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.
Although Barkow Leibinger have produced both domestic and cultural projects, as well as two landmark office towers, the TRUTECBuilding in Seoul (2006) and the Tour Total in Berlin (2012), they are best known for industrial architecture. At the same time Barkow Leibinger are fully aware of how such design has shifted in meaning and motive. On the one hand, the factory is no longer separate from other typologies, such as the laboratory; on the other hand, the work undertaken there is no longer distinct from other activities, such as research and experiment, modeling and computing. So even as Barkow Leibinger “recover essential aspects” of industrial architecture, they have also adapted to its changed parameters, and anticipated still newer ones. If “today technology is representation-less,” as Frank Barkow suggests, Barkow Leibinger do not buy into the fantasy of dematerialization that drives the post-Fordist ideology of “light construction.” In effect, they see industrial architecture as a set of operations involving materials and techniques both new and old, and they develop these operations in architectural terms, often mimetic of industrial ones, that are “repetitive, serial, and additive.”
Ten years ago, some members of their generation spoke of a “new pragmatism,” while others insisted on a “design intelligence” that was “projective” rather than “critical.” Both notions pointed to a renewed commitment to practice, not an aversion to theory or representation per se but, rather, an advocacy of knowledge that is intrinsic to architecture, that emerges from its distinctive protocols of research, experiment, calculation, and execution. Barkow Leibinger favor a slightly different term, “design performance,” which can be taken to indicate an architecture that meets the highest standards of industry (or any other client), to be sure, but that is also performative in another sense— inventive, even playful. This is a cohort that, not concerned with a signature style, is responsive to given conditions of client, program, and site, and that is alert to how advances in technology and engineering can be turned to architectural ends.
“For me it always has to be comprehensible and it has to be appropriate,” Regine Leibinger remarks. “Those are key terms for [our] architectural approach.” That approach is an ethical one too; certainly it was for the early advocates of modern architecture. The common term for this modern commitment was “transparency,” which for the most part operated by analogy: if the materials, structure, and construction were made clear, then, it was thought, other aspects of life often shrouded in secrecy—social relations, economic operations, political decisions—might also be drawn into the open, into the clear light of democratic understanding. That analogy, which was active in modernist art too (where the common phrase was “truth to materials”), was always a shaky one, and today it is flouted by many architects whose production of atmospheric and affective effects mostly abets the obfuscation that now dominates these other realms (again, the social, the economic, and the political).
This is why it is so important that Barkow Leibinger insist on “legibility,” the term they prefer over “transparency.” Again, the legibility they seek is hardly that of a postmodern architecture parlante, yet neither is it simply that of a modern structural transparency, the assumed self-evidence of construction in brick, concrete, glass and steel, and so on. If much technology is “representationless” today, Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger do not leave it there, in its own black box; they work to put various techniques into action and, in doing so, not only to demonstrate them but also to transform them in ways that are appropriate to present conditions.
Another Barkow Leibinger mantra has it that “tools shape materials that make forms, not the other way around,” a sequence that reverses the usual order of design. Here they acknowledge the importance of the symbiotic relationship they have enjoyed with TRUMPF, a strong client that led Barkow Leibinger to consider “how digital fabrication technologies can be used to make buildings.” Yet they have also worked with other fabricators and engineers to incorporate new materials and techniques into the design process. In this manner, Barkow Leibinger also look back, beyond modern architecture, to the materialism of manufacture advocated by Gottfried Semper. (Their interest in “carpeting,” for example, recalls his fascination with textiles.) The outcome is a distinctive “atlas of fabrication,” in which materials and techniques are legible in the structures and spaces that result, in ways that unite design and program as well as construction and site.
Another Barkow Leibinger motto is Kein Stil, sondern Haltung, which can be translated roughly as “Position over Style.” “Position, in our case,” they add, “favors process over preconceived form,” and by “process” they mean specific operations performed on specific materials that are deemed appropriate for a given project. Forty-six years ago, discontent with the pictorial effects of a Minimalist art that contradicted its own program of literal transparency, Richard Serra also developed a set of specific operations to be performed on specific materials, a protocol laid out in his famous Verb List (1967-68): “to roll, to crease, to fold...”. These tasks governed his first mature works: sheets of lead rolled, folded, torn, or otherwise manipulated; molten lead splashed along the base of a wall and peeled back in creased rows; slabs of concrete stacked on top of one another or sheets of lead propped up against each other; and so on. In their exhibition catalogue An Atlas of Fabrication (2009) Barkow Leibinger present a “list of actions” of their own: “2D-Cutting, Casting, Cutting/Stacking, Bending, Punching, Welding/Inflating, 3D-Cutting (Revolving), Anticipating.” Although these operations, sometimes separate, sometimes combined, are often sophisticated in technical terms, they are usually simple when it comes to legibility. Like Serra, Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger think of practice as a matter not only of experiment and execution but also of demonstration and disclosure.
“The work of Barkow Leibinger comes to us from inside architecture,” the architect George Wagner has written, and it is true: theirs is a reflexive language, one developed recursively through building. It is a language they always revise in accordance with the constraints of the program and the conditions of the site, and it is a language they always extend through other activities such as competitions and master plans, prototyping and archiving, teaching and exhibiting. It is a language in which architecture is an instrument, as complex or as simple as the case requires.
This brings us back to “design performance,” from which I want to draw a final implication. There is always an element of inspired performance in bricolage. And as the greatest philosophers in German aesthetics tell us, such play (Spiel) is also essential to art; it opens up a realm for an imaginative response to any question. In the end, this is what Barkow Leibinger offer us all: Spielraum, room for play, space for invention.
This excerpt is adapted from Foster’s essay in the book Barkow Leibinger: Spielraum (Hatje Cantz, December 2014)