INTERVIEW WITH VOLKER STAAB
Volker Staab makes room for art: the Berlin-based architect helps water flow through walls, loves installations beneath staircases, and hates the tyranny of industrial norms. Above all, Staab is known for his museum buildings, from Nuremberg to Ahrenshoop, as well as for the sensitive way he embeds the buildings in their often historical surroundings.
For the Tagesspiegel, Björn Rosen and Susanne Kippenberger conducted a long interview with the star architect, which was the newspaper’s lead story on Sunday, August 13, 2017.
Mr. Staab, it’s said that museums are the new cathedrals, which people flock to on Sundays. When was the last time you attended a worship service?
Volker Staab: I was recently at the Museum for Communication at Leipziger Strasse with my children, nine and fourteen years old. They both really liked the robots there.
What is it that draws people?
Volker Staab: I’m always asking myself that, too. I like to watch the visitors. Many hurry through an exhibition, briefly looking here and there, and then . . .
. . . head directly for the café.
VS: Precisely! They have the feeling that they’ve done their cultural duty, and now they’re allowed to have some coffee. The attraction is, probably, that museums are not geared to any particular purpose. Spending time with art doesn’t have to result in anything. It’s different than doing something athletic, for example, when you have to achieve a certain time or distance. In the best-case scenario, you’re seduced into reflecting upon things that you might not otherwise think about. And it’s something that you can experience as a group, or do all by yourself.
You can also see that in the architecture. Efficiency is not as important as it is in other buildings. Exhibition spaces often have large foyers, are almost artworks in and of themselves. Is that why your firm builds one after the other?
VS: We tend to be forcibly specialized, even though we’re not unhappy about that. Because our museums are well-known, we’re invited to submit to those kinds of competitions. Of course, there is a certain freedom in the fact that museums are difficult to assess, in terms of economics. If you erect an office or apartment building, the investor calculates precisely: This is how much rent I’ll get, and so this is how much it can cost. On the other hand, as an architect, I like having the opportunity to enter new worlds with every new commission. That’s the case with our project in Kronberg, where we’re designing a music quarter with a small concert hall.
From the Neues Museum Nuremberg to the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt to the LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster, your buildings have remarkably large staircases. Does the fact that people have to climb up to go inside have something to do with the church feeling?
VS: I think it’s good when people can figure out by themselves where to go when they enter a public building. Have you ever been to the Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt? The stairs are way at the back; it’s more like a little emergency staircase—you can hardly find the way. That kind of thing always bothers me!
Even though galleries don’t yield rents, they are still under pressure to attract as many visitors as possible.
VS: We’ve been able to observe this development. Twenty-five years ago, when I won the competition for the museum in Nuremberg, the art was supposed to be the focus; commercialization was almost reprehensible. In those days the dominant idea was the “white cube,” a space in which the viewer and the work could encounter each other without any distractions, in undisturbed intimacy. Architects tended to be accused of wanting to steal the thunder from the art. That has changed a great deal. Today, we’re supposed to generate audiences. You can get two or three years of attention out of the architecture alone. It’s a means of making an institution visible. Then you need to have interesting shows, in order to draw visitors.
At the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which opened in 1997, the architecture remains the big attraction to this day.
VS: Behind that is the Guggenheim itself, with its enormous public relations efforts. The Bilbao effect—I can’t stand that expression any more. I was on a jury in Regensburg, where they wanted to build a museum for Bavarian history. They used that phrase there. One of the projects was a little futuristic—the spaces were completely useless. The museum direction was enthused. It was difficult to explain to the participants that this kind of approach doesn’t work everywhere. Bilbao was a decrepit port city—it needed that. Regensburg is a world heritage site; the city can do without a Frank Gehry in its silhouette.
The first time that architecture had a strong effect on you was when you went to Cologne Cathedral.
VS: I was studying in Aachen at the time, and I went to visit Cologne. The cathedral knocked me out! I had never seen such a large interior in any church before. When the sun is level and shines through the pillars, it’s very impressive. And now with Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows—the light that’s cast in the space . . .
You once said that the only experience of space your students bring with them nowadays is the experience of their own bedrooms.
VS: I’m noticing that more and more. They can do anything on their cell phones, but are clueless if you ask them if they’ve ever seen a beautiful space, and if so, what was it, and which architect designed it? Sometimes I wonder why someone like that is even studying architecture.
Why did you want to become an architect?
VS: Initially, I spent a semester studying art and philosophy. I wasn’t one of those people who knew they wanted to be an architect at the age of four. I like that the subject is so open: engineering, humanities, theoretical subjects. Architecture is, after all, social theory. Even after I graduated, I still thought I might prefer to go in the direction of theater. I took the entrance exam for the directing program at the Schauspielschule Zurich—and failed it spectacularly. At the time I was very interested in set design; I especially loved Robert Wilson’s sets. They were completely aestheticized, very minimal. Actually, I’m still interested today in how space is presented.
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You can read the whole interview (in German) online at the Tagesspiegel. In this context we'd like to thank Allison Moseley for the translation.