by Dilpreet BhullarMar 02, 2021
As architecture continues to be a global profession, more and more architects find opportunities in their own regions, engaging with local communities and together focus on creating projects that are most relevant to them. To illustrate this tendency, I spoke with German architect Christoph Hesse (b. 1977). In 2008, after studying architecture at ETH Zurich and urban design at GSD, Hesse went back to his home village of just 200 inhabitants, Referinghausen in the low forested mountain range in Sauerland in Central Germany, to start his practice. He was soon approached to renovate an old abandoned train station building to be converted into a small co-working space in Korbach, a nearby town. While his client took over two thirds of the building, Hesse decided to move into the rest of the space, which is still the base of his practice, now employing 15 architects, with the second studio operating in Berlin since 2018. The architect is the recipient of the Design Vanguard 2020 prize and the winner of "40 Under 40 Award" organised by the European Center for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies. We discussed two of his local projects: “Open Mind Places” that was largely realised during the pandemic last year and “Ways of Life”, a living and working community of experimental dwellings that the architect is planning as a collaborative effort with likely-minded international architects from around the world.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let’s talk about your Open Mind Places that you realised in your home village. These nine follies are called: Sound of the Sun, Drop of Sky, Plow, Wildfire, Origin, Straw Thermae, Upper Woods, Lower Woods, and Pagan Temple. These intriguing pieces were designed and built with the help of your family, local residents, and friends. It is such a wild idea. Where did it come from?
Cristoph Hesse (CH): The initiative came from me, but it doesn’t mean that similar projects don’t exist elsewhere. When I first talked about it to our mayor, my family, and my friends they were all very positive about it. It was a kind of fire burning in me that I brought to other people and they supported me entirely. Suddenly it became a community project, in which many people are authors. That’s the key aspect. I realised a long time ago that if you treat everyone at your office with respect and let everyone express their views and talents the result will be better. People will be much more motivated, and their input will have greater presence and relevance. I try to promote a productive climate of positive efficacy and effectiveness at our office.
VB: Do you see this project as a kind of laboratory? What is it about?
CH: Certainty. Some of these places are permanent pavilions. Others are built to host one-time specific public events. And they are meant to change people’s perspectives. They are strategically placed, and it was communally decided where they should go, what they should be, and even how to name them. And why not? It is so wonderful to observe how people discuss these ideas and these engaging discussions bring people together, which is the whole purpose of this project. And when we exchange ideas, we can address issues that are important to us. These nine objects or stations are places to think and reflect, and, most importantly, to invite people to meet, exchange thoughts and generate new ideas.
One of the nine Open Mind Places is called ‘Wildfire’. It was built as a central piece to attract people from the region to discuss environmental issues and the effects of climate change. During the fire burning ceremony people discussed how they could address the issue of dying trees in the area and how the community can help. One of the farmers presented an AI technology that helps to plant the right kinds of trees for each place. For example, if you want to plant a particular tree, the program will help you to find where it will grow better or what kind of tree you should plant in a specific place. Without this tool, simply by relying on intuition, may cause all kinds of environmental damage. It is incredible that farmers discuss AI and find solutions to their issues.
VB: These follies are very sculptural pieces. And in one of your interviews you said that if you were not an architect you would want to be a sculptor. Yet, you just said that these pieces are produced collectively. What about their design?
CH: Sure, the initial design ideas come from me and my office. I wouldn’t want to ask the community to work on the design. We are the architects; we are trained for these kinds of tasks. At least we need to start and put something on the boards. But then we engage in discussions and we like when ideas are expressed and they can impact our designs as far as the placement, choice of materials, and even forms. It is an open process that continues all the way through the construction.
VB: Let’s talk about your “Ways of Life” project, which is quite unusual and yet, representative of its time. It is in the countryside, it is driven by a sustainable living model, and it is an international collaboration of forward-thinking architects of your generation. Tell me more.
CH: Originally, I was approached by a client, a local developer. Together we went to the local mayor who was happy to receive us because he was already thinking about modernising the region to fight depopulation. He offered us the site for this project, saying that he would not divide it into separate lots to sell to the highest bidders. From the beginning it was a community fostering project. The site was abandoned for a while and needed to be revitalised. Honestly, I could have designed all the houses on my own, but after house number five, six, seven, they would all start looking the same. To bring real diversity here I had to open the project to other people.
That’s how the “Ways of Life” became a team project by 19 international architecture firms. Together with Neeraj Bhatia, a friend of mine from San Francisco who I know from Harvard, we invited friends and acquaintances. Among them are Jürgen Mayer H from Germany, Tatiana Bilbao from Mexico, Pezo von Ellrichshausen from Chile, Dogma from Belgium, and other architects of roughly my generation from Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, Poland, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, and the US. It is all about exchange of thoughts and ideas. The countries where these architects are coming from are facing very similar problems in their countryside, so why not address them together as a global community? How will we live in rural areas in the future in a sustainable way? It is a global issue.
The site is located on Scheid peninsula on the lake Edersee near a small town Waldeck, which is very close to Korbach where my practice is based. The idea is to propose an alternative way of life by creating diverse architecture to attract interesting clients. Each architect was given specific site and asked to develop an experimental dwelling. The main question we asked all participating architects was – how can we live and work today? Our projects will manifest this condition. And we decided that the point was not to target a typical family in this region, but to ask a bigger question – how do we want to live and work in a rural context today? Of course, this would need to be a sustainable, energy-efficient community, but also it would need to be culturally diverse.
VB: I understand that you already have some of the real clients for these houses. How did you find them?
CH: It is quite interesting because they actually found us. They heard about us from friends or local news. We don’t advertise this development but people in the region know about us. There are many workers, craftsmen, scientists, academics, and other creative professionals in the area who are interested in such collaborative living and working model. They surely would like to live in a much more interesting place, not in a boring house most live in now. Why not take advantage of a much more experimental house which is off-grid and other things that you always dreamed of. Now it is possible in this small new development for a prize that is quite affordable. Some even build their house on their own. This is what we offer. All the current clients are locals, but the project is open to everyone. Also, I imagine that some professionals who left the area for cities and now are thinking of coming back would be very attracted to such a new model.
These houses include a seminar center/house, a therapy center, a workshop. There are real people, real clients – a sports and exercise specialist, writer, plumber, gardener, AI scientist, there are all kinds of professions, but more than that, they are of different milieu. It is important to create an environment where people would come together and talk to each other. These are all very different people – traditional families, a group of friends, gay couple, singles, you name it. And the idea here was not only to create the right context where buildings would talk to each other, it is important to stimulate people living here to talk to each other. We are not building these houses as a speculative project that would fall from the sky. First, we find real people who want to live and work there. The houses are designed as concepts, not in detail, and they will be adjusted and finalised once their owners are identified. All the designs sit in my office and can be viewed and discussed by the potential clients. Last year we prepared the site and infrastructure. There is already high-speed internet in place and so on. So far, we have six or seven buyers and that’s how many houses are going to be built initially.
VB: And one of these houses will be your own family’s new home, right?
CH: Yes, it is called Open House and my family can’t wait to move there. My kids are always asking me, “When are we moving to the Open House?” [Laughs]. I am actually very serious about this concept of openness because I would love to invite people to come to share ideas, exchange thoughts, and discuss all kinds of issues. Of course, it will also be a private house, but why not combining the two? In a way, there will be no ground floor, it will be all open to community gatherings, while the house will be elevated to the second floor and cantilever over it.