So many Questions


Hans Ulrich Obrist:

There are so many questions I’d like to ask you that I don’t know where to start.1


Herbert Stattler:

Let’s start with my new work, the series »Stadtleitbilder«… the idea came to me while I was working with housing settlements of the 1950’s within the context of another series. 


HUO:

This series had a name?2


HS:

Yes, »Facades«. The series has kept me busy for two years. I make facades of housing estates from the 1950’s of Europe and facades from Asia of today out of paper, thus as paper objects. Characteristic for the facades in this time is the sequence of consistently identical elements. And I’m interested in how the need for individuality of the inhabitants can compete with such seriality of the elements. In the course of the research I came across a report of the research project »Comparison of spatial urban structures on social and environmental compatibility« from the University of Dortmund3. The Core of the report is a historical outline of European urban concepts of the 19th and 20th Century and their social and ecological aspects. But interesting part is, and this is what I have used as the starting point of the current series »Stadtleitbilder«, a chronological list of conceptions of the ideal urban model beginning at the middle of 19th Century, when the cities of Europe and North America had to change massively.


HUO:

How did this transition come about?4


HS:

Because of the industrialization more and more people from rural areas poured into the city, while before most of the population lived in rural settlement systems. Life and work shifted to the city. This concentration of people in minimal space in a short period of time caused social and hygienic problems. One of the initial answers to it, and the research report begins with this, is the plan of the government building officer James Hobrecht of Berlin.


HUO:

It was a whole urban development plan?5


HS:

In this master plan of 1862, big blocks were intended to handle the huge increase of the urban population. So that the system would function smoothly, Hobrecht sketched wide representative streets of houses in a checker board style and in a star-shaped pattern. Here, also, one can already see approaches of the later segregation of duties of the urban spaces, the segregation of living and working, and all their far-reaching consequences.


HUO:

But it seems a perfectly valid and encouraging model.6


HS:

Hobrecht had a functionalistic and profit-oriented perception of the city. His own formalism via lines was imposed on the city irrespective of the existent structures. The regulation of the traffic, thus a functioning infrastructure, received as much priority as the maximum land utilisation. So came about the widespread urban residential districts with a maximum densification. The principle of growth was not questioned at that time.


HUO:

It’s also interesting to see what’s happening in Asia. There are a lot of Westerners there, planners, who tell the politicians, »You’ve got to prevent the kind of problems we already have in the Western world from taking root here.« The mayor of a Chinese city replied that first they wanted to have everything and create the same hash and then, perhaps …7


HS:

I can understand that well, really. Nevertheless there is a difference, namely in the dimension. While in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Europe settlements for approximately 10,000 people emerged from the drawing board for the Greenfield development, now, for example, a residential estate in Shenzhen was developed for 360,000 people. 10,000 people live in one tower alone.  However there are also astounding formal analogies of historical ideals of urban spaces and today’s housing settlements.


HUO:

Really?8


HS:

If one looks at Fritz Schumacher’s  master plan of Cologne from the year 1922 and compares it to Palm Island Dubai, one cannot but recognise substantial formal similarities. Both have a center from which, like the crown of a palm, radial fingers reach into the hinterland. I could not find out to what extent it was designed after the Cologne model, if at all. However, the similarity of the form is quite astounding.


HUO:

Is it presented as a model, or rather as a toolbox?9


HS:

