Rory MacLean meets Jürgen Mayer H.
‘It’s a very unpredictable moment,’ answered Jürgen Mayer H., the gifted 48-year-old Berlin-based architect. ‘It is part spontaneity, part intuition, part methods learnt over years. It is an unforeseeable process at the same time as being wholly professional.’
Since the 1990s Jürgen Mayer H. and his interdisciplinary practice have established a national and international reputation for innovative buildings, objects and spatial interventions. From the start of his career he has been fascinated by patterns: in architecture, in music, as codes and acronyms, in structure that pretends to be ornamentation.
He was born into a musical family near Stuttgart, learning to play the piano and bassoon. As a teenager he — like his siblings — worked at his father’s metal construction company. While there he developed a passion for the work of both Richard Serra, the American minimalist sculptor who created large-scale assemblies of sheet metal, and Jewish-German architect Erich Mendelsohn, whose Schocken department store had been demolished five years before Mayer H.’s birth.
Sculpture helped Mayer H. to understand space and led him to study architecture. He first attended the University of Stuttgart, where he learnt the rules, and then the Cooper Union Architecture School in New York, where he learnt to question himself and to break those rules.
‘I didn’t know why I did certain things,’ he told me when we met in his Berlin office. ‘I felt that I needed to develop some arguments for myself.’
Mayer H.’s breakthrough project came at Cooper Union when he was asked to turn the Biblical text of Noah’s Ark into architecture.
‘Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.’
Mayer H. applied the compositional techniques of contemporary classical music to the ark’s dimensions, exploring its patterns over time. Later at Princeton University he developed further his personal working strategy while pushing architecture beyond the functional, looking at it as a medium of cultural critique.
In 1996 Mayer H. — who on graduation had decided to place the initial of his middle name after his surname — moved to Berlin, drawn by the clash of architectural and social opposites that marks the capital as well as by its legacy of 1970s buildings.
‘In many ways my generation had been denied the idea of the future. Pershing missiles, the forests dying of acid rain, nuclear power stations: life on earth seemed to be doomed in those days. Yet at the same time new technologies and new family and social structures were bringing us a promise of tomorrow. I wanted to reclaim the future by trying to live with a kind of curiosity. It’s a humble definition for the future changes every day of course.’
In his first building the Stadthaus Scharnhauser Park, Mayer H. challenged the traditional expectations of a modern German city hall. Wrapping the building in an opaque metal envelope, he abandoned the post-war trend of transparency in which all public buildings were seen as metaphors for open democracy. At the same time he drew on common, readymade patterns as a source of conceptional and then formal inspiration. His interest in public and private space, and their delineation, sparked a fascination for data protection patterns, such as those printed inside envelopes to disguise sensitive information. In our modern CCTV age, Mayer H. ventured that the interior of a building was no longer necessarily private, nor was the outside world — with people plugged into their iPhones — necessarily public.
Through his theories and with his imagination, at the intersection of architecture, communication and new technology, Mayer H. has produced a body of remarkable, playful and visually striking works. From urban planning schemes and buildings to installations and objects made with new materials, the relationship between the human body, technology and nature have formed the background for his innovative interpretation of space.
His biggest project to date is the Metropol Parasol, an extraordinary wave-like construction which soars like music above Seville’s old Plaza de la Encarnacion. His most organic structure is probably the Mensa Moltke student canteen in Karlsruhe. His most intimate works have been made with heat-sensitive papers and cotton, where any human touch leaves a fleeting impression that vanishes as the material cools. For example in Lie, a sleeping man rolls across the bed leaving a shadow of himself — or his missing self — on the printed bedsheets.
In his office in an elegant Wilhelmine building off the Kurfürstendamm, ranks of junior architects work on banks of computer screens, designing street furniture and details of ventilation and cable ducts for projects from Berlin to Marrakech, Düsseldorf to Georgia. Two fellow architects — Andre Santer and Hans Schneider who have worked with Mayer H. since the earliest days — have become partners in the expanding firm to ‘share responsibilities, to bring more strength and stability’.
The Swiss designer Rolf Fehlbaum once asked Mayer H. about multiple disciplines, recalling that Le Corbusier worked simultaneously as a painter, sculptor, designer, architect and city planner. Like Fehlbaum, Mayer H. is stimulated by the dissolution of boundaries.
‘In my everyday activities as well, I don’t notice such boundaries: everything flows and exerts an influence on everything else,’ said Mayer H.. ‘Ideas are added, and are then shaped, transformed… For me, questions of scale or of discipline are not that important…’