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Krier Kohl Architects brings order and meaning to cities torn apart by World War II and its lingering aftermath.

By Kim A. O'Connell

After the bombs of World War II had done their devastating duty, the German city of Potsdam was in ruins, with many of its glorious Prussian-era buildings severely damaged. Cut off by the infamous Berlin Wall, Potsdam suffered further in the post-war era when the remains of its historic city center were largely demolished rather than rebuilt. With the passage of time, however, the city has embraced its history and endeavored to restore its grandest old buildings, including the 18th-century Potsdam Castle Sanssouci. This work extends to a growing appreciation of traditional urban planning, as illustrated by the new village of Kirchsteigfeld.

Since its completion in 1996, the village has transformed a once-derelict field southeast of Potsdam. It remains one of the largest housing construction projects undertaken in the former East Germany since the country's reunification. With three main sections grouped around a central market square, complete with a church, schools, shops and offices, Kirchsteigfeld represents the full realization of the New Urbanist ideal – a mix of uses, a thriving community and a distinct sense of place. Its vibrancy and variety are the handiwork of some 25 different architects, but the cohesiveness and logic of its master plan are due to one firm – Krier Kohl Architects.

Led by Rob Krier and Christoph Kohl, this Berlin-based office has designed a wide range of buildings and developed dozens of major urban-planning projects over the past 15 years. Both principals are committed to work that repairs the fabric of urban life, which they believe has been seriously undermined in the decades since World War II. "Modern cities are mainly constructed in freestanding buildings," says Krier. "The traditional type of urban villages disappeared in modern spaces after the last world war. You could see this dramatic loss of urban space in both new areas and the historical centers. Throughout my career, I have tried to rediscover the quality of traditional cities."

A Family Business
Most architects have some crystallizing moment, some compelling memory that sets them on the inevitable course toward the design profession. The seeds of Rob Krier's long and fruitful career, for example, were planted in several places – his father's tailor workshop, the old cities of France and Italy where the family vacationed, and the medieval mansion where his great-grandfather lived, with its thick gothic walls and vaulted salons.

"When I was around 12 years old," Krier recalls, "I began to copy plans showing the building alterations of this house which my father saved in his wardrobe. These blueprints were for me such an amazing attraction that I tried to copy the technique by drawing, with a red or blue pencil, houses for myself. These were the original motivations that plunged me into the profession."

Born in Luxembourg, Krier studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich in the early 1960s, where he received a surprisingly traditional education. "I was a little bit shocked because I wanted to be a Modern architect like Le Corbusier and the other Modern pioneers," he says. "But one of my teachers was writing a book on how to construct brick walls, and in the early 1960s this was unbelievable and not fashionable. It was a craftsman's education."

Krier was converted. After the university, he spent the first decade of his professional career in the offices of architects O.M. Ungers and Frei Otto. He became part of an influential group of neo-traditional architects that included Massimo Scolari, Aldo Rossi, Mario Botta, and Rob's renowned brother, Léon Krier. He published several important articles and books on urban spaces and architectural composition. He also began teaching architecture at the University of Stuttgart and from 1976 to 1998 was professor at the Technical University of Vienna, with guest professorships and lecturing tours at universities in the United States and abroad.

Despite this success, Krier and his colleagues have repeatedly fought the enduring stigma of the Nazi regime, which had appropriated Germany's traditional buildings to lend credence to their cause. To some German intellectuals, New Urbanism results in gated, gentrified communities, which extends, in their minds, to un-democratic ideals. Krier says that he and his brother were even called fascists early in their careers. Design work could sometimes be difficult to come by, and Krier entered many competitions as a way to keep his ideas fresh and the practice alive.

Thankfully, some German decision-makers embraced a traditional approach to rebuilding their cities in the post-war era. Krier's earliest planning work included two major projects developed under the auspices of Berlin's International Building Exhibition, an effort in the late 1970s and early '80s to restore some of the building typologies of the pre-war era. Krier's master plan for the Ritterstrasse, the first of the two plans, is for 23 apartment buildings organized around two courtyards and a central mall. The buildings themselves, designed by several European architects and completed in 1980, are spare and modern, but the overall plan is all about connectivity and flow. The second project, called the Rauchstrasse, includes nine urban villas designed by several architects, including Aldo Rossi and Hans Hollein, and was completed in 1985.

While Krier was making a name for himself, Italian-born Christoph Kohl was studying architecture at the universities of Innsbruck and Vienna, where he embraced the work of Rob Krier, Aldo Rossi, James Stirling and other Post-Modernists or traditionalists. During this time, his life took an auspicious turn when he met his future wife – who happened to be Krier's daughter. "He was at that time a very famous personality and he was one of the outstanding protagonists of the so-called Post-Modernism, which in the '80s in Europe was very popular," says Kohl. "In that period he was very famous, not because of the quantity of buildings that he did, but because of his message. To me as an architecture student it was exciting."

Later, the patriarch and the son-in-law decided to start a practice together, initiating an informal partnership in Vienna in 1989 that became the Berlin-based office in 1993. "Both my mother-in-law and my wife tried to convince me that it might be a bad idea to collaborate with Krier," says Kohl. "He's a pure artist. He needed someone to care for his office. This was also the beginning of computer-aided design. Krier was convinced by someone to buy a CAD computer, which was extremely expensive at the time. Nobody knew how to work with it, and I was very interested, so I introduced this new technology in a quite traditional studio."

