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In conversation with Professor Mikala Holme Samsøe & Professor Amandus Samsøe Sattler about a sustainable future

Allmann Sattler Wappner Architects.

Journalist Louise Witt

Reductive modernism

As little as possible – or more academically put: reductive modernism. This is the mindset of German-Danish architectural duo Professor Mikala Holme Samsøe and Professor Amandus Samsøe Sattler, President of the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB e.V.) and founding partner of Allmann Sattler Wappner Architects. The couple are experimenting both professionally and privately to find a way out of our current expansive approach to architecture.

Where are we at today when it comes to sustainability in architecture?

Mikala: “We refuse to accept that the materials we need for our future are being used up today. We have to find a sensible way of either taking the materials already in homes back out again or simply repairing them and leaving them there.”

Amandus: “The main issue at the moment is that we need to reduce CO2 emissions to protect the climate. Today! Not in 10 years’ time. We need to reduce CO2 right now, and the only way we can do this is by preserving more building stock; building fewer new builds; using the houses we already have – now! As architects we are without a doubt part of the problem of high CO2 emissions because of our planning practice. But the good news is that we can also be part of the solution.”

Mikala: “What might the future look like? There are essentially three approaches in the sustainability debate: the first is recovery using technical solutions. The second involves creating a substitute, for example, using materials other than the problematic ones. The third approach is known as reduction or sufficiency. We need all three. But the two of us believe that working much more with reduction is the most effective way. In other words, reductive modernism as the antithesis to the present practice, which is marked by expansion. A VOLA tap is a good example of reductive modernism. It has no frills, just a timeless and discreet elegance, which has already outlasted several style fads.
The tap only has exactly what it needs – and reduces the flow of something as basic as water to an act characterised by clarity and purity. The tap has something puristic about it.”

Amandus: ”We believe that simplicity trumps complicated technical concepts. Engineers have spent many years optimising everything. But only in terms of optimal technical performance. We want to try to make building simple again, to stop working in layers with lots of bonded materials that can’t be separated again. It’s about using materials homogeneously and monolithically. A thick brick wall e.g. of fifty centimetres is a great example. What can bricks do? They create a healthy living environment and sturdy, low-maintenance houses. If the wall is thick enough and the openings are optimally designed, apartments and offices will no longer need heating or air-conditioning. There are already examples of offices that can keep their users warm and healthy without heating and mechanical ventilation. It’s only slightly on the cool side after the Christmas holidays because the staff haven’t been in the office and the computers haven’t been on. You just have to wear a jumper for a few days. Passive, natural systems are durable compared to technical solutions that only last a few years.”

You’re experimenting not just in your practice, but also privately. What are you doing?

Mikala: “Privately we take our own medicine. We’re in the process of making an old derelict Gründerzeit apartment in Berlin habitable. But we’re doing the bare minimum. If anything is added, it’s because it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary materials and surface treatments.” “You could change so much about the layout. There are loads of great ideas. You could bring the kitchen forward; you could definitely have made the bathroom bigger. All of this is possible and even normal. Any craftsman would be happy to do that for you. It’s even affordable. But it’s a lot of effort and there’s something illogical about rerouting the drainage and pipes through the apartment. So we’re getting back to basics and what’s already there. We like the little north-facing kitchen because it’s well- roportioned, cosy and beside the kitchen steps, which is also good. We’re not going to renovate it.”

Amandus: “The bathroom used to be the smallest room in the apartment. Now it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think about adding a few square metres. In fact, it’s normal to fit out a bathroom with a bathtub and shower and double sink. Society has redefined necessity and comfort. We redesigned the bathroom in our apartment ten times, extending it in our heads and moving doors, but in the end we left everything the way it was. At 4-5 square metres and with a normal, small shower tray, that is nonetheless perfect for splashing about in. We’re not putting in a guest toilet either, which is something that is really in demand these days - it’s standard. We need a new narrative for sustainability. The bathroom doesn’t necessarily have to be the wellness sanctuary with sea view.”

