Aedes at 40: Kristin Feireiss shares the story of architecture's pioneering institution

The first private architecture gallery in Europe and one to showcase major architects in their early years, Berlin-based Aedes is celebrating 40 years of its conception this year.

by Devanshi Shah Published on : Aug 08, 2020

Established in 1980, the Aedes Architecture Forum, Berlin, in addition to being an independent institution and exhibition space was one of the first private architectural galleries in Europe. It was founded by Kristin Feireiss and Helga Retzer, with Hans-Jürgen Commerell coming on board as a co-directed in 1994. Having set a tone for what constitutes an architectural forum, Aedes is celebrating 40 years of its conception this year. STIR spoke with founder Kristin Feireiss (KF) to discuss the institution's curatorial evolution over the past four decades.

Peter Smithson, Dietmar Grötzebach, Stefan Wewerka und Alison Smithson at Aedes Architecture Forum in 1980 | STIRworld
Peter Smithson, Dietmar Grötzebach, Stefan Wewerka and Alison Smithson at Aedes Architecture Forum in 1980 Image Credit: © Ludwig Binder

DS: Aedes foundation seems to constantly go back between two precipitating events; the first being the predominance of postmodernism, and the second - the IBA. Could you elaborate?

KF: When I started Aedes, together with my partner Helga Retzer († 1984), our main idea was to communicate architecture to wider public and to create an awareness that, architecture, our built surrounding, has a strong influence on all our daily lives. But, you are right, very soon in the eighties, with the IBA Berlin (1978–1987), the first International Building Exhibition, postmodernism was advocated by the director Josef Paul Kleihues. We realised that, even as a very tiny and yet the first architecture gallery worldwide, we had to define a clear position. We were – none of us architects – convinced that architecture was and is more than only architectural style. To formulate the contraposition, we did exhibitions with architects like Peter Cook, Gottfried Böhm, Alison and Peter Smithson and Cedric Price and Zaha Hadid. In the nineties, after IBA, we organised and curated more than 10 exhibitions about the architectural development of Berlin city, from the GSW-high rise building by Sauerbruch Hutton to Peter Zumthor's Topography of Terror. As a reaction to reunification we showed exhibitions on new embassies in Berlin like the Netherlands Embassy by Rem Koolhaas, or the Austrian Embassy by Hans Hollein to name just a few. Concerning the computer aided programmes and other developments in the run of 40 years, it was clear to us to communicate architecture, also reacting to new developments in technology through our exhibition programmes, and to accompany it critically and constructively.

Kristin Feireiss in the exhibition Strohhaus by Hans-Dieter Schaal, 1982 | STIRworld
Kristin Feireiss in the exhibition Strohhaus by Hans-Dieter Schaal, 1982 Image Credit: ©Hermann Kiessling

DS: The foundation has occupied different spaces over the past 40 years. Were there different ideas better suited for each location, and how did the reunification of Berlin play into it?

KF: Reflecting its aim to reach a wider public, Aedes’ exhibition spaces have been situated in best locations near Berlin’s city centre and have always maintained free entry. The cultural discourse on space and architecture is a difficult subject to communicate. You have to 'bring' it to the people. The expansion of the Aedes ‘universe’ over time was dynamic. Our first gallery was only 40 square metres, and when we had the opportunity to move to a bigger and affordable place at the newly reconstructed S-Bahnbögen at Savignyplatz close to the Technical University and The Universität der Künste Berlin (UdK) Berlin University of the Arts, we took a chance. After the Berlin reunification it was important for us as the Architectural Forum to also be located in the former East Berlin at Hackesche Höfe (1995). For some years, we were running two galleries at the same time: Aedes West and Aedes East. At that time, we were cultural pioneers in this part of the city. Then over the years, the Hackesche Höfe premises became a touristic hotspot, we decided to move to an industrial site of what used to be a Brewery in the (former) East Berlin-Mitte, which has recently started to be developed. Due to its large space, the Pfefferberg premises gave us the possibility to develop a more extensive and innovative exhibition design.

This was a moment when we could realise our idea of Aedes Network Campus (2009) next to the exhibition venue, organising workshops and special interdisciplinary research programs for the Universities and other partners from industry, governance and science from all over the world, next to the exhibition venue.

