The unplastered walls tell the story of a whole century. Through the panorama window of the roomy loft you look out on to the area of the Schwanenhöfe and can hardly imagine that just three years ago this was industrial wasteland. But before the designer and site developer can explain how you transform a ruin into a living microcosm we have a drink. However in the fridge there is only champagne, water and Red Bull.
It’s nice here, Mr Walten. But judging by the fridge you’re only here on special occasions … TW: Sometimes I retreat here from work to write something in peace. And of course, if there’s something to discuss, like now. Together with Phase 5 you have revitalised three historical industrial sites in the last 10 years. What is it that fascinates you about this work? TW: Revitalisations are the most exciting way to work, because they offer the most surprises. You have to work with what is there – that’s different from starting with a blank sheet which you project computer animations on to. Here you work with the structure that is already there and you can only really judge the state it’s in once you start stripping the walls. To do that I need a team that can shoot from the hip, so to speak. Phase 5 has been a real stroke of luck in this case – you don’t find that very often in Germany. While we were building we were in a container together, to be right on the building site. You can’t do a project like that any other way. How do you see this constant necessity to improvise, Mr Busse? As an architect you would rather plan everything, or not? VB: The things that can’t be planned mainly cause the investors headaches. I enjoy improvising, although only if the necessary conditions are present: the whole team has to be on site and everyone has to communicate eye to eye. We don’t pin each other down but work together to get the best solution. TW: That’s exactly the way I see it too. If we didn’t trust each other, we’d have a lawyer present at all of our countless meetings. How did your relationship to each other develop while you were working on the project? TW: The relationship gets continuously worse and the quality of the work better (laughs). VB: No, seriously. The relationship grows with the projects. The Schwanenhöfe isn’t the first project we’ve done together, but it’s something like our masterpiece. We met 10 years ago at „Vulkan“ in Cologne, which was a much smaller project and also much clearer. In the end there were situations then like now where my opinion as an architect was different from Tom’s. But the deciding factor is that the consensus we come to is good. That’s the difference to official decision paths where the responsibility is weighed up legally and in the end nobody dares to do anything bold. TW: I am first and foremost a designer and always try to push through an aesthetically pleasing solution. Volker sits in front of the building regulations and has to check if this can even be put into practice. I have the aesthetic and he has the problem! At the same time I’m really grateful to have this perspective from a different angle. An oddball like me sometimes needs an opposite number who does the calculations and then says,“ If you want to get this passed by the building authorities then you’ll need a factor 40 air exchange and you’ll have to stuff half the room full of pipes. The only tenants that will fit in will have to be exactly 1.50 meters tall. VB: But we still used window ledges inside which were chamfered in black steel. That was one decision for the aesthetics.
As a designer you first of all take a visual approach to a building. A while ago you told me that you had the vision of an “island in the country“ for the Schwanenhöfe. How do you come by these pictures – and how can they be put into practice? TW: In this case we really had the idea very early on who would be living here. And then I translated this idea into the story of the “island in the country“ – a story like that helps everybody to head in the same direction during the building phase, it helps to convey a picture of the place to the future tenants. But to be perfectly honest this island was there right from the beginning for us – it was just in a deep sleep. VB: Yes, that’s how I see it too. When we visited the site for the first time, it was finished to a great extent. It was just that nobody could see that. Most people just saw ruins. From a town planning point of view it is a great structure, which we altered very cautiously. That sounds as if a large part of your work is being an archaeologist – not only with the brush but also with the digger. TW: Yes, that’s right. It is archaeological architecture! However the first thing we acquired after buying the Schwanenhöfe was a compressed air sandblaster. We went from building to building and blew off all the plaster – that uncovered a lot of surprises: great brick structures and beautiful industrial architecture from the turn of the century. VB: The Schwanenhöfe are really ideal for this kind of archaeology. There are arches which were built in 1895 and are still standing though the building has been rebuilt 23 times. We wanted to uncover this history and make it visible. Mr Walten, you’re a sort of location scout for revitalisation projects. How do you sniff out a suitable