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The interaction of architecture and city through the ages

Over the last few decades, Gerber Architekten has been able to realise numerous laboratory, research and educational building projects, such as the Institute of Physics at the University of Rostock, the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt and the Dortmunder U vocational colleges. A number of striking office buildings can also be added to the list, including the Harenberg City Center and the RWE Tower in Dortmund. Time and again, this established architectural practice has been able to use its residential buildings to create places where the inhabitants feel comfortable and enjoy living. The main priority at Gerber Architekten is to create architecture in which people want to spend time and communicate with one another. Users should be able to access the spaces in a natural way and these should be in keeping with the surrounding city and landscape. 

Prof. Eckhard Gerber

Founded in 1966 by Professor Eckhard Gerber, Gerber Architekten has over 50 years of expertise and, with their broad-based team, are active in the fields of architecture, urban planning, landscape design and interior design. Around 170 employees are involved in diverse projects and a wide range of construction tasks.

An Interview with Prof. Eckhard Gerber

PROFILE: Almost fifty years of Gerber Architekten – this means nearly five decades of knowledge, observations and personal experiences. In your eyes, how has the interaction of architecture and city changed since the practice was founded in 1966?

Professor Gerber: The ideal image of a city was and remains today the medieval city with its division into small sections and associated scale. Its size and structure is based on everyday human life, cohabitation and the human scale. A human being can experience it and absorb its effect just as he or she is and without any aid.Nowadays, the quality of a city also depends on aesthetically pleasing, suitably proportioned buildings and open spaces, which people can easily access and which are tangible for them. This harbours great responsibility for architects and developers. In the 1960s, when our practice was just in its infancy, a completely different ideal was being developed by urban planners: the ideal of the car-friendly city, in which the needs of private motorised transportation were afforded priority. With the advent of the car, the scale of the speed at which people moved around changed disproportionately to the unchanged movement of the human body and the human scale. This large divergence in scale became such a problem for some cities that people will still not accept them. With the reconstruction after World War II, cities emerged which, in keeping with this car-friendly ideal, were designed with generous traffic areas, such as in Hanover, Kassel, Cologne or the towns in the Ruhr. By focusing on the automobile, a range of considerable encroachments were made into the remaining fabric of the existing buildings and the old, developed urban layouts. Wide streets and enormous bridges were the results of these designs, to which the medieval cities’ division into small sections with narrow, winding alleyways had to succumb. Nowadays, attempts are made to reduce the motor traffic in cities by means of Park & Ride initiatives and the targeted expansion of local public transport, such as the Rhine-Ruhr Express rail network, and to thereby “restore” the cities. If the main focus of town planning in the 1950s and 1960s was the unimpeded flow of automotive traffic, then current urban development is discussed against the backdrop of digitalisation (e.g. car sharing) and demographic change. This affects the requirements which are placed on the buildings in a town and the resulting city spaces in equal measure. Another aspect which is changing the face of our cities is the re-structuring of industry sectors, with industrial locations being abandoned. A prime example is the coal mine as well as the steel industry in the Ruhr. A large amount of brownfield land was produced from this, which is now used for other purposes, often by smaller businesses, or as cultural sites. A further significant change to the fabric of the city has occurred due to the establishment of the Ruhr universities during the so-called reform era, which I consider to be one of the most astute decisions of the post-war period. These universities opened up educational opportunities for the next generation of the working-class families and, with its graduates, made way for a founder generation and highly skilled workers in the Ruhr. This was, without doubt, a key stimulus for the development of the Ruhr region. These examples therefore demonstrate that a city will continue to develop regardless of town planners, public authorities, planning departments and residents.

»Sustainability for the city and people – that is both my vision and aspiration.« Prof. Eckhard Gerber

PROFILE: How, then, does an architectural practice continue to develop over such a long period of time – from the 1960s to today? 

Professor Gerber: Every era has its zeitgeist. This is also expressed through the architecture – both in the language of form and cubature, but also in its content. An architectural practice must have the prerequisites and its employees must possess the skills to recognise a trend and, above all, to help develop and shape it. Curiosity is a key characteristic for architects to be able to identify the respective zeitgeist. It is their job to find out which new developments in architecture and everyday life point the way to the future. For the experienced architect and designer, this means working together mainly with younger people. In terms of their design training, they are from an altogether different school of thought, and see the world from their own perspective. That alone brings them closer to the zeitgeist. Another important basis for the positive development of a practice is a working environment based on partnership. Architecture is created through discussions. Everyone plays their part and, together, we move the project forward. For me, that is the best thing about an architect's job. If we look at how architectural practices are progressing in general, I am sure that the diversified landscape of architects will develop into fewer, but larger practices which perform the majority of the design tasks. The reason for this is that the procedure for awarding contracts for projects requires expertise in each of the fields. A necessary consequence of this is that architectural practices will specialise in individual areas of design. Fledgling practices with potentially new, innovative approaches will, however, find it difficult to position themselves within the set fields of work. 

PROFILE: Your architectural language does not represent a recognisable style but rather a contemporary method of expression which is developed for each location and use. What are the key themes of your architecture? 

Professor Gerber: The designs that are developed at our practice are indeed not characterised by a uniform style. It is about principles that become recognisable. Functionality is an important aspect, as is the link between building and landscape as well as spaces for communication. We see the potential difficulties posed by a design task or a property as challenges and opportunities from which we can create a concept. We always look at the design in the context of its urban environment. For example, for the Harenberg Publishing House in Dortmund, we could have built a conventional block structure. However, together with the publisher Bodo Harenberg, we were able to develop a building which, on the one hand, forms its own city space in front of the main train station yet, on the other hand, integrates into the existing urban environment. This was made possible by mirroring and continuing the ancient Dortmund city wall with its so-called “slice of cake” shape, whilst also achieving independence and serving as a landmark for the city. Our aim is to create a new place out of the existing situation. In doing this, the contribution buildings have to make to the city must not be ignored.

PROFILE: Your architectural practice operates on an international level – predominantly in the Middle East and China at present. What can we learn from other cultures? Will these diverse experiences be incorporated into designs in future? 

Professor Gerber: It is always inspiring to learn about other cultures – their values and their way of thinking, which are also expressed in regional architecture. We therefore learn from every current project ready for the next ones. And this does not only apply to projects overseas; it is also the case for those in Germany as well. International collaboration is a very important aspect in this regard, as architectural practices are becoming progressively internationalised and cross-country or even cross-continent cooperation will increase.

PROFILE: Thinking about all of your creations, which visions from urban planning and architecture will determine our corporate, social, economic and ecological developments in future? How should the city of the future be built / further developed? 

Professor Gerber: As I mentioned previously, the city has changed due to industrialisation and the widespread use of the car. I think that greater emphasis must be placed once again on the needs of people when designing city spaces. People also need to feel comfortable in these spaces as they are surrounded by them every day. Beautifully designed, open squares are required with pleasant surroundings and green areas. This can be seen in city environments which function well – where people enjoy spending time, communicating. Spaces for communication and personal exchange are becoming increasingly important, particularly in the Digital Age. This is also one of the design principles for our buildings. With globalisation and the interaction of different cultures, the social mix is also becoming ever more important. To counteract ghettoisation, types of housing must be created which are tailored to different social structures and cultures and promote the wellbeing of the residents. A further key aspect is the sustainability of buildings. The use of durable and energy-efficient materials is one essential element of this. But it is also about the functionality of a building over many years. Usage and functional requirements can change over time, meaning the possibility of flexibility, and therefore freedom in the design of the floor plan of the building, are an important factor. That is both my vision and aspiration – sustainability for the city and the people.