” Architecture is the Social Application of Art”
An Interview with Prof. Volkwin Marg in Humburg
By Ahmad Zohadi
June 2016

The interview has been published in 2A Magazine issue #36

Thinking about gmp’s projects, many of them have been designed and built in different cities around the world; some of them have changed the ambiance of those cities. Architecture is developed in response to people’s needs – thus cities grow and become vibrant. People are open to the new as it enriches their creativity, something that is particularly prominent with your projects. For instance, when I ventured into Hamburg’s city center last Saturday for the first time, I visited a few different shopping malls but finally went back to one in particular and spent some time there. What was it about that place? The answer is the quality of the architecture. Architecture responds to the real situation and the real needs of people. Now, this is my question – what is your design strategy in this regard? Is it the same strategy for all your projects in both East and West? I am familiar with your recently built project in Tehran – Shahre Aftab; it is one of the best examples of architecture in Iran.

Porf. Volkwin Marg: We have been working as architects for 50 years and we would like to see ourselves in terms of “master builders”. By that we mean that everything we produce is simply functional. At the core, we create a very functional building with a suitable construction; but then we want to enhance the building, to make sure that it has a meaning. Our philosophy is to create something that reflects the spirit of the place, the spirit of the culture rather than a building that derives its unique appearance out of a sense of self-importance. That is the reason why, wherever we build abroad – whether in Brasilia, Cape Town in South Africa, or now in Russia, or in China, where we built most buildings, and also in Vietnam – we try to reflect the culture of that city and country. Secondly, we also try to capture the spirit of the particular place where the building is to be. And by that I don’t mean just the climate – which of course has its own requirements and is different if you build in Greenland or in the rainforest. It is more than the climate – it is about the context of the surrounding landscape. You might call it the context of the townscape; what we try to do is to design according to the local circumstances, which are unique in every case.

You just mentioned the Tehran trade fair development. For us, it was clear from the beginning that, if we are to build something in a country with a very old culture, one of the oldest cultures in the world, a culture that was famous for its gardens and gardening, we had to reflect this feature in our design. You know that the Christian Bible refers to paradise in the context of beautiful gardens and courtyards, something the Persian culture has produced so well. Therefore we saw it as our challenge to incorporate this idea. We have been successful with this competition not only because we know how to build a modern trade fair complex with all its internal organization, but because we created a very special place that resonates with the culture, with the tradition of the country. Our first big task was to include a water feature and the lake. The second was to incorporate a garden within the trade fair precinct, a garden that would be the spiritual center of the place thus recreating features from two-and-a-half thousand years of Persian history. We remembered well the columns of Persepolis (referenced at the center of the trade fair complex), which we included not for the purpose of the exhibitions but just to mark the entrance hall. It is a modern rendering of the hall of columns. In short, this is my answer: we want our building to harmonize with the culture of the place and we want to capture the spirit of the site and its tradition.
We have been very successful worldwide with this approach – creating buildings that defer to the spirit of the place rather than trying to build monuments for ourselves.

Zohadi: So that is your strategy in all countries like Iran, India, China, Germany etc. Some countries have cultural and spiritual roots, but some might not. So, is it gmp’s strategy to consider these cultural roots and reflect them in architecture in all countries, or is this your strategy specifically for Iran, India, etc.?

Prof. Marg: It is very easy to explain. When we come to a country like Iran, we come to a place with an ancient culture. When we come to a place like Manaus in the middle of the rainforest of Brazil, where there is only one famous building, the old Opera House; we have nevertheless another spirit, the spirit of the old Indian culture that inhabited the place. Even though there is not much in the way of culture in the sense of famous buildings, there is the culture of nature and we designed the stadium for the people there using an architectural language with strong references to nature.
Take another example. We built a stadium in Cape Town, which is the most prominent place in South Africa, a city that is on every postcard. The location is Table Mountain, which is known to everybody, where we were allowed to build within the national park area. So this was a humbling task and we said to ourselves: OK, we will build a stadium that celebrates these world-famous locations of Cape Town’s Table Mountain and Signal Hill. So we designed a building that fits the location and now forms part of a trinity: Table Mountain, Signal Hill and the stadium. This can be put on a postcard and you may well think that it is a trinity of things that belong together. This is harmony – in this case we did not make any specific reference to the white or the black population, but we devoted the building to this special place.
Another example is the stadium we built in Poland (a world-famous stadium). This stadium had to be built on the ruins of the old city of Warsaw on the other side of the river, which were left after the Germans had heavily bombed the infamous ghetto. Then after the war, the Polish people gathered all the stones to build the Earth Wall stadium. The international competition was for a new stadium to be built in the place of this now dilapidated and defunct existing stadium. So what strategy were we to adopt? We thought that, as Germans, it would not be fitting for us to disturb the ruins we were the cause of. We will place the stadium on top of the ruins, using them as a base and creating a kind of basket component as a conceptual idea. Poland is very rural, it has a lot of farmers, and the basket is a symbol. We have created the stadium in the form of a basket in the national colors, red and white – and the Polish people are very proud of it. They find themselves reflected in the basket, and identify with it, accepting it as a national building. In that way the stadium is devoted to the whole nation, creating something for the people to be proud of, a national symbol. This example again demonstrates our approach of fitting in with the culture and tradition of a country.

