Thoughts on Site Specificity
Fabian Lippert & Ina Geißler
Architect Fabian Lippert and visual artist Ina Geißler take an interdisciplinary approach to their projects – combining visual arts, design and architecture. Site specificity is of central importance: architecture, furniture and works of art are created in response to the spatial conditions or the architectural surroundings – and thus always relate to the social context of a location.
How do projects that reference the history, the existing architectural features of a specific site come about? Both describe this based on joint projects in the urban space and on their experiences as fellows of the Akademie der Künste at Villa Serpentara, which is located above the Italian municipality of Olevano Romano near Rome.
Ina Geißler: You are not just an architect, you also design furniture. Is there a connection between the street furniture you designed for Grone neighbourhood square in Göttingen and the architects you were fascinated by before and while you were studying architecture?
Fabian Lippert: Yes, in Grone it was primarily about turning a car park that was supposed to be demolished and was centrally located in a residential area built in the late 1970s into a public space. The exposed position of the town square, its plateau at about 1.80 meters above the surrounding terrain, constituted its special urban situation. The arrangement of encircling stairs created a raised, truncated pyramid on which the town square sits. In formal terms, the pyramid or diamond motif was decisive for the further elements of the design: From the inverted pyramid-shaped suspended lights under the two pergolas to the details of the benches and the diamond-shaped lattices, grids, etc. The inspiration was Louis Kahn, whose projects combine formal rigour, human scale and the potential for sensory experiences. A timeless, archaic architecture. A second inspiration for me was the architecture of Albert Viaplana under whom I studied in Barcelona. In his work, he showed how playful handling of urban space and non-conformist use of existing structures could lead to lively spaces that are accepted by the city’s residents.
FL: We worked on this project together and took an interdisciplinary approach: architecture, design and visual arts were conceived together. You designed the ground plan on the square, what was the idea behind this?
IG: I divided the square including the fixtures into individual areas (table tennis, seating …) using letters. The idea was that Grone itself and its residents should be able to identify with the square: So I had the idea of using the name of the location to parcel out the site. There was supposed to be an element of mystery to it however, so I matched the thickness of the letters to that of sports ground markings and enlarged them all over the square. This, of course, means that the letters can only be read by walking across them.
FL: In fact, when I visited I found out that the residents really were “jogging off” the letters – using them as a jogging route.
IG: Does it make a difference to you whether you are designing an interior or exterior space?
FL: No, not necessarily. For me it is generally about the location or the context. At Büro LKA-Berlin, my business partner Sandra Kavelly and I designed furnished apartments for student accommodation – for buildings that were already in planning. There were fixed spatial conditions here as well, which we had to accept. For example the building was built using a wood hybrid construction method, which meant that there are very dominant surfaces in the apartments. The exterior or window wall is visibly made of solid wood, the ceiling is exposed concrete, the white interior walls use drywall construction and a tough, plain-coloured PVC is used on the floors. Therefore, our furniture was white in order to avoid further pre-defining the space. Because in student apartments, the students should be able to set their own accents to feel comfortable.
FL: This question can also be answered differently: Of course, the furniture also depends on the degree of exposure. It is difficult, especially in rather small rooms (which is usually the case), to use furniture that is too loud. I think it is nice when an interior still offers enough leeway for the user to make their own personal mark.
IG: It is clear to see that you focused more on wanting to respond to the spatial conditions and less on developing an all-applicable brand?
FL: Yes. How is it with you? You painted and drew for many years. Ten years ago, you fundamentally changed your technique. What was the reason for this?
IG: The respective environment in which I was living and working always had a very strong influence on my painting. I was also less interested in establishing a “brand of painting”. Instead, I needed to respond to current situations. It was always more about different forms of expression for me. My internal dialogue when painting became the subject of the image. Among other things, this resulted in my current partly wall-covering notice boards and word pictures.
IG: The dialogue with the canvas became a powerful need for me, which included putting the “silence” into words regarding the process of creating an image. It is a paradox, but it appeals to me to this day – as a result I created my spatial cut-outs, for example in the Poetische Anweisungen series of works.
IG: More recently, I have been working in and with public space. I cut my word pictures out of truck tarpaulins and ostensibly blocked a road with them in Torgau in 2017. This was about the various forms of EINANDER (each other), the core word for all forms of “Mit-, Gegen-, Durch-, Um- and Zueinander” (with, against, through, around and to each other), as well as “Aneinandervorbei” (past each other).
