Berlin, Mitte: cranes tower into the infinite sky and the dull sound of jackhammers in the distance provide a constant soundtrack. No matter which direction you look, construction takes place as far as the eye can see. Tobias Wallisser stands on the roof of the former Köngstadt brewery that today serves as his architectural office. While scanning the activity below he asserts, “When you stand up here, you can understand why I chose Berlin.”
After many years abroad with his wife Leonie, Tobias decided to return to Berlin. The constant change within the city and free space attracted the couple. Intending to shape local and international built environments while taking part in the German capital’s metamorphosis, together they hope to influence cities of the future.
Tobias is the co-founder of the architectural office LAVA – Laboratory for Visionary Architecture – a network for creative ideas with offices in Berlin, Stuttgart and Sydney. Established in 2007 alongside Chris Bosse and Alexander Rieck, the team of three offer differing professional experiences and live on separate continents. Each are connected by their mutual fascination in the connection between nature and technology.
Leonie has her roots in Australia. After her studies in architecture and art philosophy at the Dutch Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, she wanted to put something practical in motion. Interested in the application of sharpening ecological consciousness and working with nature specifically for city dwellers, Leonie founded Cityplot. This urban agricultural collective promotes the self-cultivation of organic food which supports her vision of a self-sufficient city.
We met the couple at LAVA’s Berlin office in the space of the former Königstadt brewery and talked about everything from snowflakes in the desert to rooftop gardens in Alt-Hohenschönhausen and Berlin’s notorious club Berghain.
You are the only one from LAVA in Berlin. Alexander is in Stuttgart and Chris is in Sydney. You are together but apart at the same time. What is the idea behind this unconventional collaboration?
Tobias: From the very beginning our collaboration never relied on the idea of working together in the same location. We do not have a traditional office. Perhaps we can be considered more of a network. We met like this six years ago. Everybody was living in a different country and came from different fields. Chris and I crossed paths at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 in the Australian corner. At that time the Mercedes Museum which I helped to design was exhibited. Chris was there for his design of the Water Cube Swimming Hall in Peking. We began talking and realized we had many friends in common.
Alexander and I already knew each other from university and a previous internship, however, we lost contact until we developed a project together for the Fraunhofer Corporation. He was the project manager for the employer and I was the project manager for the architectural office. One year later I received a call from Abu Dhabi with a big project proposal for a collaboration. As a consequence the three of us met there shortly after. Founding an architecture office was the best way to be able to work on this particular project and this is essentially how we started working together as a team.
Back then Leonie and I were still living in Amsterdam. I was often traveling to Stuttgart, initially for the Mercedes Museum, and later to lecture at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. Alexander was based in Stuttgart, which is why we opened up our main office there. During this time the three of us met every two weeks in Abu Dhabi.
How do you coordinate work on a daily basis?
Tobias: Our work is a very dynamic process and is constantly developing in different directions. For instance, when we work on international projects with big budgets we try to bring together co-workers from Australia and Germany. We also opened a project office in Abu Dhabi. Employees at both offices develop joint concepts together and once a project is secured everyone returns to their own city and continues working from there.
We have other ways of communicating like with our video conferences and Friday reports. The Friday report gives everyone the opportunity to see and comment on the other office’s work from the previous week.
What are the positive and negative sides of this international collaboration?
Tobias: One negative aspect is the time difference, even though this could probably be seen as something positive as well. When we work a lot and don’t have enough time, we can always say that we work 24 hours. A positive aspect would be our different influences and inspirations. Chris’s philosophy in Australia would be: “Australian lifestyle, German engineering.” That sounds better in Australia than in Germany – looking through my window right now, I can’t really imagine the Australian lifestyle amongst all this greyness.
The biggest advantage of our collaboration is our diversity of backgrounds and experience. Each one of us has had ten years of different professional experience before starting together. For instance, Alexander was formerly a researcher at Fraunhofer Corporation and also completed his doctorate there. His area of interest is ‘Soft Factors,’ defined as the influence of built environments, for instance on the creativity of people who work within the structures.
We have a common understanding of what is important to us and how things should come together. However, each of us approaches the projects differently and have a different focus so we are able to cover a large spectrum. That is because of our professional origins and locations. Environments always influence the themes you are concerned with.
Apart from the spatial separation, your concept is different from a typical architecture office. Can you explain how you set yourself apart?
Tobias: The idea is to bring together different things and apply innovative working methods. Instead of a studio or an office, we call ourselves a ‘laboratory’ in order to show that we analyze and experiment. We are very technical, but we also have a distinct ecological awareness. Leonie has helped us a lot with this. We are concerned with bringing nature and technology together. Humans naturally stand in the middle between nature and technology. We consider the natural factors humans need to feel good and examine how technology can improve this well-being. Our projects illustrate these aspects in different ways for the present and into the future, for example in 2050. All these visions are particularly important to us when working with a lot of projects in the Middle East and China.
