Founded in 1993, Berlin-based practice Barkow Leibinger has become known for a research-based approach to design that fully explores the possibilities offered by tools, fabrication techniques and materials. In the following essay, adapted from his contribution to Barkow Leibinger's monograph Barkow Leibinger: Spielraum, art critic Hal Foster examines the historic context of the practice's work and the influences that have shaped their production.
One origin myth of modern architecture involves the voyaging of German designers like Walter Gropius to North American cities such as Buffalo, where they first saw in situ the industrial structures, such as grain elevators, that they had already proposed as models for functionalist buildings in Europe. The partnership of Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger is a new variation on this old theme of international encounter: in the late 1980s the American Barkow and the German Leibinger met at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD, where Gropius had once presided as chair). In the literature on the office, this encounter is taken as a primal scene: Frank Barkow, the rangy man from Montana, impressed by the huge infrastructural projects and the great land art of the American West (e.g., hydroelectric dams, in the first instance, Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, in the second), meets Regine Leibinger, the sophisticated daughter of the innovative director of TRUMPF, the designer-manufacturer of laser-cut tools based near Stuttgart (which is also where a classic of European modernism, the Weissenhof Siedlung, is located). After training at the GSD, under the chairmanship of Rafael Moneo, the two young architects set up a practice in Berlin, in 1993, at a time when the new Europe came to represent what the old America once did: an expanded horizon for ambitious building.