German Architecture

Going Against the Grain

In 2016 the Schmuttertal school in Bavaria also won the 2016 prize for sustainable construction, awarded by the German Sustainable Building Council. This year, it won the German Prize for Architecture. Source: DGNB / Stefan Müller-Naumann

When Schmuttertal, a high school in the Bavarian village of Diedorf, inaugurated its brand new building, it wasn’t long before graffiti turned up in the locker room. Kids will be kids, of course – but the school’s principal was incensed. Over the intercom he made it clear how despicable it was for them to have vandalized the new space. And a few days later the graffiti was gone, scrubbed clean by the students themselves. Two years later it hasn’t happened again and perhaps now it never will, considering the building has been awarded Germany’s most prestigious architectural prize.

“An incredibly intelligent, subtle structure,” is how Markus Allmann, the architect who led the jury for 2017’s German Prize for Architecture, describes it. “Nothing can be taken away, nothing added, everything has its meaning.”

Architects Florian Nagler and Hermann Kaufmann won €30,000 for the design, on the outskirts of a scenic nature park. The building echoes its surroundings, as it is built from sustainable wood and built according to architectural traditions of the region, with four structures, each three storeys high, encircling a schoolyard. But what the jury loved most was the Schmuttertal high school’s understated aesthetic, breaking convention by refusing to be eye-catching while not being so contrived as to be minimalist.

The Schmuttertal high school is an example of how exceptional architecture can still exist within German architecture's unwritten rules about modesty and practicality.

The high school is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” explained Mr. Allmann, a departure from “too much yelling” in architecture over recent years. It does not cry for attention, but displays a “quiet beauty while discovering the seemingly nondescript.” It’s all in the details – for example, in a hallway bathed in natural light by solar panels on the roof, reflecting off whitewashed wood; or on spruce shelves built at varying widths across the facade. The architects responded to wishes from the school for an “open learning environment,” reminiscent of a marketplace, among school buildings and classrooms.

Simplicity and sensibility – rather than bold flourishes – was a common theme among prize winners honored by the Federal Chamber of German Architects this year. Take also the Bremer Punkt project by LIN Architects, which thoughtfully addresses the current demand for affordable housing. The development is an example of so-called systems building, in which modular structures are assembled using ready-made components. Construction is not only quick, but inexpensive and customizable: Layouts include two, three and six-room apartments to make up a total of 11 residential units. With prototypes currently on display at a showsite in Bremen, the project focuses on infill development, or making the most out of already developed urban areas by using vacant or underused pockets of land.

This postmodernist approach might go against global building trends, but it is nothing new in German architecture. Matthias Sauerbruch won the German Architecture Prize two years ago with his partner Louisa Hutton for the Immanuel Church in Cologne, another simplistic design that uses raw natural wood and natural light, going against the typical pomp of places of worship. According to Mr. Sauerbruch, “compulsively wanting to be original” has long been perceived as “pretentious” in German architectural circles.

Jahresrückblick 2016 Niedersachsen und Bremen
The Bremer Landesbank headquarters in Bremen. Source: Focke Strangmann/DPA

There is much talk about the “Bilbao Effect”: the idea that building a grand new cultural institution can put a city on the map, in turn attracting more investment, tourism and a cultural scene. The term comes from the Spanish city of Bilbao, which became better known after so-called “starchitect” Frank Gehry built a local hall for New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The “Bilbao Effect” supposedly pushes architects to outdo each other with over-the-top, vanity projects – the more bells and whistles, the better. But among young German architects, the trend has never caught on.

Mr. Nagler, one of the architects responsible for the high school in Diedorf, says he wants nothing to do with that sort of excess. He prefers moving lightly on a site and reacting to what is there already with sensitivity. It is not about novelty for the sake of novelty. For him, building with a sense of authenticity is the first responsibility of an architect.

Former prize winner Mr. Sauerbruch has mixed feelings on this. He says “a German culture of consensus” presents awards with a bias towards the practical and pragmatic. Jury leader Mr. Allmann also admits to Germany sometimes missing the courage, the passion, to experiment. In Germany, he says, there is often compromise.

The Schmuttertal high school is an example of how exceptional architecture can still exist within those unwritten rules. The Bremer Landesbank headquarters, by the London architectural team Caruso St John, is too. The building is in the same area as the cathedral and city hall, influenced by northern German brick expressionism, but without imitating it directly. The building has a wavy facade that accentuates the three-dimensional appeal of the concrete while being reminiscent of one of the historic sites. Hopefully it won’t become too trendy, too soon.


A version of this article originally appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication WirtschaftsWoche. Barbara Woolsey, a writer for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin, also contributed to this article. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!