Kristin Feireiss with Philip Johnson and David Whitney viewing an exhibition at Aedes in 1992 | STIRworld
Kristin Feireiss with Philip Johnson and David Whitney viewing an exhibition at Aedes in 1992 Image Credit: © Sebastian Schleicher

DS: What are some of the strategies that you were able to develop during the early years of setting up Aedes?

KF: Frankly spoken, when we started Aedes, we were driven by the idea to bring architecture closer to the public, but we had no concept in mind at the beginning. We developed a strategy over time at first reacting to the IBA. Nevertheless, it was clear to us that we only show what Hans-Jürgen Commerell, my partner since 1994 and I found important to communicate with others. What became clear as well, was not only to present the so-called Star-Architects whose work we found interesting, but to support the talented upcoming architecture generation. For example, when we had the show with Zaha Hadid in 1984 with her first project the "Hong-Kong Peak", it was Hadid's first exhibition worldwide and she was just at the beginning of her career.

Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher and Kristin Feireiss during Hadid’s exhibition at Aedes, 1992 | STIRworld
Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher and Kristin Feireiss during Hadid’s exhibition at Aedes, 1992 Image Credit: © Regina Schubert

What has changed in these forty years, is that we do not want to show a spectrum of recent works, but instead to focus on special themes. Like an exhibition we had on the impact of cultural buildings for the development of the cities, we had already a few shows on architecture of timber, or the focus on rural development and the interaction with nature like are current exhibition, Arctic Nordic Alpine - In Dialogue with Landscape. Snøhetta. From very early on, since 1995, part of our exhibition strategy was to focus on ecology, sustainability and climate change under the title "Building with the Sun" followed by many other exhibitions like in 1996 "Evolution- Ecology- Architecture-" by Ingenhoven, or "Bioclimatic Skyscrapers" by Ken Yeang. Aedes conceptualised and produced the touring exhibition Made in Germany – Architecture and Ecology for the Goethe-Institute in 2004. Due to international demand, the exhibition travelled in two further iterations over the course of seven years to forty-eight cities around the world.

Einblicke – Ausblicke an exhibition featuring Grüntuch Ernst Architekten in 1997 | STIRworld
Installation view of Einblicke – Ausblicke an exhibition featuring Grüntuch Ernst Architekten, 1997 Image Credit: © Jörg Hempel

DS: Which projects opened up interesting new discourses or directions for Aedes?

KF: During the period from 1996 - 2001, I was the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, NAi in Rotterdam. My partner Hans-Jürgen Commerell, developed a new series of exhibitions with a focus on architecture and urbanism in China and Asia. In 2001, we showed the first exhibition worldwide of young Chinese architects called TU MU. All the participants are now internationally renowned architects like Wang Shu, who received the Pritzker Prize in 2012, Yung Ho Chang, who became Professor and Head of the Department of MIT Architecture in Boston and the artist and architect Ai Weiwei. This was the beginning of a trustful and successful cooperation, with the architects from Asia now shown in more than twenty exhibitions. The holistic exploration of the city as a whole has come more into focus, in the same context that 'the green building' has become ecologic, than building process - architecture and the built environment became sustainable, meanwhile we talk about resilience which mirrors very well the transdisciplinary and holistic approach in our entire work.

Installation view of The World of Madelon Vriesendorp from 2008 | STIRworld
Installation view of The World of Madelon Vriesendorp, 2008 Image Credit: © Aedes

DS: The foundation has hosted designers earlier on in their careers; what was the guiding factor in those decisions?

KF: To quote my old friend Peter Cook, with whom I talked about the idea to open the Architecture gallery, already in the late seventies: Kristin, you have the right "sniff" by touching his nose. Certainly, instinct is an important aspect and curiosity to discover talents and also to follow their career over decades. If you enjoy architecture and are open and interested and socially engaged, networking is an essential part of your endeavour. In weaving this, from the very beginning I was quite creative.  And I trust my intuition, which is of course based on curiosity, experience and observations and the ability to 'read' or 'detect' societal conditions and changes and connect them with spatial demands. Most importantly all ideas that my partner, Hans-Jürgen Commerell and I have in mind, we always discuss everything with each other. 

DS: Is there a specific example you can share that really highlights this?