Mikala: “But the problems aren’t just in our heads, there’s also a practical aspect: transport, a lack of installation parts as well as resistance on the building site. I’ll give you a little example of major systemic challenges if we switch to a circular economy: we find a used sink from the 1960s in the classifieds in Denmark and buy it for a small amount of money. We drive from our summer house in Denmark close to Køge to Lyngby. This only takes a morning. We’ve picked up the sink and a few other secondhand items. Great. The sink is a standard part made in Sweden, so the classic VOLA tap will suit nicely. We take it to Berlin a few weeks later. The manufacturer tells us that the sink sadly doesn’t fit the standard mounting bracket for the wall fixture because it’s an old sink. But our craftsman is happy to create a custom solution for us. All good. And we leave the sink at the building site. But the next time we visit the building site, the sink is gone! Because the used sink wasn’t in new packaging, another craftsman thought it was waste and dumped it!”

Amandus: “Hardly anyone on the building site can understand our strategy of fitting and wanting to use something secondhand when renovating our apartment.” “The used product is very cheap, but no one wants to invest the time in adapting and transporting it, not to mention overseeing the installation. But investing time in things that have been used is our opportunity for the future. It demonstrates how we can employ people and spend money on something that we consider valuable. This is a key part of the circular mindset. We need a shift from investing in new material to investing in human work.”

How are you experimenting professionally?

Amandus: “Privately we can push the limits, accept the risk and the extra time involved. This is crucial experience which will help us prepare for putting reduction into practice together with our clients and fellow staff. Mikala is currently exploring new avenues with the state of Bavaria in a pilot project. Her architecture students at Augsburg University of Applied Sciences are recording well-preserved components from a condemned building and using them to design a new building. What’s interesting about this project is that
thanks to her initiative, the Bavarian state is, for the first time, selling components and thus helping to make better use of resources and energy.”

Mikala: “It’s a building that’s being demolished, it’s part of the Bavarian state library. Normally everything is sorted, dumped, at best reused. The students record the components that could be reused elsewhere with the help of the young German company Concular, which is the biggest platform for procuring used components in Europe.”

How have the future architects found this experience?

Mikala: “What’s interesting is the change that’s taking place in our heads. It’s an everyday building from the 1950s. There are nice components such as granite tiles and a fine banister that could be directly refitted. But there are also completely unspectacular laminated glass wooden windows and facade materials. These could be reused with a new finish if they were carefully reworked and technically refurbished. And there are architectural elements that are downright ugly. For example, wooden doors, maybe from the 1990s, that are in good condition but that you wouldn’t use in a new build today. As the students record these components, they gradually gain an understanding of the value of used materials and start to reflect on the idea of fashion and say: ok, a turquoise door might not be in vogue at the moment, but it’s well made and actually has value. Then they go one step further and look for a design that the door would suit. So design follows availability.”

So it’s a question of fashion?

Mikala: The notion of fashion and short life is a key issue for the future: what we like and what we don’t like. Can we still live with the materials of past decades today? Can we turn them into something new or simply appreciate the past? We are going to see a greater acceptance of eclecticism. The collage-style can be accepted in architecture if you understand why it is designed in this way.”

Amandus: “How should we be building today so that we’ll still love and be happy to use these houses in 30 years’ time? This is also a philosophical question about what beauty is. This is what we grapple with in architecture. The answer is a notion of quality that lasts and outlives fads. It’s about using valuable resources in a way that allows for both beauty and longevity.”

Mikala: “If we want to get away from an expansive approach, then maybe we have to focus more on what already exists and what has already proven itself. In other words, if a product has already been on the market for a long time, that alone means it has a cultural value because people are still happy to use and buy it. That’s much more valuable than constantly inventing something new according to the zeitgeist. In aesthetic philosophy we talk about beauty as being a combination of something familiar and something surprising. For us, placing what exists in a new context can create exactly this stimulating balance that results in beauty.”

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