The Architecture of Jürgen Mayer H

The Berlin-based architect Jürgen Mayer claims he's pushing his discipline "beyond the blob". He talks to Miami Art Museum head, Terence Riley
German architect Jürgen Mayer describes his firm's style as "beyond the blob". Dirk Fellenberg

Berlin-based Jürgen Mayer H. just might be Germany's first starchitect since the days of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. His office, J. Mayer H. Architects (that dangling last letter is actually his middle initial, tacked on so that the firm name sounds generic and everyman), is just 12 years old—and he's only 42—but he and his 15 staffers have already produced acclaimed public buildings from Denmark to Spain. And they've developed a signature style that Mayer describes as "beyond the blob."

His structures' profiles swell or zigzag, and their window patterns can resemble honeycombs or bulging eyes. In fact, the more metaphors his forms inspire, the happier Mayer gets: "Multiple potential readings" are the goal, he says.

A native of a quaintly half-timbered Swabian town near Stuttgart, Mayer studied at the University of Stuttgart, the Cooper Union, and Princeton, and he has taught even more widely (Columbia, Harvard, London's Architectural Association, the University of Toronto). His construction pace has been fiery lately; he's just unveiled a Danish science-park attraction with bite-mark edges and a Karlsruhe university dining hall with canted colonnades, and he's at work completing a mushroom-shape wooden canopy for a Seville plaza. He's also acclaimed for product designs and art installations: knobby furniture, sheets that change color under body heat, flexible glass tile panels, and wallcoverings printed with enigmatic interlocked numbers.

Terence Riley, head of the Miami Art Museum and former architecture and design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, included Mayer's Seville project in a 2006 MoMA show about adventurous Spanish architecture. Riley recently interviewed Mayer by phone, covering topics spanning Chinese street noise, Iberian religious processions, and his buildings' wild and unmistakable geometry.

I understand you're working in China now?

No, I'm not, and not in the Arab countries either. I guess I'm one of the few architects who isn't.

Why not? What's wrong with you? There's not been some opportunity?

So far the assignments just didn't happen. Why is that wrong? And we are very busy in Europe. There has been no real need to reach out. I have gone to China with my students three times, and with my students at the AA in London, we worked on a concept for a huge new cruise center in Shanghai, with an entire themed experience for departure and arrival. I have some contacts in China, and I would of course be open to a project there, more so now than even just a couple of years ago. Our office is finally big enough, with about 15 people, to handle it.

Would working in Shanghai, Dubai, or any of the other overseas boom economies change your work?

I can only speculate on whether our thinking processes would be dramatically different if we had the chance to realize something on a larger scale and with greater speed than is possible now in Europe or the U.S.

What would you say that China has to teach the West, other than about scale and speed? Is there some part of what's happening in China that you would want to bring back to Europe as a model for growth?

A big challenge there is the mass organization of people, the logistics of infrastructure. That's an area where they'll have to develop more complex expertise, knowledge which I think will then spread to other parts of the world. But I hope that in the process of adapting Western influences, buying into the global world, China doesn't lose its complex sensorial aspect. There is the distinctive noise, the smell, that has a presence on all the senses somehow.

Let's jump continents again. You still live in Berlin, and you're building all over Europe: Denmark, Poland, Spain, Belgium. What's on the boards right now?

We're building a courthouse for Hasselt, in the Flemish part of Belgium, in collaboration with two local firms, Lens°Ass and a2o architecten.

In 2007, we completed an exhibition building for Danfoss Universe Science Park in Denmark, pitched-roof prefab houses to be available this year from the Danish company Formation, and a university dining hall in Karlsruhe [Germany]. A villa we designed near Ludwigsburg will be ready this spring. We're working on office buildings in Warsaw and Hamburg and a hotel in Krakow, and we just won a competition for a large permanent exhibition on sustainability and mobility for Volkswagen's Autostadt in Wolfsburg, near Berlin. And then there is exciting small-scale work, like edition furniture for Vitra and Bisazza, as well as art installations and artworks, which are represented by Magnus Müller gallery in Berlin.

I'm curious about your success in getting projects built as a semi-emerging architect, especially those as crazy as the Danfoss Universe building. What's your secret, in addition to your obvious talent? Is this a good time for young architects now? Are you just good at picking commissions to go after and competitions to enter?

Getting projects built requires strong alliances between the client, engineers, and architect, as well as good collaboration with the city government. Architecture is not a solitary pursuit. I don't think we're especially fast or successful at getting things built, at least not by European standards. But we do manage to find clients who share our view of architecture as an adventure. We have a longing to experiment with space, bring out the site's potential, and speculate on possibilities for rethinking conventions. It seems risky at first; however, all our projects so far have proved very economically successful. But I still do not know which competitions we should enter, and which ones are not even worth thinking about. Sometimes I can look at the list of jury members and figure out if we would fit into what they're intending, but the process is still very mysterious to me.

Which of your past projects best represents your design ambitions? Something like Stadt.Haus in Stuttgart, which merged architecture with interactive technologies?

Stadt.Haus is crucial. It was the first time we tested our ideas on a larger scale. The building explored the relationship of the so-called virtual town hall (a new development since the '90s, where cities have introduced web-based services and information) and its effects on an actual built town hall. It was an important opportunity for us to articulate questions about space in the era of digital communications. Now that it's possible to get city services via the internet, you don't have to go to the town hall anymore, and so the town hall needs to rethink its role in the community and develop new programs and attractions. The Stadt.Haus project also demonstrated our concern for linking the interior with the urban context and the landscape, a transition flowing from outside—where we installed an artificial rain canopy and a series of light sculptures that registered the wind's movements—to the facade, structure, materials, and surface treatments.

