Radical acceptance
Anh-Linh Ngo talking to Arno Brandlhuber about the meaning of materiality in architecture and design
Anh-Linh Ngo: You planned the building communication concept for the Antivilla in Krampnitz together with Siedle. What were the predominant issues which arose in connection with the project?

Arno Brandlhuber: The special aspect here is the fact that the character of the building is not clearly defined and that it transitions between a producing location and a holiday home. We were faced with the question of whether or not we even need a classical separation between inside and outside. Does the Antivilla have a threshold at all which you can operate using an intercom system?

ALN: What was your answer to this question?

AB: As the Antivilla is only partially occupied, we plan to connect the building communication to our office in Brunnenstraße in central Berlin. There will also be an interface to the smartphone, which means we can operate the communication system on the move, from any location. For this all we need is the relevant app.

ALN: If design is communicated today predominantly through surfaces or rather by means of interfaces, how do you as a designer approach the issue of classical product design?

AB: We took the concept of radical acceptance of what exists, and also applied it to the product design. Instead of introducing a new material surface for the intercom, we decided to emulate the existing GDR rendering on the facade. To do this, we took a silicon impression of the facade and produced it as an aluminium casting. We investigated the history of Siedle and suggested a casting technique which would build a link back to the company's craftsmanship heritage, which began in the 18th Century when Siedle produced cast bells for clock manufacturers. The unanodized cast aluminium not only has a similar feel and surface structure to the grey, rough rendered substrate, it also introduces an idea of temporality to what is otherwise a technical device designed to be flawlessly perfect. The material weathers and changes as a result of use. We also planned to introduce this same sense of temporality to the window frames, which are also made of unanodized aluminium. As a result, there is a direct correlation on the material level to the overall conception of the building.

ALN: How does this decision affect the technical implementation? Surely, the not so very banal question of how to integrate a letterbox slit or a camera into this uneven surface must have arisen?

AB: To address this, Siedle developed an ingenious detail which further develops the mimicry theme with a pictorial twist. As the camera is not masked by clear contours, the picture excerpt that is created is similar to that seen from the large rough-hewn window openings we knocked into the facade of the Antivilla. Here, the same theme has been consistently pursued on a different scale. But for me, interacting with Siedle was also particularly interesting in terms of the company's own internal communication about quality. After all, we were not aiming to produce the Siedle products in their customary highly processed and perfect surface finish, but to create a deliberately imperfect look. This individual concept of quality calls for quite different craftsmanship and technical material skills, which Siedle would be able to implement in its own internal Manufacture department.

ALN: If we could now just zoom out again and look at the project as a whole, my question is about the role that material plays in general terms in your work?

AB: The way I approach this issue is to leave away all image-forming surfaces. Because given today's countless layers, the thing that we perceive as the outer covering, the materiality of the architecture, is fundamentally nothing more than a pictorial effect. It no longer has anything to do with the actual structure. I try to leave away the material over the material, with the aim in the best case scenario of leaving just the raw material, and it is this I need for the architectural performance. Even if the result is something approaching brutalism, there is a significant difference, which is that I am no longer linking in any moral argument. So for me it is not about material honesty or any thing of that type, but to a certain extent about the material as a pure state of aggregation. Translated into architectural terms, this can be interpreted as usage scenarios the material creates: For instance, does it permit you to look through, does it link spaces, does it allow social interaction?

ALN: This approach could be dubbed New Realism in Architecture. Because New Realism as a philosophical direction also emphasizes the performance or perhaps more aptly put, affordance of the material. The role of the material is no longer to represent an idea or to subjugate itself to a concept. Instead, its ability to create realities and provoke actions is brought to the fore. Against this backdrop, in methodological terms, by advocating radical acceptance of the existing you are doing nothing other than evaluating what you find in terms of its affordance, in the bid to find linkage points for continued working within the context of material physics and construction law.

AB: From my viewpoint, behind New Realism is also the insight that we are no longer in a position to control every aspect of the world. The design sovereignty which was the driving force behind the modern age and which still prevails in design today cannot continue to be maintained given the headlong pace of change in the world which confronts us today. This form of world mediation through design is giving way increasingly to issues of service performance. This is not an easy attitude to swallow for designers. But it does move us forward in as far as it frees us from the misconception that we can control the world through the design of surfaces.

Interviewing the architect was Anh-Linh Ngo, editor of the international architecture magazine ARCH+.
© 2020 S. Siedle & Söhne OHG