Fuhrich / Reflexive palimpsest

Reflexive palimpsest Designing curatorship of post-war modernism architecture

Author: Adrian Fuhrich, HCU Hamburg

Research stage: initial doctoral stage

Category: Extended abstract

8 Theses on the reflexive palimpsest

  1. The reflexive palimpsest is an inherent part of our built world and thus of our socio-cultural narrative.
  2. The reflexive palimpsest is the inside as well as the outside of the architecture and polysemantic therein. It explores spaces, constructions, inherent levels of appropriation as well as its traces of use and engravings.
  3. The reflexive palimpsest values neither a zeitgeist nor the building material resource, but develops from the conceptual content of the space.
  4. The architect of the reflexive palimpsest is a designing curator and not a conservator.
  5. The architecture of the reflexive palimpsest is always polyfunctional and is not bound to a building type, but is founded on the conceptual content and its experiential potential.
  6. The reflexive palimpsest contains and explores both the permanent and the fluid of architectural space; and
  7. The architecture of the reflexive palimpsest is not committed to the actual state, but to the space of possibility between permanence and transformation.
  8. The architecture of the reflexive palimpsest is analysis and experiment at the same time, overcoming thought patterns, restrictions and attributions.

The post-war modernism as medium

"by giving priority to what is unloved, disastrous or unfinished"(1)
Anne Lacaton & Jean Philippe Vassal, 2015

The above statement of intent formulated by Pritzker Prize winners Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philipp Vassal seems to be renewed today in times of increasing political demands for more regulatory climate and resource protection. Recent events such as the Corona pandemic also prove a direct impact on the very heart of our city: they accelerate the influence of digitalization on our work and the place of consumption shifts to digital space. The Western European urban center and thus its artefacts, are moving in an increasing field of tension from a rising polyvalent pressure to change. Due to their often prominent context in the city center, office and administrative buildings from the post-war modern era are particularly important as architectures that shape the cityscape. If they are not placed under protection as monuments, they are often poorly accepted as "anonymous" witnesses of reconstruction and as functionalist, technical images of a "second destruction" 2 3 4 5. In addition, the deliberate aesthetic and spatial architectural language of the time with its generic and transitory spatial concepts, is supposedly at odds with current design views of an evolved, condensed urban landscape and an individualized social will to express. Technical deficiencies of the existing buildings as well as the enormous pressure to exploit inner-city properties subsequently led to the advanced demolition or reshaping of these contemporary witnesses. In her 2018 research paper "Der Glaube an das Grosse in der Architektur der Moderne" (The Belief in the Great in Modernist Architecture), author Sonja Hnilica called for a new reflection on the legacy of large-scale structures away from demolition, in the sense of a rediscovery of universal qualities 6. The sociologist Jürgen Habermas appropriately described post-war modernism as an "unfinished project"7.

According to Ulrich Beck, this could lead to a "self-transformation" and "detachment" of the first modernity into a second, in that its contours and principles must be discovered and shaped 8. The current transformation of our world of work, as well as the way where and how we live and consume in the future, offers an expanded space for discourse that goes beyond typological attributions and explores the universal qualities of spaces, freeing itself from aesthetic taste prejudices - and thus renegotiating its permanence as a value. (fig.1)

Reflexive (polysemantic) palimpsest

The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa named the emerging palimpsest of building-period levels and "layers of appropriation" as a “slowing down of reality (...) to create a background of experience for grasping and understanding change" 9. Furthermore, the Berlin architect Thomas Burlon sees the dilemma of form-finding solved in continuing to build, since this enables a "complex pragmatism"10 without a will to form. According to this, it is possible to go beyond the Venice Charter and the classical task of monument preservation and to understand a new chance for a longevity of architectural systems in the sense of a curatorial continuation of building as a polysemantic palimpsest, in which all those acting preserve their own signature, but act in interplay with the existing structure.