It took a long time for architectural competitions to allow ‘visualization’ in Germany. There was resistance against working with something that would never be possible. We see that differently. One must first set up a room of possibilities and say, “What if? Couldn’t it look like this?” Through this, dreams are created which perhaps could also be realized in reality. It is not about promising things that don’t work. It is about creating a necessary design freedom and encouraging reflection on diverse topics.
An example is the illustration of Karl-Marx-Allee that LAVA designed. It is a proposal which will appear in Bild am Sonntag under the theme ‘50 Ideas for Germany’. Our contribution is a suggestion for the city’s future. “Why are German cities so grey?” “How could German cities be transformed?” Our ideas are based around three important themes: energy, agricultural and mobile revolution. Something is happening everywhere our illustration for this proposal. There are wind turbines, electric cars and urban kitchen gardens. They are all ideas concerned with how to collectively and individually deal with space. Of course we exaggerated it a bit. We don’t believe that Karl-Marx-Allee will look exactly like we have suggested in 2050 however, it gives room for new ideas.
What does ‘city’ mean to you and how do you perceive the future?
Tobias: A city has always represented man’s attempt to create paradise. The city offers things nature can only offer during specific seasons. When I need light, I turn on the light. When I need water, I turn on the tap. Cities are shaped in accordance to humanity’s wishes. We pose questions like “what do human beings need for their well-being?” and “how do we want to live?” We used Karl-Marx-Allee as a case study because it embodies a past vision of the city. It is the modern ideal: a big axis, a lot of space for cars and properly structured houses. Everything follows a master plan. We wanted to move away from this stiffness with a multi-layered vision that embraces nature.
Speaking of nature, it’s your time to join in Leonie. To what extent does your work as a landscape architect contribute to Tobias’ futuristic visions of the city?
Leonie: I don’t work with a classic approach to landscape architecture. My work is anything but traditional. I am in favour of nature determining the urban planning of a city. I also think urban greenery should not be simply an aesthetic consideration. It also has social and ecological functions within cities for its citizens. The topic of ‘Food sovereignty’ is important to me. Crop plants should play a key role in urban planting.
Tobias, your main influence is nature. What does nature teach you?
Tobias: This is a good topic. There is a discussion about biomimetics and the bionic. On one side formal designs are mere external aspects of nature, and on the other side there is the transformation of natural, functional principles. I think it is much more interesting to understand operations of elements in nature and use them as inspiration instead of only using the formal aspects. But the formal aspects of nature are also very interesting. We cannot separate one from the other.
Can you give a concrete example of a natural role model in your work?
Tobias: A good example would be the Snowflake Tower we designed for a client in Abu Dhabi. We were supposed to design a residential building with 60 floors. It had to be unique with an unforgettable silhouette, something akin to a Coca Cola bottle where everybody knows its silhouette and the other details become almost unimportant. We wanted to apply this principle to the building. We needed a very recognizable form that was also very flexible in terms of the internal space as this function was not yet determined. These dual requirements were brought together with help of design technologies. Links between individual requirements, numeric values, and geometries were established. In this way it became easier to design. Here the snowflake came in. Snowflakes are amazing. There are snowflakes that are more two-dimensional in shape and then there are snowflake shapes that are strongly articulated due to their fractal nature. We adopted the outline of a snowflake as a parameter and applied it to the high-rise tower in order to manage the facade’s proportion. Geometric control inspired by a snow flake!
Speaking of Abu Dhabi, you are involved in the mega-project of Masdar City. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Tobias: A few years ago we won a contest to design the city center of Masdar City – an arcology project in Abu Dhabi. But unfortunately it won’t be built in the proposed form. The contest was opened too early in the development stage and took place during a very prosperous period. It was originally planned to be built as an entire city of 40,000 citizens that required a city center. However, today only a few flats have been built so it can’t be referred as a ‘city’ at the moment.
It was extremely interesting to occupy ourselves with this topic. The master plan, which Norman Foster conceptualized as a technological utopia of sorts also utilizes formal references from historical structures in Moroccan cities. Energy was a big topic during the planning for Masdar. For example, the buildings that use energy also generate energy themselves. We considered factors such as how much energy would be necessary for the construction of the building, how much energy would be used to transport building materials, how much energy would be used for the production of building materials, and how much energy the buildings would consume when operating.
The aspiration was to make Masdar the first C02 free city. Even if the realization was only carried out partially it would be a great achievement. Themes were brought up that are interesting to all cities, like the topics I touched on earlier: the idea of energy generation in cities, the renewal of mobility systems, the digital networking or information-sharing between individual parts, and, something that was less a topic in the desert, greenery within the city.
