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“The Eiffel Tower signals progress”

Hans Kollhoff | Photo: Deutschlandradio, Bettina Straub

Hans Kollhoff | Photo: Deutschlandradio, Bettina Straub

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Architect Hans Kollhoff talks to Joachim Scholl (Deutschlandradio Kultur) about Europe's most significant structure

More than 20,000 participants have answered questions from the Goethe-Institut's Europe List, including the one of the greatest European building. Architect Hans Kollhoff is here to explain to us why people have chosen the Parisian monument and why he favours another structure.

Joachim Scholl: More than 20,000 people from 30 European and adjacent countries have answered our questions and each Monday, we present their answers to experts on Radiofeuilleton. Today's topic is architecture – which is the most significant European structure?

With us in the studio is Hans Kollhoff, one of the best-known German architects enjoying European renown; he keeps offices in Switzerland and the Netherlands and has taught at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Welcome to Deutschlandradio Kultur, Hans Kollhoff!

Hans Kollhoff: Hello!

Scholl: What would your answer have been, Mr Kollhoff – what is the greatest European structure and why?

Kollhoff: I've decided it should be the Colosseum, or perhaps even the Parthenon, although the survey may appear contradictory in this regard.

Scholl: Why?

Kollhoff: Well, I think it shouldn't just be an object, but a public space, because a space offers not only identification with a symbol, but a shared experience.

The Colosseum or an amphitheatre like the one in Verona about which Goethe said, well, this mass of individuals becomes self-aware and sees itself as sharing something, as a single form, that's a wonderful sensation. So, the Colosseum that is included in the list is definitely an option.

Scholl: Let's resolve this for our audience, who must be on the edge of their seats by now: 25 percent of those we asked in Europe List named the Eiffel Tower the greatest European monument, ten and nine percent, respectively, chose the Colosseum in Rome, like you did, Mr Kollhoff, or the Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens. What is your take on the choice of the Eiffel Tower?

Kollhoff: The Eiffel Tower represents progress – it was erected in Paris in 1889 as part of the World's Fair and was Europe's tallest structure back in the day. These are all factors that fascinate us nowadays.

But if we go a bit deeper, we must ask ourselves the question of how it fits into the city – the question of architecture. One could ask oneself whether the Eiffel Tower, as an engineer's project, is really the best object of identification for Europeans. After all, architecture is concerned with the environment and thus the city; which brings us to the other examples that were just named.

Scholl: Let's give the matter of European architecture some due thought: if you had to define the term, how far back in history would you go – where would you see decisive moments in the development of a European architecture?

Kollhoff: Well, definitely back to the Hellenistic period; and then we'd have to talk about that period's influences from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Crete. But it's in Greece that a European sentiment first becomes truly tangible in architecture, and most of our other examples of great structures draw influences from Greece.

Scholl: Other top scorers in our survey include the Brandenburg Gate, Sagrada Família in Barcelona, St Peter's and Cologne Cathedral. And interestingly enough, only three modern buildings make it into the top ten: the European Parliament, the Reichstag Building in Berlin and the Berlin Wall with a modest three percent. So it's basically all ancient history, if you know what I mean. One might conclude that Modernism tends to be interwoven with politics in our architectural awareness. Would you second this?

Kollhoff: Well, that's certainly one way of seeing it, but it's also to do with the fact that older buildings are perceived as more monumental, and perhaps they really are more imbued with life, because they are generally not conceived by a single architect, but have an entire culture behind them, which may stretch for centuries.

And then we get structures such as the Brandenburg Gate, which come from just such a line of traditions. Its heritage is Greek; it's the gateway to Spree-Athens, just like the Propylaea were the gateway to the Acropolis.

Scholl: We're talking to architect Hans Kollhoff about the Europe List, a survey by the Goethe-Institut, on European architecture on Deutschlandradio Kultur. In Berlin, millions of tourists marvel at the DaimlerChrysler Building on Potsdamer Platz built by you, Mr Kollhoff – the spectacular Kollhoff Tower, as they say. In Frankfurt, your residential building, the Main Plaza, catches the eye. How European does Hans Kollhoff, the architect, think?

Kollhoff: My mentality is very European, and, by extension, also very traditional. I don't only look forward, but do my best to respect our heritage and the question of how to see oneself and one's work in this kind of historical context. I work on the background of our eventful history and measure by it – there really is no other way to work.

Scholl: You keep offices in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Which influences inspire your work and that of your staff there and what is cooperation with European architects like?

Kollhoff: There certainly is a lot of very diverse interfacing. What I think has emerged as a common base among us European architects in the recent past is the phenomenon of the European city, something we all share, no matter whether I'm working in the Netherlands, in Italy, Switzerland or in Berlin. The city itself is basically the decisive test for the architecture: what does the building contribute to the city, is it nothing but an object that might well have fallen from outer space or is it something that has developed from the structure inherent in the city?

It needn't always be the traditional, that which has already been done – quite the contrary – but innovation is always indebted to tradition. Which brings us to the question of what a European symbol is: I think it shouldn't just be a structure that makes use of the city's context, but that contributes to it as well.

Scholl: Following this train of thought, does such a thing as national architecture even exist any longer?

Kollhoff: Perhaps not, in a sense. But if you take a closer look, you'll see what moves Germans, what moves the French, what moves Italians, because they evolve from their nation-specific context. But I think that's becoming harder and harder for non-professionals to detect in an age of global architecture and culture. So, as a European, one really has to decide for oneself to which extent one wants to let oneself be taken in by such matters.

Scholl: Nowadays, all great architects work at an international level, which now includes a greater perspective: China, Asia and the Arab world – places where entire cities are conceived from scratch. You just said that the city is the decisive test for Modernism and architecture. How does this change one's view when looking back on Europe? Or are entirely different forces at play?

Kollhoff: No, I think looking abroad, looking towards America or towards China does change one's perception of Europe. It was in America, not in Europe, that I discovered what the European city really is. And looking towards China works quite the same way.

I think we Europeans are looking towards our heritage and connecting what we have – historical cities and architecture – with a system of values, which, in turn, leads to us shying away from tendencies of American or Chinese origin or of globalization in general.

Scholl: Talking of values, Mr Kollhoff, you just said it yourself. A question central to the Europe List is what does Europe mean to you, personally – name three things you associate with Europe. And the three most common answers were culture, community, freedom of travel. What are Hans Kollhoff's three European values?

Kollhoff: Well, definitely culture; a certain attitude towards life is definitely a part of it, including all sorts of prerequisites – not just high culture, but our typical day-to-day culture as well. There is a certain eagerness to enjoy things, which is different from country to country, of course, but we have a lot in common as well. Those would be the two most important points for me. And also Europe's unique and diverse topography, which is evidently very much formed by culture and no longer all virgin nature.

Scholl: The Europe List, the grand survey with participants from 30 European and adjoining countries. Today we heard architect Hans Kollhoff on the question of the most important European structure. Many thanks for your visit, Mr Kollhoff, and good luck in all your endeavours to come! Next week, we will be continuing our analysis of the list with Egyptian doctor and writer Alaa al-Aswani, when we talk about the question of progress, right here on Radiofeuilleton, just after two p.m.

Broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur on 15 July 2013: http://www.dradio.de/dkultur/sendungen/thema/2178661/