Barkow Leibinger

Architects, Berlin

Barkow Leibinger

Architects, Berlin

Barkow Leibinger

Architects, Berlin

Regine Leibinger and Frank Barkow of Barkow Leibinger have a history of evoking classical modernism while gazing squarely into the future. Founded in a Berlin-Schöneberg bedroom in 1993, their practice is now ranked in the top three of German architecture studios, with more than ninety employees, and offices in Berlin and New York. The German-American couple first met as architecture students at Harvard University.

Later they returned as guest professors and have drawn on academic research and rigorous experimentation ever since. From their colossal industrial complexes, bespoke prototypes and futuristic installations to the small-scale home: the studio deploys the latest knowledge, materials, and fabrication techniques to create space with purpose. Even more so, Barkow Leibinger use their practice to respond to global challenges in ways only architects can. During a visit to their Berlin studio the duo explain what that means - and why you have to become your own expert.

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You both often talk about architecture in humanistic terms - its larger role within society and the “urgencies” it can address.

With more than half of the human population now living in cities, what are some of the challenges you think architects are uniquely qualified to tackle?

Leibinger: Climate change! Berlin just experienced record heat for most of the summer and our studio, a historical building without air conditioning, was sweltering. As architects we have a responsibility to respond to the changing climate. For us specifically, this means lowering our ecological footprint by being resourceful and choosing the materials we deploy wisely.

Barkow: Another “urgency” we hear too little about is scarcity. If you have less materials you have less opportunities. These are particular challenges our generation faces that start to inform our practice and the way we work. One strategy is to use materials, which you can recycle and regrow. Another is to repurpose and transform existing buildings rather than adding new ones. A third one is to give yourself more agency by becoming your own expert. Rather than waiting for a developer or manufacturer to come up with new materials and solutions, we can proactively research, investigate, and determine things ourselves.

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Leading by example, you often work at the forefront of material research and fabrication techniques.

Can you cite specific materials or methodologies you currently experiment with that make you feel hopeful about the future?

Leibinger: A really promising material we’ve been working with lately is Infra-Lightweight Concrete. It’s a new type of high-performance concrete, developed here at the Technical University (TU) Berlin, that is durable, load-bearing, and insulating at the same time. It makes the plaster traditionally applied for thermal insulation obsolete - thankfully, as this type of plaster is hugely problematic. It’s toxic and very hard to recycle. It only lasts for about twenty years after which it has to be taken down and burned. We’ve worked closely with Mike Schlaich, engineer, researcher and TU’s professor for concrete, to get Infra-Lightweight Concrete market-ready and after an initial phase of experimentation we’re now deploying it in a residential tower in Berlin-Friedrichshain where we hope it serves as an example for other architects.

Barkow: Research is an important part of our practice and we use opportunities to expand our knowledge where we can. In 2009, for example, we developed a program for Harvard Graduates together with BMW Chief of Design Chris Bangle around the design philosophy of GINA, a kinetic car prototype he helped design that can shape-shift thanks to a flexible framework and elastic skin. Given how cars have shaped the urban landscape, my students and I asked ourselves whether we could reverse the trend and appropriate this new car technology for housing. We developed a series of housing concepts around kinetic buildings, that can expand and shrink depending on need. The ideas were somewhat futuristic if not utopian, but the urgency behind them is very real. We increasingly need designs that are modular and flexible in order to address the challenges we face today.
 

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Your utopian streak first showed in the Trumpf campus cafeteria near Stuttgart, an internationally recognized project and the first cafeteria to ever to win a German architecture award.

What was the design philosophy behind this space and how does it speak to a modern kitchen and dining experience?

Barkow: In Germany, a cantina is usually this terrible cafeteria somewhere in the basement where you get served terrible food. So the primary goal for the Trumpf cantina was to design a truly pleasant environment for lunch and dinner. But we also felt the space could be so much more. Rather than just a cantina, we wanted to create a campus, where people - blue collar, white collar, clients, family, visitors - could interact in a context that is programmatically less precise. Why not create a space for music, lectures, exhibitions, or even parties also? We generally like structures that have a certain openendedness to them. Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, for example, was intended to show art but anticipated forms of art in the future that weren’t imaginable yet. So the idea that buildings can anticipate forms of use I can’t prescribe as an architect is an exciting place to be.

Leibinger: It’s worth pointing out that the requirements were exceptional: the cantina had to be four meters underground and serve as the factory’s social center as all the factory tunnels would connect there. We quickly realized that the acoustics were a key criteria. When busy, cantinas are typically very loud and not at all hospitable. The wood roofing, partially filled with acoustic panels, softened the sound tremendously while the skylights and glass façades bathed the space in natural light. In the end it became this open and versatile company nexus we imagined it to be. And you can still go and just eat traditional Maultauschen there.

Barkow: This philosophy of open-endedness also holds true on a smaller scale. In one of our first point towers, we designed residential spaces that left inhabitants a lot of flexibility in how to live and dwell, be it more open or more confined. Human beings are creatures of habit ultimately, but a space with the capacity to adapt through flexibility or modularity built into the design, can be very stimulating, be it the kitchen or elsewhere.

Your philosophy of open-endedness is right in line with the flexibility and modularity we see in kitchen appliances of late.

What do you look for when you equip a kitchen?

Leibinger: Kitchens are something deeply personal, of course. How you configure the oven, dishwasher, and fridge depends entirely on individual preferences, routines, and rituals. Accordingly, our clients have a huge say in both the selection of appliances and where they go. Depending on the project, different requirements for performance, price, and energy consumption apply. We help with the selection of course and advise clients to value quality and longevity over price. In our experience, it’s money well invested.

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How important is the kitchen in your own studio and home?

Leibinger: In our apartment the kitchen is the social center. We designed it to be open and welcoming, a space you want to spend time in and chat with family members. It’s the details that make the difference. Our kitchen island, for example, is a little work of art: it’s covered in colorful tiles designed by Berlinbased artist Claudia Wieser, a feature that make it a truly special place where you just wanna hang out.

Barkow: The same is true for the cantina here at the Berlin studio. It’s our campus, where we interact, get to know one another, and share ideas every day, which is crucial for a big team like ours. Questions like “What are you currently working on?” are nearly as frequent as “What’s your name again?”

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Looking back from your current studio cantina that has room for a staff of ninety to the Schöneberg kitchen where the studio was hatched: how has the role of the architect changed over the course of your twenty-five year-long careers?

Barkow: Today’s architects wear many different hats. We are artists, designers, inventors, and provocateurs, who have to develop ideas and projects independently and proactively rather than just waiting for commissions as mere service providers as was the norm when we started out. I really like the German term “Tüftler”, which means tinkerer, as it speaks to the obsessive problem-solving skills and the wide range of knowledge today’s architects have to develop. We need to constantly expand our know-how and become our own experts with new materials and technologies, but also on social and environmental issues, and on policy. This multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary way of practicing architecture I find really important. I hate the idea of being a mere service provider. We do provide a service, but we also seek relevance and bearing on society at large - not just as architects, but as thinkers and as “Tüftlers”.

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