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Culture

Architect of Modern China Turns 70

Star architect Meinhard von Gerkan has left his stamp all over Germany, but as he celebrated his 70th birthday on Jan. 3, he was most feted for his work as the architect of modern China.

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Meinhard von Gerkan's vision: Luchao Harbor City near Shanghai

The birthplace of China's future architectural landmarks is the modest headquarters of Von Gerkan, Marg, and Partners (gmp), overlooking the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany. In addition to churches and two trade fair centers, the company is working on the ambitious Luchao Harbor City, a seaport for 300,000 inhabitants near Shanghai.

Not long ago, gmp also won the competition to build a "grand theater" in Qingdao, China. Now, they'll be the ones to erect a cultural complex with three auditoriums for 3,300 audience members. And until 2007, the German firm will also be working on another prestige project -- China's new national museum in Beijing.

Deutschland Architekt Meinhard von Gerkan

Hamburg architect Meinhard von Gerkan

"We try to boil every design down to a few core questions, in order to find the most natural answer," said von Gerkan when asked to characterize his company's concept.

This approach isn't only evident in China but also in Germany, von Gerkan's home. Lübeck's congress hall, the new airports in Hamburg and Stuttgart, Berlin's new Lehrter train station and Dresdner Bank office, or the new lecture halls for the Technical University in Chemnitz -- despite plentiful use of steel and glass, Meinhard von Gerkan's buildings never seem cold. His work is a combination of timeless, modern elements and subtle, contemporary concessions.

Meinhard von Gerkan: Bauten in Chemnitz und München

Lecture halls at the Technical University in Chemnitz; plan for a new football stadium in Munich

Humble beginnings

Von Gerkan was born in the Latvian capital, Riga, but after fleeing the East, grew up as an orphan with a foster family in Hamburg. He first studied law and then physics before switching to architecture.

As students, Von Gerkan and his future partner Volkwin Marg began winning design competitions for other architects. That laid the foundation for the success of their company, gmp. Forty years ago, the pair won the competition to design Berlin's Tegel airport, and since then, they've collected more than 160 top prizes.

Under Marg's direction, the firm completed down-to-earth projects like Hamburg's Hanse-Viertel downtown district, or the Neue Messe trade fair center in Leipzig. In contrast, von Gerkan always pursued the novel. Today, the pair employ around 300 staff at their "idea factory," which has several subsidiaries in addition to the Hamburg headquarters.

Meinhard von Gerkan, Luchao Harbour City

Meinhard von Gerkan, Luchao Harbor City

In reality, von Gerkan isn't a "star architect," but rather, he's known for being publicity-shy. Still, he is noticeably proud of gmp's success in China. The new national museum in Beijing will have the dimensions of a giant congress hall -- larger than three football fields.

"We have to have something to set against the adjoining gigantic open space of Tiananmen Square," von Gerkan said. With analogies to historic temple architecture, his plan attempts to meld the old and the new. "For me, it's important that people feel comfortable in a new building and are able to find that bridge to their own culture."

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