plot and how do you know if it’s going to be useful? TW: Discovering them is pure chance and all the rest is intuition. Volker and I both have sensors for the charisma of a place, just like our mutual partner Klaus-Dieter Hölz, who is responsible for the financing. Recently, for example, we were together in Dresden and looked at a location which was beautifully restored. But as I was walking through it my mood changed. It was strange – I walked through the beautiful colonnades and felt more and more depressed. Later I found out that for years it had been the HQ of the secret police. It was as if the stones had an aura, a feeling that had been transferred from the experiences to the architecture. But it has to be said that the cultural – creative elite who people historical industrial architecture today work with totally different criteria than the welder and storeman at the end of the 19th century. Why does this architecture still work so well today? VB: In times when professional working takes place in front of a laptop the infrastructure of the work place is basically completely immaterial. That wasn’t the case at the beginning of the digital era – you sat in a rectangle consisting of computer, printer and workspace. Nowadays you look for a nice corner and open up your laptop. So it’s more about a creative atmosphere and these old buildings just have more to tell than new ones. TW: Before industrialisation the smith lived above the smithy, the children played in the workshop and the grandfather worked the bellows. This structure was taken apart 100 years ago in urban planning because the quality of life was suffering from the fumes and noise from industry. But today you can link culture, the family and work fantastically together. So you can develop totally different quarters. The Schwanenhöfe are like that, a neighbourhood working individually with many facets.
“The Schwanenhöfe are a neighbourhood working individually with many facets.”
Here you’re touching on an aspect that is being discussed quite controversially: gentrification. What have the Schwanenhöfe done to South Flingern? VB: I recently read in the magazine “Capital“ that South Flingern is on the up and up because nearby a large area with jobs for the young and colleges has opened up – that’s us. The advice to investors is: buy. That wasn’t our intention but we can’t stop this development. TW: I think the debate about gentrification is a bit one-sided. Apart from the investors, who push the prices up, a site like ours brings new jobs into the area. There is something new and it can be shaped. And also you have to realise that a town is simply a living organism: in the 70s I lived in New York, in Soho, with dance companies, crooks and jazz musicians because we couldn’t afford any other flats. Today the area has prices you can’t pay. At the same time in the Upper Eighties there are cheaper flats again that were unaffordable before. I’d like to talk about the value of an old building. Because what you find is really a ruin but still it is incredibly valuable. Somehow the concept of value in our society seems to be meaningless here. TW: Yes, I think so too. Though it’s like this: if you keep the old, you have usually chosen the best solution ecologically and economically. It’s like a used car that’s been running for 40 years. If you compare it to buying a new car every 5 years then you can forget your carbon footprint. On top of the CO2 costs during production, it usually has a much shorter life span, like lots of new products. VB: Sticking to the cars: the cars of the 70s are by far the most elegant which were ever built. When you drive a Maserati Ghibli you have a car that will still be timeless in 100 years. Everything that is built nowadays has a 3 year cycle – then there’s a facelift and after another 3 years its successor. TW: You have to ask yourself what your own happiness depends on. If it’s consumption then you constantly need something new to stay happy. What sort of happiness do you experience when you revitalise an old building? TW: As the building contractor I’d say: instead of building something new, we’ve utilised the resources which were lying around doing nothing for a long time. Apart from that we’ve created a place with high living and working quality and also many work places. 1500 people are happy here. That is a very good happiness record! VB: I am very happy that we could realise this project. From an architect‘s point of view it’s like winning the jackpot! We had the fantastic opportunity to work here with a team that was already working well together and with very little red tape. When you have a project with investors in the background you need very clearly defined paths of communication all the way up to the supervisory board. We had the luxury of not having to ask anyone. Everybody can see directly what he has created.
Thomas Walten was already working in the 1970s as a designer with Henry Dreyfuss in New York and developed the corporate identities of American global businesses. Today he combines this approach with the development of CI relevant architecture. As site developer he was also responsible for the conception and implementation of the Schwanenhöfe, Vulkan and the Rheinhöfe. Thomas Walten lives in Cologne with his family.