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|Bolles + Wilson|
Published in Indesign no. 23, November 2005.
For eighteen years the expatriate Australian architect Peter Wilson has been based in Münster, in north east Germany running Bolles + Wilson, a highly respected practice in demand internationally, and one of the best proponents of narrative architecture, with buildings full of conceptual references to their making. He now admits that what attracts him and his wife and partner Julia Bolles, both alumni of the Architectural Association, London, about architecture is the phenomenological engagement it can bring. That may well be because they have had the advantage of living down the road from their masterpiece, the Münster Library, observing people using it at first hand.
Born in Melbourne in 1950, he studied architecture at the University before winning a place to study at the Architectural Association in 1972. He became firmly established in the city in this pre-Margaret Thatcher era, taking a full time post as AA Unit Master there in 1978, a position he held for ten years. The year he began teaching, Julia Bolles, a German architect two years his senior who was born in Münster in Germany, began her postgraduate studies at the School. It was a heady period: the charismatic Chairman Alvin Boyarsky was mentor to an exceptional circle of architects including Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, and Wilson and Bolles, as well as Nigel Coates, now Professor of Architecture at the Royal College of Art and still promoting a narrative approach using all media among his students as a way of unpicking social issues.
In those days narrative architecture was a more formal business, and it was here that Wilson built up a complex list of conceptual references. From these early days he has always sketched schemes in watercolour. In 1980 Wilson and Bolles set up in practice together in London, designing mostly private houses like the Blackburn House in Hampstead (1985) which is layered throughout with beautifully detailed elements that refer to function. After scoring a spectacular win in a competition to design the Münster City Library, they moved to Münster in 1987, and renaming their practice Architekturbüro Bolles + Wilson.
Today it is common for UK based architects to move their offices to new geographical locations or expand with offices in another global city. That's because trading conditions have greatly improved since the corporate-led architectural scene in Britain in the 1980s, an era of privatisation by the Conservative government, that got most practices designing mainly shopping centres. Then an overseas competition win was relatively rare; to leave the country to build it even rarer. But for Bolles, by now known as Julia Bolles-Wilson, it was a return to her home city, which is a hour's drive from Düsseldorf; for Wilson, a new cultural environment in which to be formally inventive to which he had been handed the most illustrious introduction. "As an Australian, it felt natural to leave and move on". He feels very fortunate that they'd already been in practice for seven years before landing the Library commission: "We didn't go straight from being academics to being practitioners".
Münster Library was their first major public commission, and after ten years it remains second in popularity among German city library users (the survey studied 170 of the most heavily visited). It is a highly functional building with a great attention to detail but also to atmosphere and what can only be called spatial multiplicity. This is achieved through narrative; in fact the building is laced with narrative. The Library is set in the varied context of Münster's inner city down the road from the cathedral and tucked behind the Guildhall, with reconstructed Baroque buildings and 1950s car showrooms all around (the city was 95% rebuilt after the Second World War). It 'offered lots of grains I could work with', said Wilson on a recent tour of the building.
Wilson adheres to Colin Rowe's tenet of literal and phenomenological transparency, giving the Library a 'super-presence which emphasises weight and stability, but a mass implied semantically'. Functionality is essential, but is some kind of didactic explanation conveyed through the form, rather than a concealed logic, that does not disturb the function. So from a seat in the foyer café, the visitor can view the structural language: enormous but not obtrusive struts hold up the roof; the glass is lightly spanned. At the opening some German critics commented that this could have been done efficiently with a lump of steel, revealing how far apart Bolles-Wilson were from their minimalist German counterparts. Before for commercial projects they had "...like everyone, boiled things down, but schemes became less expressive in their form as a result". This one, he says without apparent regret, "lacks a little of the German reductive rigor".
It is a big relief that it does. The foyer and café floor at the library's open plan entrance and Library floor all share the same stone. It's almost fetishistic, comments Wilson. It certainly feels like a new piece of city has been generated inside the space. "It's important that the Library is used so intensely", he adds. The details reflect that wish for engagement: the heavy steel door seems to speak of the value of the building's contents; the lights, handrails, Fibonaci numbers on the lockers, often use wood or steel, beautifully fabricated (a lot of welding was done on site). This love of detail treats each 'incident', as Wilson describes it, as something specific.
The design is all the stronger for that. On the other hand, Bolles Wilson are interested in inventiveness, but not in forms that 'distort the outside of the building'. The interior, with its arrays of book stacks loosely laid out, lacks any repetition or the stifling density of many library. Its design reads on multiple levels as library, cultural centre and a well differentiated sequence of public spaces, with overtones of a converted barn or large domestic house. While the Library can also be read on a sculptural level, its character and aura within the urban context is palpable. "Architecture should accept its status as the opposite of media", Wilson feels, "as it has less speed and is more durable". Its communicational means are all the more valued, and should not be excessively reduced.
