Interview with Gustav Düsing

‘Those who always react remain mere executors’

Katinka Corts
8. May 2024
Sunsight to Sunclipse at Villa Massimo, Rome, 2021 (Photo: Johannes Förster)
Recently, you and your project partner Max Hacke received the EU Mies Award for the Study Pavilion in Braunschweig. Congratulations! Did this award surprise you? After all, 362 buildings from 38 European countries were nominated.

It was very surprising, indeed. We could imagine — if we were to receive an award — that the building would be up for the German Steel Construction Award. After all, we constructed the building very delicately and pushed the design limits. We never expected to come this far at the European level. We always assumed that the prize is actually awarded to something larger and more complex, like a theatre or an airport. In Germany, the discourse paved the way for the project. The fact that the project was able to impress the jury at the Mies Award means that the building can be seen as a prototype, as a model for others. In addition, our building is scalable, can be used in various ways, and could be located in many places.

The project was first awarded the German Architecture Prize, shortly afterwards the DAM Prize from Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), and now the international EU Mies Award. Is it perhaps fair to say that your project satisfies a deep need for simplicity and order that resonates internationally?

I believe people like to see a positive image of the future — the fact that this is also compatible with the current discourse on circular construction, for example, is considered very favorably. I think the juries also like that we have built a public building that is accessible to everyone but is not commercialized like many other spaces in the city. We wanted to create complex and stimulating spaces with sophistication and simple elements. People often think that this can only be done with elaborate structures and special details. But a building structure doesn't have to be extravagant to be good.

Study Pavilion on the campus of the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, Gustav Düsing and Max Hacke, 2023 (Photo: Iwan Baan)
According to the jury report, your project “promotes mindset changes in the current social, ecological, and political context.” How do you interpret this statement?

The Study Pavilion is a kind of prototype for a public building. Due to its accessibility, it is also a statement on how to think about the future of the city. For example, what if this type of building existed in every major city, simply as an accessible space, like a community center? It would be entirely free to use, function as a lounge, and would represent a counter-model to our increasingly established digital lives.

In the future, one could also talk about air-conditioned spaces that provide protection from natural phenomena such as overheated urban areas or extreme weather conditions, which may play a bigger role in the future. Unlike shopping malls, which aim to commit visitors to consumption, a new type of building could emerge where people can simply be together. In such spaces, people can spend the day together in spatial comfort and participate in urban life, regardless of whether one lives in a small shared apartment or in social housing on the outskirts of the city. If cities or municipalities offered people more protected spaces where they could spend time during the day, our resources and spaces would be distributed more fairly.

You mean an entirely undedicated urban space that is free for everyone and can be temporarily appropriated by individuals or groups to strengthen urban life?

Yes, because we are observing a decline in retail everywhere, city centers are becoming less attractive, and people are wondering where one can actually meet other than in the digital realm. Such a building type could enrich social and interpersonal interaction. It may have also appealed to the jury that we take up a stance toward the immediate urban space. Every city is happy to have a large university because young people generate a kind of urbanity that one can only wish for in some places. We have always argued that the university must continue to provide a reason for people to go to the campus and not simply stay at home and study digitally.

Residence of the German Embassy in Tel Aviv; Gustav Düsing, wolff:architekten, and Architekten für nachhaltiges Bauen, with emmerik garden design and research (Visualization: Gustav Düsing / grau visuals)
Looking at your previous architecture and art projects, I see a recurring search for lightweight structures and an exploration of what needs to be done at a location. In Braunschweig, for me, it's the adaptable spaces and facilities; at the ambassador's residence in Tel Aviv, it's questioning and reducing the program to what you think is necessary. In art, it's the tent you made for the Antarctic Biennale; and the contribution you created for the Marrakesh Biennale, back then as a project architect at Barkow Leibinger, is also characterized by lightness and brightness. Is this also a form of humility toward the environment that shapes you?

