MDC Exclusive Series: The Interview Frank Barkow of the Berlin/ New York-based architecture firm Barkow Leibinger
Frank Barkow grew up Montana. But in 1993, when it came time to launch an office, he and partner Regine Leibinger set up their studio in the latter’s home country–Germany, home to the Bauhaus. There, the duo grew to prominence with a pivotal series of factories that integrated progressive forms for working spaces with innovative materials and construction methods. They turned what might typically be treated as a lowly institutional cafeteria into a free-standing pavilion with a floating roof of honeycomb timber construction–composed of cells of skylights, perforated wood acoustic planking, and artificial lighting cells modified by an aluminum-honeycombed deflectors at Trumpf’s industrial campus.
Today, Barkow Leibinger is an international firm with commissions that span typologies. The faceted facades of towers juxtapose the horizontal orientation of early buildings. A multi-disciplinary practice, both principals teach—including at Harvard GSD—have produced installations for the Venice Biennale, and have work in the permanent collection at MoMA, New York.
At the core of their practice, however, is the couple’s commitment to material and fabrication research. Extensive square footage is set aside in their Berlin studio (they also have a New York office) for a shop. Fabricators are brought in to projects early on and, in 2013, the duo used a Holcim Award to produce a full-scale mock-up of a multi-tasking, infra-light concrete wall. So, we had to begin this interview with Barkow, who will be joined by Leibinger in Monterey this year, with some queries about materiality.
Monterey Design Conference: What’s the most progressive material in the firm right now?
Frank Barkow: Right now it’s going back to more archaic materials like wood and ceramic. We’re interested in making a high-rise out of timber with a ceramic and glass façade, which, we would think, is a kind of archaic and unexpected combination. Maybe, it is about a kind of new brutalism, a new primitivism. That is a lot more compelling to us right now than high-tec, per-se. The idea of a timber high-rise to twenty stories is quite ambitious with code restrictions and fireproofing.
For us, these kinds of inquiries present a more contemporary question than simply looking for ever more advanced technologies to solve all of our problems. There’s a kind of immediacy about these materials and techniques but we’re using them in a completely different way than you would think of historically.
MDC: What began your fascination with materials and fabrication.
FB: It started at school—at Harvard. At the GSD there was always this question of materiality, particularly from the design process. When we moved to Germany in the early-Nineties, it heightened this interest [due to] the technologies here, and the building culture, engineering culture, German materials, and research. We found ourselves, more and more, using materiality as a starting point for the work, which we continue to do.
MDC: Could you do what you’re doing now if you were still based in the United States?
FB: That’s a tough [question.] I happen to have been at the Bauhaus on April 1st, and they wanted me to talk about that very question of fact and idea. There was the exodus of Bauhaus architects (essentially an idea) in the Thirties going to the United States, which presented the possibility of a fruitful place to work and build (idea transformed into fact). This dialectic seems to have reversed, today, where the more optimistic (progressive) building culture (arguable fact!) is here in Europe while I would say we received a superior education in the States (idea). It felt like a young practitioner could get out of the gate much quicker here. This is a bit simplistic, and we do also practice in the States, but it requires getting on the ground and thinking about a project and its execution differently.
MDC: Does the research lab provide solutions to design questions while the building is in process or does proactive research generate possibilities for future buildings?
FB: Both. There’s a lot of different ways of doing the research end. Sometimes it’s embedded in competition work, sometimes part of exhibitions, Venice, for example, as well as just fiddling about in the shop—the experimental aspect. We began a few years to publish this work through the Architectural Association, London where we exhibited and taught this research and produced two catalogues “Atlas of Fabrication” and “Bricoleur Bricolage” that emphasized process over any given project. This led to “Spielraum” a current monograph by Hatje Cantz that shows the relationship between research and buildings. We archive this material which can be activated (or not) for ongoing building projects.
MDC: What’s an example of something that you’re working on in terms of research, in the shop, that you’ve decided to use in a building.
FB: We started a few years ago working on the Smart Materials House, an affordable housing idea for the Hamburg International Building Exhibition. We [began] with materials: with wood timber–wood construction for floor slabs–and infra-light concrete (for loadbearing walls) which is quite fascinating. Usually aggregate for concrete is gravel, [but] in this case, it’s a very porous clay or recycled foamed glass. It makes the material one-third the weight of regular concrete and when poured in two-foot widths is self-supporting, loadbearing, and a self-insulted construction element containing heating and cooling coils requiring no additional finishes or layers. In a sense, it’s a multi-tasking idea. It’s sort of one-stop shopping: It’s pretty cheap and very light; We made shapes that were self-supporting so we didn’t need scaffolding; It’s a material readily available on the market in Europe.
It was introduced to us by our structural engineer, Mike Schlaich from Stuttgart. He had used it on a single-family home and we were interested in the material in a multi-apartment application. So it was very much an upfront process, where we started investigating this approach from the beginning and seeing where it would lead us. Right now, we’re getting final approval in a four-story application, [and] now looking for approval in a high-rise application, up to twenty stories.
MDC: In describing your practice you consistently reference analogue tools as well as digital. Why is the former still so essential to you?
FB: Despite the discussion about globalization and digitalization of practically everything, we still find a very mixed bag of how-to-do-things. We find craftsmen who work with their hands making ceramics, or we find, in Southern Germany the high-tec industry, people doing laser cutting for us. All these applications are legitimate and you can use them. It’s not monolithic in that we design everything digitally and it’s produced digitally and it looks digital, but it’s a mix and match based on opportunity, place, and limits.
For example, we did a project which we drew here, digitally, and then the installation– which we produced in Marrakech [for the 4th Marrakech Biennale]—was created completely by hand by local craftsmen. That combined those two techniques really beautifully: digital interpreted by local craftsmen. Whether we’re working in Korea, or Marrakech, or Switzerland, or Northern Germany, or America, it’s about getting on the ground, and going out there, and surfing around and seeing what’s available. So there’s no bias one way or another. I don’t believe in the exclusivity of any of these kinds of techniques. At the end of the day, digital modeling is a technique amongst others. You still have to get your hand in there somehow.
MDC: I was looking at those images of the Marrakech installation and there’s such a blurring of boundaries today. What’s art? What’s architecture? How do you define that work?
FB: I think it was architecture because it had structure–it was spatial. So can art. But the big difference is that it is a work in progress not an installation per se as a end game. For us it was a prototype, we could imagine it being reconfigured and becoming a building somewhere else. At the same [time], you could compare it to some forms of art that do the same things, that are materially spatial, like Richard Serra’s work. We’re occupying each other’s territory on the fringes but in the end we operate as architects. It always has another kind of currency outside of itself. It might become a factory in Hanover or it might become another structure (as it has for our Fellows Pavilion at the American Academy in Berlin). The work is about making that [which] is always in the making. Work in progress means that the practice is always evolving and that is where the excitement and fascination lies for us. —Tibby Rothman for MDC
This interview has been edited for cohesiveness and brevity