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Building a New Reputation Abroad

Kristine ZiwicaSeptember 9, 2004

Despite their strong architectural tradition, very few Germans get to build important projects abroad. But at this month's architecture biennale in Venice and at similar events, they're trying to change that.

Berlin's Chancellery building was designed by a GermanImage: AP

For some, German architecture invokes historic images of the Bauhaus era when Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius set a new international standard. But more recently, contemporary German architects have gone largely unnoticed, particularly abroad. Fewer than two percent are offered work beyond their country's borders, despite the fact that German exports in other fields are otherwise hot sellers.

Indeed, when architecture buffs reel off the names of those most frequently mentioned in the international design press -- and the winners of high-profile competitions for projects like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao -- Germans are not among the Gehrys, Eisenmans, Pianos and Hadids.

Reichstag Kalenderblatt
Berlin's Reichstag was designed by Norman Foster, a Brit.Image: AP

At home, they don't necessarily get a better deal: even the Reichstag, the centerpiece of "New Berlin," given a pricey architectural makeover after the fall of the wall, was designed by Sir Norman Foster, a Brit. It's hard to imagine the Brits, French or Danes passing over their own talent for such a national commission.

But as some are pronouncing Germany's days at the cutting edge of architectural innovation over -- others are taking on the task of turning things around.

Raising Germany's profile abroad

For this month's architecture biennale in Venice, curators put together a special exhibition highlighting German inventiveness, "Deutschlandscape," which they hope will prompt renewed interest among foreigners.

Meanwhile, the Federal Chamber of Architects (BAK) has launched an initiative, the Network for Architectural Export (NAX), to promote German architecture around the world and provide resources for those looking to seek their fortunes abroad. For the first time next month, NAX will attend the EXPO REAL in Munich and host a panel discussion featuring top German architects entitled, "German Architects, Worldwide Chances."

Thanks in part to such efforts, things might be starting to turn around. Three German firms were among the winners of the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awards announced in June. Still, say experts, there is much work to be done.

Inheritors of legacy go unnoticed

Bauhaus Komplex in Bernau
Bauhaus buildings, like this complex in Bernau, set a new international standard.Image: Peterhanns

How did German architecture, which with Bauhaus and the so-called "new objectivity" was once among the most forward-thinking in the world, fall so far from grace? For some, the explanation is simple: postwar German engineering, while highly regarded for its durability and quality, has simply become "unsexy."

Thomas Weller, the director of the NAX initiative concedes this is a problem. "It's true foreigners think German architecture is technically proficient, but lacks charm and espirit -- it's too down-to-earth," he told DW-WORLD.

But, Weller and others say the problem is more complicated than that, even if they do not agree on a single root cause.

Mercedes not Lamborghinis

Ingeborg Flagge, a curator at the Frankfurt-based German Architecture Museum (DAM), is not so quick to blame an unexciting product. For her, that's a matter of taste. "Germans don't build Lamborghinis, they build Porsches and Mercedes," she said.

Instead, Flagge cites more practical considerations. "For a long time, it didn't pay for German architects to work elsewhere, since in the postwar years there was plenty of work to do at home," she said. What's more, Germany, compared to other countries like Great Britain and France, does not have a colonial past and has, therefore, found it more difficult to establish cultural connections abroad.

Few stars among the newcomers

Compared to other countries, Germany does not produce what one could call "star architects," akin to Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, whose first name alone conjures up fantastic images. And not only are German architects not recognized elsewhere, they suffer from a lack of name recognition at home.

Klaus Dieter Weiss, an architecture critic, said German architects are themselves partly to blame. They are less willing to put themselves front-and-center -- call it humility or lack of self confidence.

Das Umweltbundesamt in Dessau
Sauerbruch Hutton's new environmental ministry in Dessau.Image: dpa Zentralbild

For Jens Ludloff, a partner at Sauerbruch Hutton, one of the firms awarded the RIBA prize this year, German architects' low-profile and unwillingness to tackle the question of "what should be considered 'German' in the world of design" is largely due to the historical legacy of predecessors like Hitler's architect Albert Speer, who crafted a very distinctive brand of architecture reflecting Nazi ambitions.

"Due to that experience, German architect's have a different sense of self confidence," he told DW-WORLD.

That, combined with poorly-coordinated marketing efforts -- until recently the architectural associations didn't take on overseas public relations tasks -- has contributed to the decline. Even if Germans are still producing forward-thinking work, they aren't telling anyone about it.

Stars in the making?

So who are among the unsung talents hidden away in Germany, just waiting for their chance to shine on the international stage? Weiss, author of "Young German Architects," says Hamburg-based Carsten Roth tops his list.

Architektur-Ehrung für CD-Werk in Röbel
Carsten Roth's CD packaging center in Röbel.Image: dpa Zentralbild

According to Weiss, Roth's designs, including several housing projects and a CD packaging center in Röbel, are based on provacative theoretical studies -- unusual since German architecture tends to be less theory-based. Roth plays with the complex relationship between old and new.

For Weiss, it is precisely that kind of return to theory and incorporation of more sophisticated ideas into their work, that is necessary for Germans to reclaim a top spot in the world of international architecture.