that there were seven quite identical floors housing printing machinery - even the portion without louvres. When I asked him for the reason behind the louvre system, his answer was "Doesn't it look nicer this way?" And visiting in his office, we found that on opening his office a terrific draught blew drawings and documents off all 50 boards. But he declared that he'd rather have that than small cubicled offices where he can't talk to his assistants. (Food for thought re our new "open plan" offices in Pretoria.)

Another outstanding personality of completely different makeup is Alvar Aalto whom I met when I was sailing in the Olympics in 1952 in Helsinki. I found him a terribly congenial, nice and warm-hearted fellow. To me the buildings he builds are always terribly ugly and yet they have a character which is undeniably fascinating. His detailing is superb, as is his usage of materials and I suppose if you get used to his philosophy you might even learn to like the looks of the buildings. He has an odd sense of beauty but he is a very methodical man with a brilliant gift for planning. He lives ands works in a house in the heart of Helsinki and has peacocks walking in the garden - sometimes also on the drawing boards.

I must tell you about some buildings that I have seen recently which have impressed me considerably. The first one I should mention is probably the German Pavilion at the Montreal Expo 1957, which was done by Frei Otto, a German architect who specialises in "tents" and this building was based on the concept of a huge tent with supports at various heights which covered the whole exhibition area which itself was quite strictly plain and constructed in steel frame and timber, etc. The new Stadium for the Olympics in 1972 in Munich is based on the same principle, designed by Behnisch, and promises to be a most exciting job.

This building is entirely free form yet it is disciplined because it is based on the structural requirements of cables and tension and skin stretched over this and therefore, although the concept is based on the imagination of the designer and the construction allows for free forms, all forms seem logical and disciplined.

Another interesting building at Expo 1957, of an entirely different calibre, is the "Habitat" which is a big block of flats by an Israeli architect, Safdie. The Habitat consists of prefabricated boxes in reinforced concrete, piled on top of one another in many variations so that, I think, with about five or six basic boxes about twenty different types of flats can be created, from bachelor flats to six-bedroom units. By the juxtaposition of these boxes terraces are formed. The whole building looks most exciting with the play of light and shadow and very sculptural forms, and its beautiful finish. It is highly uneconomical (rents from €120 to €400) due to over-dimensioning of structures. Since all boxes are prefabricated uniformly, they are all constructed to carry the loads of seven floors. Surely it would be more economical (and flexible) to erect a carrying framework and insert the unit into this as long ago suggested by Corbusier. You could even think of trading in your old "drawer" unit for a new one.

Another architect whose work impressed me considerably is Gaudi, whose buildings, mostly in Barcelona, are fascinating. As an old Bauhaus disciple I should be horrified at these seemingly "at random" shapes and forms, but if one allows "artistic license", one has to admit that there can be some value in the "more than minimum". Gaudi sculpts everything, pillars, balcony rails, chimneypots and lavatory vent pipes.

There is a tendency again today towards this "sculptured" approach for which, amongst other materials, ex-shutter concrete lends itself so well. We know the economics of this - it certainly is costly. We must ask our conscience how far to go. I believe that it is possible to strike a happy medium the same way that I have learned to live in larger rooms than 7x7ft. I believe that buildings with slightly more than minimum necessities can be acceptable and even represent good architecture.


Submitted by Sheilagh NATION