Krier tells a similar version. "My daughter naturally was afraid the partnership would end in a family drama," he says. "But after Christoph had worked in Vienna on other projects for a while I told him quite simply, let's try it. He has good academic training, and he can manage the thing. He is precise, quick, and takes care of the money." Their complementary natures point to the precise reason Rob and Léon Krier have never created a formal practice together, even though they have collaborated many times. The brothers are too similarly ambitious and artistic, Krier says, to allow for the compromise that a successful firm requires.

Defining Public Spaces
Since launching the firm, Krier the artist and Kohl the pragmatist have been united not only by family ties, but also by their common mission to reshape European cities, placing a special emphasis on Germany and the Netherlands. Kirchsteigfeld, the first major collaboration between the principals, was a massive undertaking five years in the making. Although the design is assertive, it's hardly groundbreaking, and that's just as the architects intended it. Buildings top out at five stories, green space is ample and a streetcar line connects the village to Potsdam.

"In Germany architecture has to be strong, brutal and radical, and only then is it considered architecture," says Kohl. "For us, the main issue at Kirchsteigfeld is the urban space. In our work we are very clearly defining public spaces and private spaces, and we have very clear façades to the houses that are evidently public. The backside is more private, less decorated. The second facet is that every urban pattern is very composed; streets are leading from square to square."

Despite this success, Germany has not been quick to embrace New Urbanism. As a result, Krier and Kohl have increasingly turned their attention to the Netherlands, where they have found an enthusiastic clientele that has been disenchanted with the country's pervasive cheaply realized Modernist schlock. "Instead of making decorations, famous Modern architects chose very expensive materials, like Mies van der Rohe did for the Barcelona Pavilion," Kohl explains. "For the moneymaking developers, however, Modernism in the Netherlands leads to the most basic, cheapest architecture you could imagine. We realized that the Dutch market was absolutely waiting for an office that satisfies the basic human needs in terms of fine, cozy atmosphere, streetscapes, traditional materials and other things that were cancelled by the Modern way of building."

Currently, the firm has about 20 projects in the Netherlands. Among the most ambitious is the new town of Brandevoort, between the cities of Eindhoven and Helmond. Emphasizing density and livability, Brandevoort is complex of distinct but connected villages for some 20,000 residents. The town center includes shops, a school, restaurants and some 1,500 rowhouses built in traditional style, meant to recall historic Dutch buildings. Two blocks of 45 houses each were actually designed by visiting American students in the Rome Studies Program of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture – who produced the "freshest ideas" one could imagine, Krier says. "You can drive over two hours through Brandevoort and discover innumerable different details," he adds. "We found the best architects in the locality to produce the designs. We also tried to keep the layout of the fields and the canals, the trees, the small sections of woods, so our respect for the history was not just in looking at the architecture, but also looking at the quality of the land."

Another long-term project has special meaning for Rob Krier – the plan for the so-called Cité Judiciaire, or Court of Justice, in his home country of Luxembourg, which was conceived in conjunction with his brother Léon. The plan calls for the various municipal departments to be housed in small buildings that together make up a logical urban space, rather than accommodate them all in one monolithic building. Other master plans include De Resident, a commercial and residential project in the center of The Hague that is arranged around a horseshoe-shaped courtyard; Consuls de Mer, an integrative new waterfront development in Montpellier, France; and the Meander, a mixed-use residential and commercial block in Amsterdam.

"[W]e are often accused of cheap populism," Krier writes in his recent monograph on the firm, called Town Spaces (Birkhäuser). "The apartments in the Meander were sold within a short time, and their occupants are delighted. Our buildings are designed for their residents, and they do not burden their environment with abstract design. Buildings remain buildings. People appreciate the variety created by color and materials. The residents' satisfaction is the architects' reward."

This is indeed the case in Europe, where the negative connotations of New Urbanism persist at the governmental level but are slowly being dissipated among the populace. Most of Krier and Kohl's plans have a pleasant, natural courtyard or areas where people can congregate and interact. "The American ethos, from the time of Thomas Jefferson until today, tends to work against the collective in favor of the individual," writes architect Michael Graves in the introduction to Town Spaces. "We in America feel that the reverse has always been true in Europe. Architects such as Krier and Kohl have capitalized on this European urban tradition of defining the collective."

Today, Rob Krier is just as likely to be crafting a sculpture at his home in Italy as he is to be toiling in the Berlin office. But he remains committed to the firm's growing roster of clients across Europe and to encouraging younger architects to enter the field. Krier's motivation may have come from the destruction of the continent's historic cities, but his partner Kohl is now just as driven by their homogenization. "My motivation to work in this field of traditional architecture is that I'm a victim of globalization," says Kohl. "There is a big danger that one day we will live in environments that will all look the same. I believe that our architecture offers a sense of home in a world that gets more and more globalized. As we lose our real roots, I strongly think that, to feel like home, our new settlements will have to have a very strong identity." TB

 

 

 
 

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