You mean, whether it is to be understood as a model or as a tool? This is one of the central questions. Looking at the model drawings, they are diagrams or schemes. This means that they present the idea as a sketch. However, they were read less as an idea than as a picture. If one looks at the idea of the Londoner clerk Ebenezer Howard, the ideal of the garden city, he writes explicitly directly beside the diagram that the specific »plan can be made first if a certain terrain is present.« Exactly this crucial instruction was often removed in the transmission. If you are looking at the built realisations of the ideals, they are often adopted directly just as a picture. These, to put it nicely, subjective interpretations or translations are not a new phenomenon. The Swiss architecture theorist Schumann describes a very good example that will be the subject of the appendix to my series.10 It is about the traditions of the ideal city of Vitruvius, which he describes in his »Ten Books on Architecture.« In the absence of original illustrations, we can see merely from the text that the walls of the city are to be put in galleries and the course of the streets inside are to be laid out, for hygienic reasons, according to the cardinal points. Then Vitruvius describes a rose with eight main winds, to which the road system is adapted, so that the diseases are blown out the city. While 1500 years later in his Vitruvius redaction, the Dominican monk Fra Giocondo takes the words and figures quite literally, he draws a thin, delicate line in a polygon form above an orthogonal grid pattern, afterwards translation errors crept in.


HUO:

So it just happened?11


HS:

In one tradition in 1567 from Daniele Barbaro, the immaterial line of the cardinal directions transforms into a city wall or, in fact, a defensive wall. Therefore became less the hygiene than the defense of a city the center of attention.


HUO:

Were you interested by the sometimes utopian dimension of these projects?12


HS:

Well, the tragedy of the utopia lays per se in its infeasibility. My interest in the series is the idea or method of the ideal, which strives for perfection. In »Republic«, Plato sketches  an ideology, in which he describes the mathematicians in the sixth book. They substitute the objects with imaginary mathematical forms that they see as an ideal in contrast to the things themselves. He describes these ideal three-dimensional bodies, the known Platonic solids, as a self-contained and orderly whole. And exactly this »beauty« and thinking in figures are found again in all representations of the ideal of the city. Basic mathematical shapes like the circle, the square or the triangle are recurrent themes throughout all visualized city drafts, and this formalism runs the risk of becoming pure decoration.


HUO:

Kahn spoke of ornament as opposed to decoration, not that decoration would be added, but that with ornament two things that don’t belong together come together, like a junction.13


HS:

»Ornament and decoration« are important keywords. My criticism refers to the formalistic perception inherent in the ideal, in which aspects and relations and contexts regarding the content are treated secondarily or not at all. For this reason, in each case I take a city ideal and mirror it several times along the horizontal and vertical axes, so that it multiplies itself into a pattern. Thereby the formalism particular to the original sketches transforms in the drawings into a multiple repeat, i.e. the ornament is multiplied to a pattern, and hence to a decor.


HUO:

May I ask you, in conclusion, what you are currently working on?14


HS:

Right now I am still working on the drawings of the appendix to the series. Afterwards I will deal with another form of a pattern. An archive of an abandoned embroidery factory that contains thousands of embroidery patterns was offered to me.


Herbert Stattler

Translation Katherine Robinson







[1]    Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume I, Edizioni Charta, Milan, 2003, p. 290.


[2]    Ibid., p. 176.


[3]    Franz Fürst, Ursus Himmelbach, Petra Potz: »Leitbilder der räumlichen Stadtentwicklung im 20. Jahrhundert – Wege zur Nachhaltigkeit?«, Teilbericht des von der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft geförderten Forschungprojekts »Vergleich räumlicher Stadtstrukturen auf Sozial- und Umweltverträglichkeit« der Universität Dortmund, Fakultät Raumplanung, 1999.


[4]    Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume I, Edizioni Charta, Milan, 2003, p. 159.


[5]    Ibid., p. 92.


[6]    Ibid., p. 181.


[7]    Ibid., p. 847.


[8]    Ibid., p. 266.


[9]    Ibid., p. 281.


[10]    Ulrich Maximilian Schumann: Ort und Plan, ed.: Die Stadt. Ihre Erfindung in Büchern und Graphiken, ed. by id., Harald Robert Stühlinger, Paul Tanner, Margit Unser, gta publisher, Zurich, 2009.


[11]    Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume I, Edizioni Charta, Milan, 2003, p. 815.


[12]    Ibid., p. 293.


[13]    Ibid., p. 335.


[14]    Ibid., p. 248.



© 2010 Herbert Stattler. All rights reserved.