What could we learn from Abu Dhabi here in Berlin?
Tobias: This is an exciting question. When I studied in Berlin in the beginning of the 90s, it was quite common to define Berlin as the laboratory of modernity based on the understanding that Berlin is a city continuously in the process of becoming. It is a very exciting concept! Leonie and I had lived in Berlin for a long time. When we returned after time away many things had changed. Compared to other cities there is a lot of free space in Berlin. Today the city is even less populated than it was 20 years ago. The infrastructure is actually suitable for a much larger and more dense population.
Through the idea of Berlin as a laboratory of modernity, there are often big plans that aim for a ‘Stadtkrone’ – an overall picture. Unfortunately only a fraction of people decide what is beautiful and what should be transformed. Often there are property developers looking for the maximum commercial gain. The most interesting ideas can often come from subcultures within a city.
But what happens when subculture turns into high culture? An example of this is the club Berghain. Berghain is housed within a former power plant that was rebuilt with the charm of the original structure very much kept in mind. I don’t want to deny Berghain’s great qualities. However, through its success you can see in this instance how a romantic image of high-culture and subculture blur. Through the process of urban development these categories are often still taken in consideration. I think there are many creative pioneers here in Berlin and a lot of exciting architecture that relates to each other in opposition.
The typical competition procedures don’t leave much room for visions and ideas, but maybe that’s not just in Berlin. The idea of a contest to create broad possibilities with new ideas resulting in the best one winning has perished a long time ago. Currently there is a need to please everyone involved. Basically what is required is the administration of what is already here but just on a higher and more advanced level. I don’t think it’s wrong to continue building the city but we must work towards some sort of unified ‘development.’
The key topics of the day have to be addressed. Returning to the example of Masdar again, for us it was an icon of the ‘health age’ that we are currently living in. Perhaps it’s comparable to the Eiffel Tower as an icon of the industrial era. Nowadays people have a need for a healthy environment, a healthy life. It is independent of the location, it is a contemporary need. City planning has to react to this and concern itself with tackling how to create decentralized energy supplies, how to create mobility for everyone and how to use less energy.
What changes are taking place in Berlin?
Tobias: We are working on a unique multi-use project in Alt-Hohenschönhausen. The concept is called ‘Life, Nature, Sport.’ The residential building is located at a sporting venue close to Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg and at Orankesee. The overall project is balanced and connected with its direct environment. It aims to continue using the formal possibilities within Berlin’s existing framework. Therefore, lighting conditions are optimized, a sense of community is cultivated, and roof gardens and green elements are integrated.
Are you also involved Leonie? Do urban kitchen gardens emerge in Alt-Hohenschönhausen?
Leonie: I am a consultant. It is important to co-develop from the very start to ensure green areas are part of the overall system. Whatever plants will be planted in the end is decided later.
Is Berlin as a city open to kitchen gardens?
Leonie: Yes, absolutely. There are already a lot of urban gardening initiatives. The beautiful thing about this is that there is no competition. It’s about working together. However, Cityplot is a bit different in this regard. From the very beginning I tried to look at how I could make connections with architecture, rather than the other way around.
You started in Amsterdam, now you are in Berlin. How would you compare these two cities?
Leonie: Cityplot was accepted very positively in Berlin. In Holland it was a bit different, at least in the beginning. It has a very different culture. People either live rurally or in the city without anything in between and it has been this way for centuries. This is why people in the city in Amsterdam did not have much of a connection with self-sufficiency and gardening. They never realized how important it was. Many have since got involved in urban farming. They realized: “It actually feels quite nice to leave the office, get some fresh air, and plant or harvest with the neighbors.” As a result the connection with eating and growing has become a lot more direct. Cityplot in Holland supports citizens mainly through workshops and project mentoring. This awareness was already much stronger and more developed in Berlin. For that reason alone there are many other possibilities here in Berlin.
Last question – do you have a favorite building in Berlin or Amsterdam?
Tobias: That is a difficult question. As I worked in Holland for ten years, the Dutch embassy is probably the most exciting building that has been developed in recent years for me. It is able to uniquely connect the inside with the outside and draw the city into the house.
Leonie, Tobias – thank you so much for this interesting and inspiring conversation. If you wish to know more about LAVA (Tobias) visit the website here and Cityplot here.
Additionally, the article ‘Kakadu meets Karl-Marx-Allee’ will appear this Spring in Bild am Sonntag – to mark the 50th anniversary of the Art Directors Club under the topic ’50 Ideas for Germany.’
Photography: Dan Zoubek
Interview & Text: Karolin Langfeldt