Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport
Credit: Meinhard von Gerkan and Hubert Nienhoff with Hajo Paap

Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport


When things go wrong on big projects, who is to blame?  Is it the fault of the designers, the contractors, the clients, or the engineers? That was the question that the German magazine Der Spiegel asked of three architects involved with very large public projects there: Berlin’s new $6 billion Meinhard von Gerkan–designed airport, Stuttgart’s new $8 billion Christoph Ingenhoven–designed train station, and Hamburg’s $800 million Herzog & de Meuron–designed concert hall.

It was, if the published account is any indication, a lively discussion, with the interviewer taking an aggressive stance: “…all kinds of disasters are happening…you are building for a public that has to pay for everything and doesn’t really want to do so anymore…You see! Architecture is constantly causing trouble…in other words, it’s completely normal that nothing works on construction sites?” The architects, as you might expect, spent a great deal of time blaming everybody else, from the politicians who don’t have the competency to provide oversight for complex and large projects (Von Gerkan), to a lack of team (de Meuron), to a “vocal minority…of 20 percent” who hold up the process, causing delays and raising costs (Ingenhoven). The tremendous overruns—Berlin’s airport will cost triple its estimate, while the cost for Hamburg’s “iceberg” concert hall has quadrupled—are the result of changes to the program, delays due to legal issues, and evolving demands or regulations.

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It is hard to blame the designers for not wanting to admit mistakes. For one thing, it could open them up, I would assume, to more legal problems. It is also undoubtedly true that most of the problems on these large sites are due to technical, legal, and political issues beyond their control. As Ingenhoven says, his station is only “a few hundred million euros” of the project. However, as von Gerkan points out, the architects are the “figureheads,” the projects’ public faces. (Or as the interviewer puts it, the “bogeymen.") They provide the vision and they have the confidence that, once these buildings open, their beauty will cause all to be forgotten and forgiven.

In order to get there, said von Gerkan, you might have “tell a lie.” He pointed out that the Sydney Opera House would never have been constructed without evasions. Ingenhoven and de Meuron disagree, trusting instead that openness is the better course. As Ingenhoven says: “Even though I’m the victim of this democratic excess in Stuttgart, I still believe that these processes exist to prevent mistakes from happening.” In answer to von Gerkan’s rather bizarre comparison of Germany to China, where “someone makes the decision there, and makes his decision because it’s what the party supports,” Ingenhoven points out that “Shanghai…was completely ruined in ten years.”

Main Station Stuttgart
Credit: Ingenhoven Architects

Main Station Stuttgart

I do not know nearly enough about these incredibly complex projects to be able to say who was right or wrong in this discussion, but as an outside observer I certainly question the viability of these projects. As the interviewer points out, “Hamburg has a perfectly good concert hall,” though I do believe the new one will be spectacular and gorgeous. The Stuttgart station will only increase train times by “a few minutes,” as Ingenhoven concedes, and involves the removal not only of many trees, but also of much of the 1928 Paul Bonatz station, a stark and restrained bit of monumental architecture. The Berlin airport might be more efficient, but it will be far from a city that could be served by three crowded but workable facilities. I also happen not to think very highly of either Ingenhoven or von Gerkan’s architecture, and do not think their designs will contribute to our well-being or delight. I realize this sounds perverse, but the only project I would like to see built is perhaps the most “useless,” and that is the concert hall. What is more important, I would love to see this kind of debate around some of this country’s large projects, and in particular about the absurdly expensive transportation hub currently being finished at Ground Zero to designs by Santiago Calatrava. If asked, I am sure he will claim he is not to blame, but at least in his case you can say that many of his projects seem to go way over budget, giving back what I think as gimmicky statements in return for massive public investment. The serious problem underlying all of this is, I believe, that, architects do provide the visible image and have to take responsibility as such. Unless they and their collaborators figure out how to make publicly funded projects that are not only beautiful and inspiring, but also efficient and cost effective, we will have a hard time convincing the public to invest in the facilities we so desperately need.