FL: What is the relationship between the projects in public spaces and your studio work?
IG: For me, there are these two poles: the studio work and collaborating with others. Both are important to me, even if the forms of expression with respect to the intimacy of the works differ significantly from each other.
FL: Sometimes, however, unexpected intersections arise: For example, when we both developed the KUNFT mirror installation in Alt Gaarz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
IG: That’s true. Here, it was about carefully emphasising the interior of an old village church in terms of its unique features. Almost nothing had changed there for a very long time. The church didn’t even have electricity. We wanted to address this timelessness and incorporate a very slow movement through our furniture. Even now, it is still a joy to stand in the interior and discover new perspectives again and again. The overlap with my earlier work became clear to us when we began photographing our observations. The analogous results were similar to the photo montages of nested spatial situations I had made previously.
FL: Other works were also about adding something to a place using as little of the “visible” as possible, but rather to draw attention to what is actually there already.
IG: Yes. An important joint project in this respect is Unterton (2012) at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. It’s a permanent sound installation in the museum’s south square. In addition to the two existing gullies, we installed six additional gullies in the floor. Passers-by can create different sound patterns through their movements, which are monitored by a camera and transmitted to a computer. The sounds are caused by church bell clappers hitting the manhole covers from below. The result is a poetic, timeless irritation of everyday life.
FL: The idea for this installation was preceded by extensive research: The underground banging noises in the immediate vicinity of the Topography of Terror and the former underground prison cells there recall the historical dimension of the place as a sensory experience. You can interpret the sounds as an allusion to the adjacent summer garden and the outdoor dances held there in the 1920s.
IG: What did you work on during your fellowship at Villa Serpentara in Olevano in 2019?
FL: I designed furniture for the location. In general, it’s important to me when designing to fully address the specific location. Villa Serpentara and its oak forest is an extraordinary place. Located on a hilltop above the village of Olevano Romano, the landscape and the buildings have a special history: The forest was purchased by German painters in 1873 to protect it against deforestation. It came to be owned by the German state circuitously. For generations of German painters and graphic artists of the 19th century, it was a place of pilgrimage and the source of countless romantic drawings and paintings. Even today, the gnarled oaks in the middle of rock formations on the hilltop behind the villa and the fantastic view of the valley and the surrounding mountain ranges are impressive. The place is still a reminder of the longing for an ideal Arcadia, a harmonious combination of nature and man-made surroundings. The villa is actually a simple country house with two floors, each with a large room: a living room on the ground floor and a studio upstairs. There is a loggia to the front. The floors are connected by an external staircase (even here, you are directly confronted by nature). Whereas the mighty ground floor walls and round-arched loggia to the front are plastered, the roof and upstairs loggia have been left with a rustic finish. Staying at the villa provides an opportunity to examine one’s understanding of everyday life in Berlin. I tried to address this aspect of the temporary other home, and thus the sense of independence, of having to rely on oneself, to reflect on the romantic ideal of creativity in the solitude in nature.
IG: You designed a throne for Villa Serpentara.
FL: The design for the Serpentara throne is a playful commentary on living in the artist’s grove for three months. The throne is a “baby version” of the villa: The base and seat correspond to the loggia arches, and the rustic pillars of the upper floor as well as the flat, sloping pyramid-shaped roof are also included. The throne stands in a picturesque location in the grove with a view of the surroundings. The seating faces in four directions, a year for every fellow.
IG: You designed a further furniture series that picks up on themes from the location.
FL: Yes, however this furniture is “more mobile”: Chairs and armchairs, usable everyday furniture. For me, this furniture was primarily about formal questions and the connection to the location; my objective was not to re-invent sitting. The starting point for my deliberations was the house again. At the villa, I found newly produced, chrome-plated tubular steel furniture that in itself was practical and “okay” in terms of design: cantilever and swivel chairs, the Ant by architect and designer Arne Jacobsen – furniture that can be labelled as international design.
My aim was to develop a furniture series specifically for this location that picks up on the rural heritage of the romantic nature painters’ villa and yet does not close itself off to modern forms and techniques.
IG: What observations did you make on site that were important for your work?
