Berlin must rate as one of the most interesting cities in the world, its recent history impacting on most peoples’ radars at some time. The three generations in my life have totally different perspectives on the German capital: my father’s generation, Berlin still provokes vivid memories from the war; for myself, it’s the Cold War, a divided city, East and West, Russian spies and checkpoints; for my daughters, it’s simply Berlin. A really cool place to go.
But what’s it like to be an architect in Berlin? Internationally acclaimed architect, Jürgen Mayer H gives WAN an exclusive insight. “Berlin…” He pauses to prepare his answer, “what’s great to see is that it moves all the time, its attentions, which parts are happening, how dynamic the city is in that way.” He explains that Berlin is much like any other in that it has well defined communities, cities within cities, but that the spotlight moves continually, “In the 17 years I’ve been here it’s always becoming a different spot.”
He explains that for Berliners, now finally shaking themselves free of the past, it has been a long road, “In terms of architecture, it’s still quite conservative, there’s still a feeling about rebuilding what’s lost. Kind of a sentiment, at least in the generation who still make decisions, for an investor it’s easier to get building permission or to sell it if it has a look that’s familiar.”
Berlin is also unusual as a European Capital in that there is still a lot of space, “There’s still a lot of construction but it’s usually not interesting architecture. There’s still so much empty space. In the centre of the city, we have so much scope for densification, some parts still feel like the suburbs, but still each part has its own identity.”
But Mayer, building on his education in the US, at Cooper Union and Princetown is looking forward, constantly pushing boundaries, “With a building like this”, he points to his soon to be finished residential project, “it was a little bit difficult to get permission, to convince people that it works well in the city. Now that it’s virtually finished, it’s getting a lot of enthusiasm, people are saying; at last there’s something new in the city.”
After the tide of euphoria following that fateful day in November 1989 when the physical division of the wall was removed and the two halves of the city became one, a social divide was exposed and remained for some time. The east was poor, the west was wealthy. Derogatory nicknames were traded, Wessi for an arrogant West German; Whereas Ossi became the stigma for the East Germans accused of being communists wanting hand-outs.
Mayer points out that mostly that tension has gone now; “When the wall first came down, all the attention was in the east, everything got developed, there was a huge investment in infrastructure, now the eastern part is taken care of, the investment comes back here. The younger generation don’t really feel it anymore.”
Almost as a microcosm of Berlin’s dynamic, Mayer’s attention has moved from one subject to another, applying his own brand of design to a wide range of subjects. In the process his practice has grown to its current headcount of twenty; “after 15 years of crazy production, sometimes happy sometimes not so happy, I think we now have a broad span of small scale projects from furniture, art installation, through buildings and urban planning schemes. It’s interesting to get completely different feedback from the different communities, even for the same thing.”
Mayer has found inspiration from a unique source; the data protection patterns found on some envelopes used by banks, employers and tax services. His interest (obsession?) in this subject knows no bounds and as an indication of how obscure this subject is, if you Google “data protection pattern” his name appears on the first page. He finds the concept fascinating and relates the complex overlay of numbers and patterns to wider means of controlling inside and outside, personal and private, a graphic world, data and information control. He projects this inspiration into his designs and buildings and has even written a book about the subject.
Mayer is now exporting his unique expertise; The practice’s largest project to date, the fantastic Metropol parasol in Seville is a coming together of the practices disparate skills, “it’s a culmination, a social space a coming together as an architectural challenge, Metropol Parasol is a public space that has reactivated the city centre. It really works as the new heart of the city.” Other projects include the recently finished iconic border station between Georgia and Turkey on the Black Sea, “It’s interesting how curious the Georgian Government are to bring in foreign architects to help them generate a contemporary image of the country.”
Another project in Georgia, Terra Karavana in Tbilisi was shortlisted in the WAN AWARDS urban design category in 2010 and of course, these landmarks in turn, lead to other projects, “When you finish something, a particular type of building, people always ask for the same thing. So we are getting enquiries for other similar projects” Awareness of Mayer’s inexorable progress up the architectural hierarchy is growing and his following includes big name media titles including the New York Times and now WAN of course.
Editor in Chief at WAN
‘WirrWarr’ (German for muss or jumble), a coffee-table book by German Publisher Hatje Cantz, will be available in the United States at the end of May.