Innovating in an ideal world
Sustainable architecture is Stefan Behnisch’s hallmark. He and his international team realize projects worldwide without neglecting the cultural, geographical or political contexts. The celebrated architect granted CORPUS insights into his work.
The celebrated architect Stefan Behnisch is regarded as one of the key advocates of sustainable architecture. The teams at the Behnisch Architekten offices in Stuttgart, Munich and Boston make their visions reality, a recent example being a conference hall built entirely of wood at the Place des Nations in Geneva. The fact that they put as much passion into building a multi-storey parking lot in Santa Monica underlines that in the eyes of Stefan Behnisch there is no such thing as a trivial construction project. It simply is about making the best out of each construction task.
In conversation with CORPUS, the architect explains his understanding of sustainability, his expectations of construction materials of the future and why it sometimes makes sense to think like a child.
CORPUS: Mr. Behnisch, what does "sustainable architecture" mean for you?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: The term "sustainability" originally came from forest management. It's a bit like the "seven generation" principle of the Native Americans: You shouldn't take more out of the forest than can grow back over the same period. I always try to explain it to my students by telling them that we ultimately all have to answer the question: Was the building worth constructing? Because – let's not delude ourselves – every building impacts the environment. We have to extend the concept of sustainability to include such aspects of quality as quality of life, cultural quality and efficiency as well as giving consideration to various contexts like politics, geography and culture. Otherwise we shall never manage to construct a building that truly deserves to be called "sustainable".
CORPUS: What materials conform to your idea of future-oriented and sustainable architecture?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: First of all, there are the obviously sustainable materials. These are existing or renewable resources like wood, stone and recycled materials. Then there are so-called smart materials that have a high gray energy value but more than compensate for it with their performance. Take, for example, phase-change materials (PCM) that are very good at storing energy, or very light materials that are easy to transport and thus have a relatively small carbon footprint. And there are big and exciting development projects with materials and foams that have high insulation properties, are solid and also capable of performing structural tasks at the same time.
CORPUS: When designing a building, don't you sometimes have to choose between innovative potential and affordability?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: Okay, building is expensive and bad housing doesn't usually cost less than good housing. And dumb houses aren't any cheaper than smart houses. When we design a building, we first search for the ideal solution. This ideal solution is then examined in terms of timing, cost, structural analysis and feasibility. It's very important to first linger a while in the ideal world – without doing so, innovation wouldn't ever have a chance. Because innovation is by definition unrealistic since there's no previous experience to go on.
CORPUS: Is it possible to choose a specific construction material in this ideal world?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: In this ideal world, the specification is already clear-cut, i.e. how these materials have to perform is already defined. We steer the discussion by saying: "Wouldn't it be great if…" Much the same as kids at play. "Wouldn't it be great if this material or that facade would satisfy these or those conditions?" We're not the kind of architects who first page through the components catalog to see what's available on the market. We ask ourselves: What does the material have to do? Only then do we look around on the market to see if anything suitable's already available. If this isn't the case, we often get together with companies to move development in the desired direction or we put existing materials to unconventional use.
CORPUS: Can you name us one of your personal favorites among the construction materials?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: Yes and no. It depends on the construction task. In Geneva, for a UN department, the World Intellectual Property Organization, we've just built a large conference hall for almost 1,000 people entirely out of wood. It's certainly an exciting building material that has a lot going for it in terms of quality, responsibility and friendliness. For a conference center of this kind, it is incredibly well suited, as it creates a climate typical of barracks. This means that I can quickly get the entire building complex to heat up or cool down. Wood is a very suitable construction material for a certain building type or usage. At the same time, I'm also very interested in high-tech materials. What I'd really like to do is to team up with a company to develop a sandwich panel for a façade that not only imparts structural strength but is also highly insulating and, as a phase-change material, has a high heat and cold storage capacity at the same time. For the Boston Artists for Humanity project, we're trying out this kind of thing. There are a lot of materials capable of meeting some of these requirements, but unfortunately none yet that meets them all.
We're not architects who first page through the components catalog to see what's available on the market. We ask ourselves: What does the material have to do?
CORPUS: Is there an architectural dream or a bold idea that you still want to make come true at some time?
STEFAN BEHNISCH: Actually, I've always been able to do what I wanted. Maybe I'm not such an extravagant dreamer. It is of course also possible that I'm pragmatic and have always adapted my wishes accordingly over the years. But at some point I'd dearly love to build a women's refuge in Saudi Arabia. Making the best out of each construction task I find pretty good and hard work – but also very satisfying. We recently built a multi-story parking lot in Santa Monica, California. Everyone asked me if I was crazy. But there's no such thing as a trivial construction project, there are just construction tasks approached in a trivial way. So as far as I'm concerned, every construction project has its charm.
CORPUS: Mr. Behnisch, thank you for the interview.
Biography in brief
Photos: Jörg Autermann / Christof Jantzen / David Matthiessen / Adam Mørk