Heinrich-Zille-Grundschule – Werkfabrik Architekten

For ages now I’ve really wanted to look more closely at some of the buildings I blog about, rather than just a few snaps and some jokey comments.  So here’s the first of them.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that it’s a project which was a part of the 1987 International Bauaustellung (IBA).  It fell under the ‘Altbau/Careful Urban Renewal’ half of the programme, i.e. projects which worked with local communities and user groups to expand and improve existing buildings and facilities; intervention rather than freestanding architecture.

The Heinrich Zille school occupies the core parts of Block 101, the block immediately to the west of Lausitzer Platz, Kreuzberg, bounded by Skalitzer-, Manteuffel- and Waldemarstrasse.  It intrigued me, because so little can be seen from the street – just a few tantalising glimpses of odd shaped buildings locking ingeniously into older structures.  The site is complex – buildings from the pre-existing school were integrated into a new plan, to include a child daycare centre.  Multiple architects were involved at the time, and the waters are further muddied by the fact that the daycare centre has been removed and additional school buildings added over the proceeding years.

View from Lausitzer Platz:

But I’ve been really lucky here.  The original architect, Margarete Winkes of Werkfabrik, agreed to meet me and walk around the building (she’d left a comment on the blog pointing out that when I first mentioned the school – I’d listed the architects incorrectly).

I’d spent some time beforehand trying to work out which architects designed which parts of the complex site, but the first thing Frau Winkes emphasized was that trying to describe the whole thing in formal contractual terms, ‘who did what and exactly where’, was to miss the point.  IBA Altbau gave local groups, architects and others the chance to experiment.  The IBA organisation had no brief or programme for the design.  Instead, this was negotiated over the period of a year, between the school, four architects’ practices, and other stakeholders, all working collaboratively to come up with a single solution.

At first, the project manager in me (I used to be one) wanted to shout “But how did this possibly work? What about cost control?”  But these projects, while not free of budget limits, were at least free of the thinking that has eventually became the dead hand of ‘Value Engineering’, and are perhaps all the better for it.  I’m not sure that such a level of invention and genuine stakeholder involvement would be at all possible now.

The project outlived the IBA, which at the end of the 1980s transformed itself into S.T.E.R.N., the private body which took over the IBA Altbau‘s legacy and oversaw completion of many of the ongoing schemes, albeit with a much reduced budget.  It’s interesting that, according to Frau Winkes, there was little contact between the Neubau and Altbau IBAs; they were two almost unrelated programmes, with very differing aims.  I’ve often heard them referred to as the ‘rich and poor IBAs’, mainly by those who worked on the Altbau programme such as Alvaro Siza.

As noted above, Frau Winkes emphasized that, as with many IBA Altbau projects, the aim was not to produce Architecture with a capital ‘A’, but to create working facilities for local groups and institutions, which in Kreuzberg by the 1980s were in a state of advanced urban decay, where poverty, high levels of squatting and social disadvantage had become a political embarressment for West Berlin.

Having been told that ‘it’s not about the architecture’, we proceeded to walk around the school, and  I found Werkfabrik’s designs both impressive and – a term not often used in architectural criticism – full of charm.  I was reminded of some of the late Ralph Erskine‘s work, famous for his inclusion of residents and building users in the design process to produce a quirky non-standard architecture.

A note here: this summer the school has been undergoing external renovation works, which are still ongoing at the time of writing.  The outside of the key buildings were scaffolded, and as it was an informal visit, we couldn’t access all the interior rooms.  I’ve included some shots here to give a flavour (with more here) but will be going back to do a proper session soon.

Frau Winkes pointed out that the ongoing works had made some significant changes to some of the exerior detailing – compare these two images for instance:

This led to discussion about the legality of such changes.  In Germany (as I understand it) legal copyright rests in the first instance with the architect, who should be consulted on such changes – a very different position to the UK.  I’m no expert in this area, so will say no more on the subject, as so far this blog has remained free of legal action.  But perhaps a later post on this theme – it’s an interesting and important one – with the case of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof being the most notable.

Werkfabrik were, at the time, the youngest of the architectural practices involved in the project, and felt they were working more in the spirit of the IBA and experimentation than their more conservative colleagues.  I’m under the impression that Werkfabrik led the design process, although can’t confirm the contractual positions.  The listing in the IBA 1987 Project Report is complicated, and I’m guessing further confused by translation (the terms ‘planning’ and ‘design’ seem interchangeable) so for completeness I will quote in full:

School: preliminary report Burtin/Schulz, co-operative planning procedure (Archiplan, Burtin/Schulz, Werkfabrik); work on planning documents: Werkfabrik; educational plan for the neighbourhood school: Zimmer.

Child day-care centre: preliminary design – Werkfabrik.

In any event, Frau Winkes/Werkfabrik were clearly responsible for the design of the elements of the school which we looked at.  There were an amazing twenty detailed drafts of the design before the final scheme, done over the period of a year.  The construction process ran on into the 1990s, and “became horrible” after the demise of the IBA (I take it from this that S.T.E.R.N. were much less involved).  Despite strained relations with the school in the later phase of the work, Frau Winkes felt that Werkfabrik got their way with the design as finally built, and this rings true when you see some of the detailing and the carefully thought through interior spaces.

Some major elements of the original design, including a large hall between the firewalls of the existing buildings, along with ambitious plans to place the gym underneath one of the old retained buildings (by architect Ludwig Hoffmann, apparently) failed to make the final cut.  But these issues were evidently due more to budget restraints and technical issues than objections from other involved parties, and the end solution worked well for the teaching staff.

And the final result achieved the real aim: to promote the spaces and interstices around the buildings, to improve the overall ‘urbanity’ of such places without creating expensive ‘show architecture’.

We chatted more generally about the legacy of the IBA, and about my pet theory that ironically, the IBA’s role in helping to rescue run-down Kreuzberg sowed the seeds of the gentrification now pushing its original beneficiaries out of the area.  Frau Winkes felt there was some truth in this, but also felt that the IBA saved communities and anchored residents to an area which would otherwise have been decimated by the planned motorway, and by more development such as that at nearby Kottbusser Tor.

Werkfabrik did one other building as part of the IBA; a creche at nearby Oppelner Strasse 21/22, although they tell me that this has since been heavily altered and there is little to see of their original scheme.

Huge thanks to Margarete Winkes and her partner, and also to Helen Ferguson, for her invaluable translation work!

Some more images, as I know you like them.  Like I say, will be back to do this properly soon, plus have a few more here.

Students’ storage and toilets provided for each classroom (with the structure suspended from above to minimise load on the floor)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s