FL: It became clear that, in terms of its architecture and urban spaces, Olevano is a very heterogeneous place, especially the medieval old town, which clings to the steep slope like a densely overgrown, craggy rock formation. In places, the streets are barely two meters wide, winding through the mass of buildings where you can barely make out the transitions between the individual buildings. There are catacombs-like public passageways, often with steps, through the buildings and rock formations. There are very few balconies or semi-public lobbies.You can see from this that the old town was built at a time when building materials were scarce and they were trying to build as closely together as possible in the protection of the castle, which is perched on the hill; nothing superfluous or inappropriate in terms of material seems to have been built.
The town hall and the adjoining square on Via Roma are already outside the old city walls. Here, in the new town, the buildings are in part more representative, the method of construction is not entirely closed. The majority of the buildings constructed after the Second World War are far bigger than those that were already there. These are mainly multi-storey residential buildings made of concrete with up to eight floors. Little or no value was placed on the scenic aspects, on integrating them into the topography or the location. The architecture could be described as coarse with just a few exceptions. Residential spaces seem to have been developed from the inside out, with the façades and proportions determined by this. There are lots of wrap-around balconies; some feature exquisitely hand-crafted railings.
Modern, sophisticated architecture is only to be found at second glance. I love the public spaces and squares: for example, the travertine fountains at the foot of the old town and the now disused middle school. In comparison, the new school building at Piazza Karol Wojtyla is shocking. The details reveal the contradictory handling of material in relation to the location: On the one hand, the curbs on the way to school are made of travertine and tidily paved. On the other hand, the road surface is disintegrating and bollards are in place as long-term temporary solutions on the road in front of the school.
IG: It seems to me that the newly-built architecture takes the perspective of those looking out and less of those looking at it from the outside. The view from the apartment blocks on the slope must be terrific! The residential blocks in themselves, however, are not really embedded into the natural surroundings. It is less about the individual appearance. More though was probably put into creating communities, affordable housing for families. Social controls and being cared for within the extended family unit are perhaps more intertwined here. What have you taken from your observations for your own designs?
FL: It is not so easy to find beauty in the buildings in modern Olevano – the new builds are too pragmatic and not sensitive enough. But in terms of form, there are a few connections: The arch motif (which is rather unusual north of the Alps) can be found throughout all architectural eras of the town – even in the mighty double arches of the loggia at Villa Serpentara. The mostly pragmatic buildings in Olevano lack ornamentation. However, the wrought-iron gates and railings of some houses are quite exquisite. Here, too, round and floral forms are often used. I also found the craft techniques that were to be discovered in street furnishings interesting, for example wooden chairs with coarse raffia covers. Finally, I was impressed by the extremely varied collection of seating from every period at Palazzo Colonna-Marcucci in Olevano. In addition to unusual functional inventions, the intended representativeness in much of the historical furnishings is also fascinating and still effective today.
FL: For me it is about bringing the specific motifs found on site and historical techniques together in a playful manner using modern elements and contemporary manufacturing techniques.
FL: You focused on fences in Italy. What was that about for you?
IG: Fences are symbols for transitional situations. It makes a difference whether a fence decoratively marks out the territory, represents status or protects against prying eyes. Here in Italy, fencing often “flows around” the area between the interior and the exterior in a broader way: stairs and railings are extended terraces; balconies are screened off against the sun and act like extended living rooms. I was interested in the various forms of coexistence and the respective boundaries that find expression through garden fences, for example. During my stay in Olevano (2019), I worked on garden fence designs that could be worn as clothing, thus making interpersonal boundaries tangible on a physical and psychological level. They fenced in the inner landscape of the respective wearer, so to speak.
FL: Do you see an overlapping of our work in Olevano?
IG: Yes. In my opinion, your throne and my fence clothing both have something to do with the romantic notion of being alone in nature.
FL: That’s true. However, my throne is a permanent installation that allows you to gaze upon the landscape, whereas your outfits allow the person to move freely as an individual.
*1972 in Augsburg, lives in Berlin
Fabian Lippert studied architecture at the Technical University of Dortmund, the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona and Berlin University of the Arts. The focal points of his work include traditional architecture projects, art-in-construction projects and furniture design. He runs Architekturbüro LKA-Berlin with Sandra Kavelly.More about Fabian Lippert
*1970, lives in Berlin
Ina Geißler is a visual artist, she studied painting at the Berlin University of the Arts and was a master student under Marwan. In recent years, Ina Geißler has increasingly created interdisciplinary projects. In summer 2004, she was a fellow of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin at Villa Serpentara in Olevano Romano, Italy.