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Politics, society and all the rest

Behnisch Architekten

Politics, society and all the rest
By Stefan Behnisch -

Many different factors drive decisions in developing architecture. Sometimes these factors are called parameters; sometimes they are driven by pure instinct and experience; sometimes they are mathematically generated and organized in charts or spread sheets, and sometimes they are - consciously or unconsciously - ignored. But they are always somehow present. A set of conditions always forms the basis of our decision-making.
What I will describe here are some of these factors. The list, which is not nor can be exhaustive, is subjectively formed by the way our office develops architecture.
Different political orders, cultural ideas and ideals were in constant combat during the 20th century. This led, on one hand, to a rather pragmatic approach to things. On the other, it has spurred far more content-driven developments, maybe even as part of that pragmatism. During the last 50 to 60 years, human hubris dared us believe that we could build exactly the same buildings everywhere on our planet.
We thought we could disregard climatic, cultural, topographic and political conditions. And in some areas, we still act this way. This was and is still only possible by compensating architectural shortcomings with an extensive use of cheap energy. Interestingly, the only areas where we still act so ignorantly are where energy is excessively cheap.
I would like to elaborate on the following factors, or aspects that help us form and inform our architecture:

- The urban aspect
- The public realm
- The cultural aspect
- The political aspect
- Material - how we value it
- Nature - how we treat it
- The climatic conditions
- Natural and artificial light

The Urban Aspect

Considering that in the near future 75% of all humans will live in urban centers, and considering that a majority of today’s urban centers are situated close to sea levels, we all face an urgent need to think about our urban developments.
Younger generations follow a different life plan than my generation for example. Individual transportation has become less and less important. In urban situations a car is more of a burden than an asset. Cars are no longer status symbols of wealth and freedom. Younger people want to live in cities. They want to work close to where they live, and neighborhoods, friends, schools, and leisure possibilities become very important. All this should be situated within the realm of where one lives. So, away with the ideals of the last century; future developments are looking for densification, for a better mix of uses and for identifiable neighborhoods.

The Public Realm

One very important element of the urban fabric is the public realm. It is the element that defines the neighborhood, the spaces, the qualities and the usage of various areas. The public realm is the space between buildings, the space where we move within our cities. It is partly defined by the appearance of buildings, the vast majority of which most people will never enter.
Many people think a well-functioning public realm has restaurants, coffee shops and stores. That is not necessarily right, since some very successful public realms are home to other attractions and activities. The public realm must be interesting and must create an identity. Even though it is the space in between buildings, it is a highly interesting and valuable architectural element; in particular, it defines our wellbeing within the city.

The Political Aspect

Even though many architects pretend not to be political, in the end our architecture - and theirs - defines a political stand. Architecture has often been used politically, in the good or bad sense and in good or bad systems. Political powers like to be seen through and with architecture.
There are many examples that prove, no matter how well intentioned we architects are, that our buildings and our architecture can be easily misused when placed in a different context. As architects, we must consider where we build, for whom we build and how far we are willing to let our architecture be used for political power games. We have to answer this question ourselves. This is nothing that can be regulated; it is something all architects have to decide individually. How far do we want to support political systems we would never like to live in? We have to make these decisions because we, as builders and space makers, cannot avoid political realities.

The Cultural Aspect

Architecture is a prominent human artifact. It defines a place, a time and a cultural context. It also provides us with insight as to what technical skills, craftsmanship, and engineering capabilities were common or avant-garde at a certain time.
If we think of man-made places to visit, we usually have architecture in mind. We picture Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago through architecture in the broadest sense.
Public realm, topography, streetscapes, but often also individual landmark buildings are the elements forming a picture in our imagination. So architecture is a cultural asset, a key witness to our cultural abilities. We should always be aware of this and always keep in mind that we will be judged through it, not only as architects but also as a society.


While many factors are important in developing architecture, few are as important as the choice of building materials. Materials should be chosen to suit a building’s task. Some materials are culturally connected to a region, others less so. Often the cultural connection comes through availability and tradition. Another driver in the choice of materials is grey energy, or the appropriateness of the material for the climatic background, the building’s intended use, and the expected comfort in a particular situation.
Wood, for example, is a very good, vastly underused material in contemporary architecture. It is climatically good for certain uses, has a positive embedded energy, a high reuse factor, and, in the end, can be used to regain its embedded energy. Above all, it is a renewable resource.


In societies where most people strive to live in urban situations, nature has a high value. This started with industrialization and the consequential development of workers’ living quarters that were inhumane and unhealthy. Subsequently, nature was seen anew.
As architects, we rarely address nature in its original form. Societies preserve it in vast parks and protected areas, but we want to oversee cultured, architectural landscapes. Sometimes indoors, these gardens or landscapes are important architectural features and crucial elements for our wellbeing. We are less concerned with nature in its original form and more interested in trying to reinvent or re-offer those elements of nature we long for: an idealized nature, almost as in the Romantic paintings of Joseph Anton Koch or Caspar David Friedrich.

The Climatic Conditions

Climatic context became a major driver for the development of architectural projects. We need different concepts and building skins for cooling-driven or heating-driven climates. This is even more true in climatic situations where both extremes prevail. Until now we have tried to answer climatic demands with the same building, by insulating it well or optimizing its openings. But in the end, this is a clumsy compromise. We now understand that we should design a very different building for the desert than we do for Greenland.
Even though for 60 years we thought we could ignore this, we have finally learned that it’s hotter in summer than in winter. But shouldn’t we be more consistent? Could wearing a sweater in winter and a T-shirt in summer also apply to buildings? Shouldn’t we open our buildings to the light in winter and have them wear a sombrero in summer?

Natural and Artificial Light

In architecture, light not only helps us feel well, it also helps us create space. Architecture without natural light is hardly imaginable. The photo of the Mosque in Djenne, Mali, one of the greatest adobe buildings, shows how in a deep, high room natural daylight helps create an impressive sacral space. Countless small holes in the ceiling allow enough light to flood the space to make it visible.
Today, natural light can be enhanced, transported through pipes, redirected and reflected to create perfect conditions and allow us to work with natural daylight almost the whole year round even in deep spaces. The quality of the daylight is the sensation of its change. While we can copy the colour of daylight with artificial lighting, the sensation of change, something our eye needs so as not to tire, is still very rarely achieved artificially.
Modern artificial lighting such as LEDs has revolutionized the way we as designers work with light. Efficient, long lasting, and not needing reflectors and complicated fixtures, LED lighting allows us to design and apply completely new ways of bringing artificial light into our rooms.
What we need to keep in mind when designing with light - natural or artificial - is the fact that light is immaterial and not visible. Only its reflection is detected by the eye when it hits a surface.

Stefan Behnisch



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