Jens Casper interviewed by Rory MacLean
‘I grew up in Cologne,’ he told me, striding through Berlin’s autumnal streets. ‘Its city centre was being transformed in the early 1980s. Road tunnels were built to give people access to the Rhine. The philharmonic hall was buried underground. The bus station was removed. I loved walking through the city, watching the dynamic change between the medieval cathedral and the new Ludwig Museum, taking in the whole urban situation.’
The energetic and boyish 42-year-old, chosen by Wallpaper in 2007 as one of the world’s most exciting new architects, dragged on his Players cigarette.
‘That architectural intervention marked me, leaving me forever fascinated with the process of working the new into the old.’
He laughed, pushed back his hair and strode on.
Jens Casper trained at the Technical University in Aachen, moving to Berlin when his wife was pregnant with their first child. Money was tight and he found work at a practice in Potsdam. One day the art collector and advertising wunderkind Christian Boros stopped by the office, inviting Casper and his boss to transform a vast World War Two bomb shelter into an art gallery in trendy Berlin-Mitte.
‘After submitting detailed plans we heard nothing back from him,’ Casper explained to me. ‘Later when I decided to leave the Potsdam practice Boros called out of the blue and said, “Jens, I want to do this project with you”.’
In 2003 Casper founded Realarchitekur with colleagues Petra Petersson and Andrew Strickland.
‘We named the firm Realarchitekur in defiance of the trend of architecture based on single, simple ideas. We wanted our work to relate to hard reality, and to have relevance beyond rarefied, pseudo academic discourse.’
Their Boros project became one of the most remarkable architectural transformations in Germany. The vast bunker had been built in 1943 to protect up to 3,000 people from Allied air raids. During the Cold War it had been used to store fruit and vegetables for the East German government and then, after the fall of the Wall, it served as a hardcore techno nightclub. Over five years Casper and his team worked to recreate the building, removing 5,300 cubic feet of poured concrete (including a huge slab of the ten-foot-thick bomb proof ceiling), transforming the original 120 rooms into 80 galleries, adapting it to the modern age while preserving its monumental character.
‘The bunker had such intensity. It had been built by forced labour of course and we debated whether to erect a plaque or pierce its concrete shell with something symbolic, an arrow or similiar. But we realised that the whole structure was the memorial. We worked with these dark age materials.’
Today the gallery – which is open to the public by appointment – is Berlin’s most idiosyncratic art space. The current, inaugural exhibition is of works which incorporate the bunker space itself: sculptures, room and light installations as well as performance pieces.
On top of the bunker Casper created a gallery-like, single floor, 4,800 square foot penthouse, surrounded by glass and accessible only by a private elevator. To date the project has won the International Architecture Award, the Chicago Athenaeum Prize and the Deutscher Architekturpreis Beton. It has also been nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award.
‘Architecture is about dialogue, not only with a client but also with a structure, its history and the environment,’ said Casper, striding on through the city. ‘I don’t work with a Mont Blanc pen, scribble off a single idea then pass it to an office full of apprentices to develop. I talk to my clients, walk a site dozens of times, make hundreds of drawings and models. I’m always testing my plans, letting new elements change the whole design. I love dealing with materials, drawing them together, puzzling out solutions. It’s tremendously challenging and very, very time-consuming.’
Since the bunker project, Casper has worked independently on the conversion of a 19th-century pumping station, built a breathtaking private home in Oldenburg (winner of the triennal BDA Preis Niedersachsen) and configured a luxury Miami apartment for a famous family of art collectors and book publishers.
‘Sometimes a limo pulls up outside my office, and a celebrity or a London gallery owner – who’s seen the Boros Gallery – spends the day with me talking through their plans. Then they drive away and, maybe, I’ll hear from them again.’
Casper – who has three children now and lives in a ‘baugruppe’ (a kind of housing cooperative) in Lichtenberg - revels in the new, dynamic Berlin.
‘Berlin is at the very front of experimentation and improvisation,’ he said. ‘The economic and physical space here facilitates real opportunities for creative people.’
These days creativity is woven into Berlin’s fabric. The city is being transformed by artists, collectors, curators and gallery owners. Casper is fascinated by the complex relationships between it and its cultural production. He works at ‘making sense’ of Berlin’s gigantic empty spaces (that is, the voids left by war and the Wall). It’s no coincidence that Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, John Hejduk and other great modern architects built their first – or an early -- public commission in Berlin. Unfortunately the ‘poor but sexy’ city is bankrupt and most of its civic projects place utility above individualism.
Despite the difficulties Casper loves working in Berlin. ‘So much of the city is calling out for reinterpretation,’ he said, his blue eyes sparkling. ‘I find it more interesting to interact with a city than a single building on a green field site. Cities always offer the opportunity of discovery; walk through a narrow door and you can be in another world.’
He dragged on his cigarette and pushed back his wild hair again. ‘But I still have a great affinity with Cologne. Every time I return home I take my favourite, old walks. In I way I left my heart in the city.’
Then with another laugh he strode away.