Interview

“It’s not about us”

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In the offices of Phase 5 you stand on the shoulders of giants: 100 years ago workers in the warehouse were moving heavy machines across the floor – the drag marks left behind are still visible on the parquet flooring. The glass doors of the meeting rooms are almost as old and when they’re closed you can still hear every word from the open plan office. But Volker Busse, Dirk Landrock und Martin Welp don’t give the impression that they would want to keep secrets from their co-workers. Instead they talk of a co-worker-kick, an architectural spirit of adventure and a time when their business worked like a commune.

I heard that you have just kitted out your work football team with new strips. How should I imagine it when eleven Architects are on the pitch – subtle tactics or rough tackling? vb: Our game is highly technical. We’ve been playing together every Monday for quite a few years now and we have our own coach, who has taught us a bit about discipline. In the beginning, there might have been the odd rather rough tackle, but we can’t really afford to do that as we need all the players next day in the office. The ‘three-man formation’ in football has had a come back: flexible and aggressive, but also vulnerable to counter-attacks and technically demanding. Your growing company is headed by the three of yo¬u – what are the advantages of a threesome? vb: It’s certainly much nicer than being alone. We can confer and exchange ideas from our different perspectives. On top of that there’s a 15-year age difference between us. That means a wide spectrum of viewpoints. DL: To keep to the football analogy: Volker is, as it were, the creative mid-field centre. He brings in creativity and develops new business ideas. Martin takes care of the more special projects like production facilities and is more out and about on the building sites. I’m mainly active in the logistic projects and I also manage the office together with Volker. And what about your strategy? Are you more inclined to attack or to defend? vb: Well one thing’s for sure: We don’t have any defence, only strikers pushing forward on all fronts (laughs). Despite all that we’re not the stars of this game: In architecture, as we understand it, ultimately you work very close to the requirements. If for instance we’re developing a production hall for foodstuffs, we don’t play the first fiddle, the process engineer, who develops the functional processes, does. Whereby I have to contradict Dirk: I’m always being told that our logistics warehouses carry our unmistakeable signature. I definitely believe there’s a creative aspect involved. DL: The scope for creativity certainly varies from project to project, but we always try to embrace the tasks as our own and then to look for the best solution. Planning a really big logistics warehouse can actually be a lot of fun. vb: Absolutely. Our longest one is 1040 metres, that’s quite something! Let’s have a look at the history of your company. You didn’t start off working in logistics, but in something that you once described as “an architectural general store”. That sounds a bit disparaging… vb: No, not at all actually, that simply was our philosophy at the time. As Busse Geitner, at the time when the Wall came down we did a lot of building for the Hypovereinsbank. These were very fine projects through which we built up a good client base and amongst other things, earned us the ‘deutschen Architekturpreis’ (German Architecture Prize). At the end of the nineties we started doing logistics projects and suddenly there were two camps in the office, which moved farther and farther away from each other. A further problem was that we weren’t able to build up reserves and so in the end we were dependent on a few big clients. At the end of 2002 Busse Geitner declared bankruptcy and we decided to create two separate companies out of these two divisions. DL: I think that was the right decision for the situation at that time. In fact a structure had evolved that was difficult to communicate to others. If our customers asked us what our work was really about we weren’t able to tell them, at least, not in one sentence. And we were working literally day and night with a very small team on very big projects. Martin always joked about our ‘commune’, but you can’t keep that up all the time, you’ll just burn out.

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“I think the “Schwanenhöfe” have an air of timelessness, which is what I try to achieve in all our works.”