KF: Craftsmenship in the Digital Age is an important program we staged, along with a number of international workshops and symposia, with a big one in Shanghai last year. It reflects socio-economic challenges and technological opportunities in this time of heavy upheavals. One of our current issues of our recent programme is "Borders and Territories - Identity in Place", through formats like exhibitions, symposia and talks, we put a magnifying glass on new spatial, geopolitical and cultural possibilities related to nations and people on our planet. Part of this programme is also the upcoming exhibition of Ai Weiwei focusing, which will be open in October. Human Scale Remeasured is another programme we launched last month. We had a called for papers, and it will continue the debate on spatial conditions, economic expectations and peoples demands for wellbeing and a safe and healthy future.

Group photograph of the 2016 show Tu Mu featuring Zai Xing | STIRworld
Group photograph of the 2016 show Tu Mu featuring Zai Xing Image Credit: © Aedes

DS: Aedes has hosted exhibition by both artists and architects: how do these different perspectives shape the cultural discourse?

KF: In numerous exhibitions throughout the course of Aedes’ existence, renowned artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Madelon Vriesendorp, Annett Zinsmeister, Alexander Brodsky, Ólafur Elíasson, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg and Ai Weiwei have presented a wide variety of artistic positions that deal with architectural and urban space in the contemporary cultural discourse in both critical and playful manners, employing a range of media, from installation to sculpture, photography, film, painting, illustration, music, dance and performance.

Installation view of Kashef Chowdhury’s Faraway So Close, 2019 | STIRworld
Installation view of Kashef Chowdhury’s Faraway So Close, 2019 Image Credit: © Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

DS: From the different experiences that Kristin has had, including being the director at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, is there a direct impact linked to the evolution of the Aedes programme?

The common thread of all these artistic explorations is the creation of new spaces of possibility and thought. At Aedes, the interplay of art, architecture and the city are both an object of discussion and an active mode of experience that consciously challenges conventional forms of architectural practice. In tandem with international contemporary artists, Aedes has explored architecture and urban planning as concrete manifestations of social, political, economic and cultural conditions, while examining how transformations of these conditions are manifest within society.

2019 recipient of the OBEL AWARD Water Garden by Junya Ishigami & Associates | STIRworld
Installation view of Water Garden by Junya Ishigami & Associates at Aedes, 2020 Image Credit: © Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

DS: With the latest location of Aedes in an industrial zone, is there a potential to discuss the distinction between re-vitalisation and gentrification projects?

KF: You have to know, Aedes was one of the first to move in this revitalised former brewery.  Due to our active exhibition programme, the "Pfefferberg" area caught attention and my partner, Hans-Jürgen, could motivate artists and architects like Sergei Tchoban and Ai Weiwei and Ólafur Elíasson to move there with their studios as well. And Sergei Tchoban even built a Museum for Architectural Drawing on the site. Maybe when you ask me concerning gentrification, you have the project "The High Line" in New York by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in mind, which definitely changed the whole area around concerning the social and financial structure of this district. In "Pfefferberg" this dramatic situation was not the case, also many young families and creative crowds moved to this part of Berlin after the reunification.

Installation view of Aedes current exhibition Arctic Nordic Alpine – In Dialogue With Landscape Snøhetta | STIRworld
Installation view of Aedes current exhibition Arctic Nordic Alpine – In Dialogue With Landscape Snøhetta Image Credit: © Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

DS: How does the institution intend to continue to enhance its digital engagement?

KF: Whatever we aim with our exhibitions and activities, our strategy is not being didactic in the meaning of this word, it is based on more holistic approach, which includes information, confrontation, provocation, stimulation and entertainment. A successful exhibition requires a skilful combination of both information and enjoyment. What is needed is a design that stimulates emotional experiences and simultaneously engages the visitors actively. This calls for a new focus, which must facilitate the alternation between concentration and relaxation, entertainment and information.

Apart from its pioneering role in highlighting sustainable architectural practices, Aedes has also been at the forefront of exploring the possibilities of the digital realm within the broader architectural discourse. In exhibitions and public talks that reach beyond questions of aesthetics, Aedes investigates the ways in which novel digital tools allow for an integrated and affordable approach in the design of new living and working typologies. We have worked with the subject of augmented reality, digital production, parametric excursions, since the mid-nineties. Beside all of these important developments in the digital world, the philosophy of Aedes is based on the idea bringing people together in exhibitions and public events to talk, engage and associate in person, face to face. Analog, so to say! Time is changing so rapidly, who knows what my answer would be like in several years from now.

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