That certainly plays a major role. It rarely takes opulent interventions to do something well. In my opinion, there is a certain beauty in a structure that is so light that you can't believe it stays up. It has an element of magic, and you start to wonder how it works and how it's made. From that, you interpret abilities, which in turn are perceived as something special. At the same time, using these “delicate” construction methods automatically reduces the amount of material used. This attitude also comes from my art projects: Often, we have to finance and build a lot ourselves. So, if we reduce the amount of material, it's more cost-effective and easier to implement.

Residence of the German Embassy in Tel Aviv; Gustav Düsing, wolff:architekten, and Architekten für nachhaltiges Bauen, with emmerik garden design and research (Model photo: Leonhard Clemens)
Given increased material costs and interest rates, that is certainly not the worst approach in today's construction world.

This attitude has proven to be sensible in recent years; it can also be a kind of survival mode for architecture. I've always been fascinated by constructive design, I don't design perforated façades, and I don't like building with concrete. I see building elements as parts of a construction kit, and when something can be put together and constructed from many individual things, I really enjoy it.

That's also what's interesting and unique about our profession as architects. We are interested in the details and the how, and depending on the project, we immerse ourselves in completely new fields of topics and are fascinated by the variety of what we can learned. The fascination for craftsmanship gripped us, at the latest, during our architectural studies, and we always contribute to shaping the process when designing.

Let me give you an example of this from the Marrakesh project: We had to wrap 150 km of rope around the structure within two weeks. With five people on the team, that was 30 km of rope per person. So, the first question was how much each person could walk in a day. We started, tested, and eventually increased the distance between the ropes to speed up. We carried small spools, and we continuously optimized all processes. What is ultimately created is always a result of the resources available. You automatically start to design according to the circumstances.

“Loom Hyperbolic” by Barkow Leibinger, Marrakech Biennale, 2012 (Photo: Johannes Förster)
Resource awareness is an important part of today's construction industry. Is this something that was already imparted to you during your education? You studied in Stuttgart and London and have yourself taught in recent years, so you know many of the attitudes of schools. Is today's curriculum sufficiently broad-based, moving away from the classic “Here's your plot and room schedule” semester projects?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure whether this has already been sufficiently implemented. I also know many departments that still do their design assignments in a very old-school way. When I teach, I try to be as experimental as possible, introduce new questions, and inspire students to find their own way.

Sometimes, however, it seems to me that the discipline of architecture and also teaching, out of a sense of duty to the environment, focuses so much on sustainability issues that spatial qualities, design, and the question of what happens in these spaces become secondary. A discourse on materials arises, which I see more in the engineering sector than in architecture. From my point of view, maximum sustainability in architecture should be a given, and there should be more talk about design again.

“Frozen Tent,” Antarctic Biennale, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Gustav Düsing)
In addition to building and art, you also dedicate yourself to construction and material research. Insights from this research flow back into your projects. Is this an ideal triad for you, perhaps even an ideal that more architects should strive for in order to stay more actively in touch with the times?

I view the spectrum of architecture somewhere between art and service. If you position yourself too much at one extreme, it is not helpful. For example, if you have been in the service sector for a long time, you should set yourself new tasks and sharpen your interest so that things remain exciting and you can contribute to the current discourse. Those who always react remain mere executors.

You once said that one should not lose the joy of designing in one's work. How do you maintain that joy in your everyday working life? Is it the balance between art and architecture projects?

So far, I have been fortunate that I usually did not have to work on several projects in parallel. Every time a project was completed, I could start a new one. Honestly, last year we only did three competitions and won all three, which is somehow absurd. After Braunschweig, we did Tel Aviv, then a competition for a bridge in Bavaria, and just recently we won the competition for a large university building. Each project had its own theme; and topics that we could only touch on in the previous project are developed in greater detail in the next design, newly applied, and possibly also addressed in the next art project. For me, there is actually no difference between these projects, whether in the context of art or architecture; it's always about space, material, and structure.

Thank you very much for the conversation and have a good time in Barcelona, where you will receive the Mies van der Rohe Award on May 14.

This interview was first published as “Gustav Düsing: »Wer stets nur reagiert, bleibt immer der Ausführende.«” on German-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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