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That means you decided for the sake of your own health to stop doing so many things at the same time? VB: The most important thing actually was that we created new structures that would take the pressure off us long term. When we founded Phase 5 we were able to keep on all ten co-workers. However it was clear that we could no longer work as a ’commune’ with everybody in the same role. So we established a company management that took decisions and planned ahead. Today we think very consciously about our company culture and try to develop structures that enable us, as a whole team, to cultivate a good attitude. I wanted to ask about this social aspect too. The idea that a company is only as good as its communication has almost become a new economic benchmark. Can the same be said for an architect’s office? VB: The profession of an architect has really moved a lot in this direction in recent years. When I started, it was usual that the office worked on a job for months before the customer got to see anything. Today, it’s more the case that both sides need to cooperate much earlier and to keep decisions transparent. This requires very professional communication channels on both sides. MW: Actually I really like this. When we’re planning a logistics building, we sit with the logistics expert in front of the floor plan and think about: How many pallets will fit side by side here, is the structural design suitable for that or will it need another pillar in between? This is a pleasant way of working with each other and leads to very good solutions. VB: And that, in fact, is exactly what we mean by the name Phase 5. Do tell me how you came up with this name! VB: The term comes from a study, which dealt with the question of what a company in the 21st century should be like. If you relate this to an architect’s office, it means in the first phase that you are only involved with yourself and your designs. So basically like the star architect, who’s really making pure art that’s far removed from reality. At that time we had two business consultants who made it clear that the only way to create a sustainable business, fit for the future was to enter phase 5: We should become an excellently networked company in an urban location, with good communication channels & project management at our disposal and on top of this, work very closely with our clients. We liked this so much that we named our company after this concept. MW: And actually this worked very well with the clients right from the beginning. Not just in terms of processes and results, but also because it was possible to build up a lasting relationship of trust. DL: In effect, we still keep to this, preferring most of all to work together with clients who share the goals we have: to bring a good project to fruition. In the building branch it’s not uncommon to have to deal with characters who are only concerned with clarifying who is legally responsible for what. A building always says something about the people who live there. Your current office is in a building designed by you, not only that, you’ve designed the whole quarter here. How important is “Schwanenhöfe” for how Phase 5 perceives its image? MW: What I really like about this area is the fact that none of the buildings really stands out from the rest. They are all equally important. And I think it’s like that with the people too – I don’t think there’s any vanity here on this site. VB: But also from the architectural respect “Schwanenhöfe” says a lot about us. The first building was erected on this site in 1895 and I feel the whole area has an air of timelessness, something I really try to achieve in all of our works. It’s the opposite of fleeting trends and the latest gimmickry. “Schwanenhöfe” with its planning imponderables is certainly a project that transcends any Excel spreadsheet. Does it bring out your architectural spirit of adventure? VB: At any rate it doesn’t have much to do with planning. You react to whatever turns up that day. (laughs) DL: Although we’d have to say that the risk involved was very well calculated by our developers and that also we could follow the ideas that were envisioned for the project. The natural grass areas, the views and concepts like the ‘green’ house – these were all basic ideas that we as architects could work well with. VB: And we could draw ideas from what was already there. It was very important for us to encroach as little as possible on the old structures already in place – we wanted to make the history of the site legible instead of overwriting it. Seen from this perspective, this work is not so different from the tasks involved for an assembly line. We serve the project.

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Earlier it was hinted that Phase 5 is a business spanning several generations. Dirk, I’ll ask you as the youngest member: How did you come to the company? DL: Volker was already very successful with the Busse Geitner office and I was working there as an intern. Shortly before my final exam Volker came into my office, put a contract on the table and said: sign that because you’re staying. VB: Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that our developers Thomas Walten and Klaus-Dieter Hölz are also of the older generation. When do you ask Mr Hölz , as an experienced senior member, for advice? VB: Let’s say for example with housing development: I see a nice old building and toy with the idea of buying it and fixing it up. Klaus takes one look at it and says: Forget it, it’s too risky. So I close the book on it and stop calculating, as I know that with 45 years work experience he’s right. At present your portfolio covers three areas: logistics, revitalisation and housing – so a kind of slimmed down general store. What are you doing now that’s different to ten years ago? VB: Actually I don’t have the feeling that we are tying ourselves down in a particular direction with our portfolio, our projects are too diverse for that. But you can already tell that we have a weakness for complex problems: Aircraft hangars, fully automated production halls etc. If someone came along tomorrow asking for ten hospitals or a waste incineration plant, then we wouldn’t say no. DL: That’s how I see it too: on the basis of the specialised tasks you learn a lot about handling the processes. And you can transfer this to everything else. Then let me finally go back to the question put by your first clients: What actually is Phase 5? VB: Phase 5 is nothing static. It’s more an approach that re-shapes itself with every new task.

_MG_5572_DXO_6x6Volker Busse was born in 1961 in Lengerich. After studying architecture in Münster he worked from 1986-1988 at Haus-Rucker-Co in Düsseldorf. From 1988-1991 he worked for Professor Ungers in Cologne while studying at the Düsseldorf Art College. In 1990 he completed his studies under Professor Ungers and qualified as ‘Meisterschuler’ (Master Student). From 1991-2013 he was managing director of Busse & Geitner Architects, 2003 he became partner and managing director of Phase 5 Düsseldorf. He is married with two children and lives in Düsseldorf.

_MG_5532_crop_DXODirk Landrock was born in 1974 in Duisburg. While he was still studying architecture in Düsseldorf he worked for Busse & Geitner Architects. In 2003 he became partner in Phase 5 Ltd, in 2008 managing director. He is married, has three children and lives in Düsseldorf.

_MG_5667_DXOMartin Welp  was born in 1965 in Lengerich. After studying architecture at the Technical University in Karlsruhe he worked in Magdeburg. In 1997 he joined Busse & Geitner Architects in Düsseldorf. In 2003 he became partner in Phase 5 Ltd and in 2008 managing director. He lives and works in Düsseldorf.