Zohadi: That’s a good explanation, and it leads me to another question. So this stadium in Poland has become an icon for Warsaw. Do you think the Middle Eastern countries need important icons too? The Shahre Aftab has become an icon for Tehran because of its pure and unique architecture and because there is no comparable architecture in Tehran. Are similar icons needed in other Middle Eastern cities?

Prof. Marg: Let me answer this with some design details we have used. For example, we built the Leipzig Trade Exhibition Center in Germany which has a completely different character, even though the exhibition procedures are much the same. In this project, the architectural reference to the country is very different. There is a lot of glass, but you have artificially lit black boxes for the exhibitions themselves. The whole development uses a very different design language.
Another trade exhibition complex we have built in Italy, with its ample examples of classical architecture going back to Roman times. Roman architecture had its own very special character, involving colonnades, round columns, walls, and atriums with large pools, a feature common in the Mediterranean. Typical are the colonnades in Bologna, the capital of the wooded province of Emilia-Romagna, where as a floor finish you find these very special Italian tiles called faience. In reference to this, we used artificial faience tiles with a brownish and yellowish coloring that is typical of this landscape.
Furthermore, like in Iran, we remembered the ancient history of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. The Romans had a feature called the Tetrapylon, which refers to the place in the middle, with four columns and another two columns in the main part. Rome was a military state, but in the center of the city they had a Tetrapylon. So we used this feature of a modern Tetrapylon to mark the entrance of the trade fair complex in Italy. As you can see, the design is fully devoted to Italian culture and is very special architectural language that goes back over 2,000 years. So even though the function of the buildings in Leipzig, Italy and Iran is quite comparable, the architectural expression of the developments is totally different, expressing a devotion to the place and to the culture in which they are set.

Zohadi: Thank you very much. Now the last question. I understand that you make your experience available in the context of the Academy you have established in Hamburg. What are the most important messages you want to bring across?

Prof. Marg: Both of the founders of our company – my partner Meinhard von Gerkan and I – have been professors at a university. In that context we found that the engineers focus exclusively on the design of the structure and the architects focus exclusively on the design of the appearance in a very formalistic way. This results in a very sculptural pattern language that is devoid of any real synthesis between the structure and the form. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that we found that architects focus exclusively on that single building they are designing rather than contemplating the context of the neighborhood and the larger urban design aspects. Our conclusion was that these elements have to be combined, the architects’ and engineers’ input has to form a synthesis, including also the input of the city planners. The third thing is that we find that modern services for modern buildings are designed by engineers quite separately from the design produced by the architects; there is a lack of cooperation and our idea was to teach students who are close to qualifying, or young architects as post-graduates, to come together and learn cooperation – cooperation between architects and engineers, architects and city planners, and also, on a personal level, cooperation between students of different cultures and nations. This is reflected in our Academy, where we invite students from different countries to take part in the curriculum. For example, when we studied a project for Saigon, we invited an equal number of Vietnamese and German students and post-graduates.
It depends on the cultural context. If the project is in Vietnam, we invite Vietnamese and German students, and if it is in China, we offer places to Chinese and German students; we want to do the same thing with an Iranian project. We believe that a good exchange is needed between different cultures, but also cooperation between the people of these cultures, allowing for the different mentalities, so that they understand each other. I would like to organize a project between Iran and Germany.
We also had a project in the United States of America, which again needed good cooperation with people from that country. It would not be possible to do this with people from quite a different country, such as Saudi Arabia for example, with its totally different culture. In Iran, you have an ancient culture of universities and of architecture and, today, you have fantastically good architects that produce very high quality work, and you have vibrant universities, so it is important for us to cooperate. Perhaps we need even more than cooperation, we need to learn from each other and that is the idea of our Academy. We have always dedicated some of the company’s profit to the Foundation, and the Academy is a subsidiary of the Foundation. The Academy creates opportunities for students and post-graduates, and it also helps municipalities and national organizations to do something they otherwise would not do.

Zohadi: Is the strategy in part aimed at some Academy graduates staying with gmp in Hamburg? Do you know of any such cases?

Prof. Marg: The Academy organizes one, two, or three workshops a year, normally with an equal number of students from the respective countries. From Hamburg, the students will go to that country, where they will have the opportunity to learn, and students from that country come and work here. The organization works pretty well, with resident teaching staff and visiting professors. We have guest professors from other countries – people like Mr Iraj Etessam – and of course we would like to cooperate on a project with you.

Ahmad Zohadi: Thank you very much.