"These projects not only liberate the plan; they also liberate architecture itself by fostering a new site for architectural exploration" - Sarah Whiting
This book is heavy, just as a monograph should be; twenty years of practice are not easily documented. A publication like this one is perhaps an opportunity to pause, look back and be selective about what the practice notes as achievements, which works align with its philosophy and hopefully, to position the next twenty years.
With essays by Hal Foster, Brett Steele, Sarah Whiting, Carson Chan, and Iwan Baan, Spielraum, a 423 page book from the German-American Berlin-based office: Barkow Leibinger is a unifying notebook that draws in numerous projects, experiments, competitions, diagrams and post-occupancy pictures allowing them to co-exist as a whole.
After a couple of fabrication-based publications, Atlas of Fabrication (2009) and Bricoleur Bricolage (2013), Spielraum is perhaps their most comprehensive publication so far. This is a beautiful record of the high points of a practice that is disciplinarily eloquent, tectonically fluent and aesthetically astonishing.
“Barkow Leibinger's buildings are said to display a thought process rationalized through material; they communicate with materials and form narratives with their physical properties the way a writer does with words and sentences” - Carson Chan
What makes all these projects coalesce as part of a single vision?
As Brett Steele correctly points out on his contribution essay The Architecture Thinking of Barkow Leibinger, the design commissions that architects encounter are the opposite to a well planned agenda. Practicing architects will know that the arduous process of production is never linear; it is messy, full of deadlines, briefs, clients and contingencies that often directly oppose the architect's interests.
BLA addresses design problems uniquely in this circuitous environment, perceiving architecture as an opportunity, an honest quest of finding what is needed in a given context with evident interest, from prototype to prototype; from project to project. An approach found at every scale, whether it is in one of their gallery installations or in one of their many commissions from factory giant TRUMPF. BLA defines research as ‘semi-autonomous from the demands of project and building deadlines and construction limits’ effectively dislocating the design process from research, allowing effectively to develop a repertoire of techniques that can later be used in creating architectural value.
The instruments of digital fabrication, materiality research, studied proportion and disciplinary awareness are always on the backdrop of their work; their projects often tinged with a refined aesthetic inclined towards surface effects and the spectacle of structure.
“Barkow Leibinger look to the thinking of modern architecture's most iconic of all prototypes, Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino, and turn this century-old icon nearly inside out. Along the way Barkow Leibinger's Smart Material House becomes an entirely new kind of prototype for its century. It is one that, knowingly, has been achieved by deliberately looking back to the very origins of modern architectural prototype “ – Brett Steele
Within the essays in Spielraum, Carson Chan in Barkow Leibinger in Context focuses on the successful urban understanding of the Tour total tower in Berlin, the impact of the TRUTEC office building in Korea, and the social/political relevance of the Loom-Hyperbolic installation in Marrakech. Brett Steele goes as far as comparing one of their projects, the Smart Material House to Corbusier’s Dom-ino house in terms of its groundbreaking understanding of historicity and the contemporary relevance in updating successfully a modern prototype. Sarah Withing on her essay Looking up comments, in a very laudatory manner, about the qualities of their ceiling designs for the Campus Restaurant, and the Gatehouse in Ditzingen, illustrating how these 'projects of surface' are successful in an area where no other architectural element would suffice. World famous Dutch photographer Iwan Baan (Golden Lion at Venice Biennale 2012) provides a visual essay titled The Casual Observer that deals mostly with the development and occupancy of the TRUMPF industrial campus near Stuttgart, (where many of BLA buildings are located) providing a glimpse of common office / factory life with candid shots and the occasional aerial landscape megashot.
images taken from www.barkowleibinger.com
It is within this environment that BLA chose to display their signature buildings, none which share an overt formal language that could be easily recognized, yet surely exhibit performative aspects when dealing with a specific architectural problem. And perhaps this is the primary reason on why they they have divided the projects into categories (Liminal façade, Superstructure, Make-up, Site specific and Fabrication / Research) rather than to separate them by program, as it is more common.
Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger stay almost silent throughout the book, yet their sensitivities, ideals, influences and design maximas come out in the material resolution of the projects shown in Spielraum. We will wait eagerly for their next monograph.