Joseph Cory has written a very interesting article comparing you to Kiesler and the Surrealists. Is Surrealism a movement you identify with?

When Joseph sent me his text, I was surprised myself at how many comparisons he established between Kiesler's work and ours. The only literal reference I ever made to Kiesler was in the exhibition "IN HEAT," an installation for Henry Urbach Architecture in New York in 2005. This interactive spatial layout, with temperature-sensitive surfaces, could reflect the thermo-landscape of the human body. I was referring to a 1947 exhibition design by Kiesler called "Blood Flames" for the Hugo Gallery in New York. Kiesler's exhibition combined Surrealist artwork with super-graphics on walls that melded into the floors and ceilings. The mediated relationship between the viewer, artwork, and exhibition design is fascinating. Visitors to "IN HEAT" had to touch the architectural surfaces to see something, to produce a new kind of portrait gallery, even only for a moment, a temporary imprint, a ghost.

Tell me a bit about the graphic sensibility of your buildings, your unique use of geometry. I'm thinking of the Hasselt courthouse, the Karlsruhe dining hall, the Home.Haus orphanage in Hamburg: How much do those forms have to do with nature intersecting technology?

One strategy we discuss during the design process is the ambiguity of meaning. A project has more presence and impact if there's some doubt about it, something quite bold yet difficult to describe and hard to grasp. We like to offer more than one potential reading per project, to allow for individual appropriation, but the relationship between nature and technology is always an underlying topic. Depending on the building site, this might surface in interactive technologies like the pitter-patterns—the computer-generated rain—at the Stadt.Haus, or the semi-forest/semi-building skeleton at Karlsruhe.

It wasn't so long ago that if you were a German architect, every project you'd ever build was most likely in Germany, and Spanish architects would only ever work in Spain. It's unprecedented for young architects like you to have work in progress from Poland to Spain.

Working across the new Europe is creating a lot of opportunities. Even in terms of just materials, local conventions can be challenged, local traditions adapted. For example, our parasols for the Metropol Parasol plaza project in Seville are polyurethane-coated wood, which is based on a technique we developed for the Karlsruhe dining hall. Wood is not a common building material in Spain, but it can be a high-tech, highly compressed layered product now, and this construction knowledge can be shared across countries. For the Seville plaza, we considered concrete, steel, and so forth, but wood performed best with regards to climate, prefabrication, costs, production, transportation, and sustainability. The Spaniards had to kind of learn and open up, and understand why technologies like this make sense to import.

Some architects argue now that Spain, by becoming such an open country, an EU member, has begun to lose its identity and distinct architecture.

Well, there are also Spanish architects building in Germany and elsewhere, reaching out. And Spain is so productive and lively right now. It's a hotbed of new ideas, with so much interesting new architecture going on, mainly by Spanish architects like Enric Ruiz-Geli. The liveliness in the architectural world there spreads out rather than being threatened by a foreign invasion.

Can you give us a construction update on Metropol Parasol, which I think is one of the more exciting projects on the peninsula today?

The foundations in the archaeological site are finished, and the steel structure, two concrete cores, and the restaurant's steel platform are up. We are starting the wood structure this spring and it should be done by the middle of 2009. You can already get a good feeling there for the scale and height. Construction started much faster than a similar site in Germany would have gotten going, but it's a little behind schedule. There were unexpected archaeological discoveries in the Roman ruins, and some interesting logistics in terms of the city. Seville is a very religious place, and certain processions, holidays, and rituals have to be considered during the construction process. We sometimes have to remove construction-site fences for a week, to allow processions to pass, or finish certain parts just before elections so the work can be celebrated as a photo-op achievement for politicians.

You've taught for the past few years at Columbia, but now stopped for a bit to catch up and take care of your practice. Does being busy make it difficult to produce the kind of architecture you'd like to?

Not really. Of course, we need moments for stepping back, looking at what we've produced, before moving ahead. We're full with ideas and experiments now. The 15 people in the office are a fascinating group, the intelligence lies in the chemistry of the team.

Would you call yourself a good manager?

Maybe. I try to leave everybody enough freedom to be responsible and bring in their ideas. And if being a good manager means not having a structure that's too dominating, then maybe yes. But I'm not trained as a manager, so someone else has to judge.

Some firms seem to handle growth extremely well, while others are absolutely incapable of growing—the scale of their work can't be easily transformed. How do you see your work changing as your scale expands and you create multiples?

A big difference I'm seeing as we move from furniture and installations toward larger buildings is a shift from thinking about material-to-form to thinking about structure-to-material. With furniture we usually start with or discover a certain material that then asks for a certain application, a certain kind of transformation into an object. With buildings, we're interested in an atmospheric, all-over result, and during the process from design to construction we test various materials and structural solutions. We might have to invent new ways to build. For Metropol Parasol, we had no specific idea in advance what the material would be, and only a vague idea of the structural system. With the engineers and construction company, we developed the structure further and further—and tested different materials—long after we won the competition. The spectrum of projects and scales in our office now gives us a luxurious moment to speculate on the potential of architecture in our culture and push the limits of the discipline.

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