If the architect sees himself as a creator of future transformations, appropriations and thus generations, the new building becomes only a first stage of transformation and the preservation of an original state the exception. On the first level, the architect becomes a reflexive curator who decides on the permanence or transience of the existing structure 11. Here, its individual components are not entitled to the same continuity. The system can be supplemented, elements questioned or reprogrammed, and a distinction made between permanent and fluid parts 12. Consciously, this must show a greater understanding of the spatial concepts of the time beyond purely structural-physical parameters - independent of the conservation of monuments. In the second level, a structural and constructive analysis of the architecture as well as of the materials found and their history, increasingly becomes - in the sense of the word – again the craftmanship understanding of the design process. Here, experimentation serves as a means of fiction as well as research, which can be described here as ‘reflexive design’. The choice of tools is then generated from the potentials or constraints of the existing space and must question current standards, thus also becoming a laboratory of typological border crossings. Such an explorative approach thus also requires an examination of existing building law standards - such as regulated distances between buildings, fire protection or building physics - in order to be able to evaluate them more strongly under the premise of increased resource conservation.

The public judgement on preservation or demolition, value or building sin, potential space or "non-place" is shaped by images and visions offered to society. Although the current practice of architectural competitions shows that the discourse on preservation and appreciation of the existing seems to be changing - also due to the demands for more climate and resource protection - the existing often remains an "evil" to be accepted or is "overformed" in terms of design, as mentioned above. In Hamburg alone, office architecture from the post-war modern era from 1945 to 1975 is spread throughout the city center and will be available in the short to medium term, each of which has space resources of 3,500 to over 25,000 square meters of gross floor area 13. If this potential is not used, but demolished, future generations will ask us why we did not use the opportunity of a dialogue with the planners of the ‘hated’ architectural heritage to find a consensus that allows each built contemporary to retain its place in the diversity of the urban world. (fig. 2)

3 phases of the DDR

phase 1gr - The first phase forms an analytically reflexive foundation in which the chosen medium of post-war modernism as a project as well as its protagonists are presented and thus the generic, transitory spatial concepts are examined. In addition, the first analysis of development lines is compared with a second analysis of the realized spatial and construction concepts of the post-war buildings. This comparison is intended to bring the original spatial ideas into line with the realized spatial structures in order to uncover consistencies as well as inconsistencies in the existing structures. This is complemented by a discourse analysis of the current urban building type "Space without Typology" and an investigation entitled "The Search for the Permanence of Space", which conclude the theoretical part.

phase 2 - In the second phase, the proposed reflexive palimpsest will be prepared. For this purpose, three exemplary existing buildings will be selected and arranged. The basis in each case is a basic investigation of the history, structural development, development of use within the urban context, as well as an analysis of the construction materials and a survey of the building structures.

phase 3 - This is followed by the working phase of the design process. Here, several drafts are created for each study object. In each case, different scenarios based on varying spatial program and thus predicted future usage models lead to different spatial requirements that are implemented within the existing structure. Tools used here are sketches, floor plans and sections in various scales, 3D models, physical models, and in particular perspective sketches and collages. The next step is to superimpose one's own "parallel" designs. This allows dissonances and contradictions of the scenarios, but also parallels and recurring structures and patterns to be recognized and evaluated. On this basis, the scenarios are adapted again and thus brought into an initial context. On the basis of the previous scenarios, a final polyfunctional and polysemantic "generation-model" or "appropriation-model" is created. The resulting final designs for the three study objects are elaborated and constructively deepened. The medium will again be drawings in the scale 1-500 up to 1-20, physical models and, in particular, visualizations and perspective collages. (fig. 3)

Figure 1: The debate about the „unfinished“ post-war modernism, image by the author

Demolished or nearly demolished office and administrative buildings of the postwar modernism (1950-1976) in the city center of Hamburg, image by the author

Figure 2: Demolished or nearly demolished office and administrative buildings of the postwar modernism (1950-1976) in the city center of Hamburg, image by the author

“vision vs density”, collage of post-war modernism floorplans in an urban context, image by the author

Figure 3: “vision vs density”, collage of post-war modernism floorplans in an urban context, image by the author

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