The Library has a complex range of references: "It's an encycopaedia of details", says Wilson. At the time Scharoun was very influential on the scene, but they were not allowed to refer to him. "The design process felt like cleaning out the cupboard". Every skirting became part of an inventory. "It has a library of details, a language of materials", says Wilson. When he says they are influenced by Italo Calvino's concepts of 'exactitude' and 'multiplicity', you can see how in the Münster Library they have achieved both in terms of precision and resonance of meaning.
What did the practice learn from making the Library? For ten years they have been able to observe how the average man in the street - rather than the architecturally informed - relates to and uses the building. 'They come back often, usually finding a favourite corner which they colonize'. Do they pick up on the narratives? "They don't judge its conceptual ingenuity or read it as a preprogrammed statement. They feel its aura, its warmth - there's a subliminal attraction to a building that is comfortable and uplifting to use".
Completed after six years of work in 1993, the Library still looks dynamic and fresh, free from delapidation or any sense of cliché. Its copper façade will eventually turn green in the next fifteen years. "With the Library we taught ourselves, almost from scratch, to build, and to detail with a Scarpa-like obsession". These have informed later works like the Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam completed in 2001, but Bolles + Wilson's later works are more measured, with details not so thick on the ground. The Luxor Theatre, a pivotal, award-winning building in the redevelopment of the Kop van Zuid area of the city, facing the south side of UN Studio's Erasmus Bridge, with its red curtain wall, and the brand new Kaldewei Competence Centre in Ahlen, Germany (see page x), a building with an enamel skin, are however highly communicative externally and internally, which may be a sign of the practice reaching out for that elusive phenomenological engagement when the opportunity strikes.
Twelve years after completion, Bolles + Wilson are still in the same office they started life in but actively converting their new office space around the corner. They went on to design the new local government office block. Both buildings respond to their surrounding with sensitive audacity. Work is flowing in: there a whole series of projects exploring themes from the library ("It took eight years to get another library, though", he says), including two banks with landscape-like interiors, which sound promising. One is the Volksbank Borken, a country town near the Dutch border, and the other in the Nord LB in Magdeburg, in the ex-communist east. It's a very sensitive site, historically, being a city block enclosing one side of the cathedral square, site of the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany (1200 years).
They have more planning work these days, too, in Hamburg, a mixed use development of housing and offices for the Falkenried quarter, an area of disused tram factory sheds. Mentioning this, Wilson lobs me another of his catchy phrases: 'scenographic urbanism'. Here in one of the city's better residential districts (Eppendorf), the practice kept one shed/workshop as a loft development, and converted bus garage façades into terrace house fronts, creating a dense low rise living quarter. Balancing this were two towers, a housing tower of 14 floors with a 140 metre vector-like arm of 4/5 floor offices and an H-formed office building with a zig zag glazed façade. This injects interesting spatial sequences from the exterior to the interior and across the block. Their scenography began with tiny cameo sketches in watercolour and ink and grew in scale. The upshot was winning the German Urban Planning Prize in 2005.
Wilson feels it is important to put an idea down quickly, and as an office they still use hand sketches to communicate to non-architects, or watercolour paintings. The Dutch especially like them. However these are complemented by exquisitively crafted models that fill the office. The range of means used to show their urban plan for Tirana, in Albania, for instance, included lots of watercolours, bringing a sense of character to the scenes that renderings sometimes lack.
The practice maintains equal credibility in the Netherlands, which is quite an asset, and there are three urban plans there on the go (Amersfoort, for a whole new city quarter; in Haarlem, and in the Hague). Germany as a country is currently in the economic doldrums; it needs the spice that a multi-cultural practice such as Bolles Wilson can give it, laced with the heavy dose of practicality that all their buildings possess. With the Dutch, who've experienced their own bleak picture for commissions during the last few years, they have the magic needed, but can also master Dutch procedures and innate functionality.
They don't have any work in the UK, though, a country Wilson observes "...is very good at mythologizing itself", which could account for the fervour for narrative architecture that characterised the AA in the 1970s Wilson was at the heart of, that followed the lame gestures of post-modernism as a more poetic alternative to high-tech architecture. They collaborate exceptionally well across cultures with clients and local architects, operating professionally at both large and small scales in various local and international contexts. There is no formula, but in today's architectural climate, Bolles + Wilson's synergy of the everyday and the exceptional makes the practice highly versatile.
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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