Meinhard von Gerkan was born in Riga on 3 January 1935; the city is located in Latvia which, at the time, was an independent country with a population of Latvians, Russians and Germans. The family belonged to the upper class of the German-Baltic population which – following the non-aggression agreement between Stalin and Hitler and the resulting cession of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union – was largely resettled in the Polish areas which had been under occupation since the beginning of the war. Von Gerkan and his parents moved to Posen (now Poznan) where he started primary school in 1941 – at the age of six.
Fourteen years later he had been to twelve different schools, had lived with several families in various cities, had experienced displacement and was a refugee as a result of a chain of catastrophes closely associated with the end of the National Socialist regime in Germany: his father died at the Eastern Front in 1942 and, at the end of the war, mother and son fled to Lower Saxony where the mother died soon after. The son stayed with several foster families, since 1949 in Hamburg, where at first he attended a secondary school and later a Rudolf Steiner school; he finally passed his "Abitur" examination (similar to A levels) at a night school in 1955.
What effect does such a childhood and adolescence have on a person?
He continued his education with two semesters of physics and one of law studies until he started studying at the Berlin Technical University in 1957. There he met Volkwin Marg, who had escaped to West Berlin from the GDR. This was a meeting of two highly gifted architectural students who had experienced a somewhat similar fate of strife and who were searching for a sense of order. In 1961, they both moved to Braunschweig Technical University which, at the time, had probably one of the most focused and best architectural faculties in Germany, with teachers such as Friedrich Wilhelm Kraemer, Dieter Oesterlen and Walter Henn.
Both von Gerkan and Marg passed their diploma examination in the same year, 1964. At that time, they had already started to work together, producing competition entries for other practices and winning competitions; their quality as architects was undisputed at an early stage. However, they had not built anything yet. Following their graduation, von Gerkan and Marg set up their joint architectural practice in Hamburg under the name of von Gerkan, Marg and Partners (gmp), which is still in existence today. That was a somewhat exceptional move, because for architects it was usual to first complete a kind of “apprenticeship” in an architects’ practice so that they could familiarise themselves with the practical side of construction, something that hardly featured in the university curricula at the time. Therefore, when they not only won the competition for the design of Tegel Airport in Berlin but also obtained the contract for its construction, the two young architects had to improvise – the stories of how gmp was presented to the client as an established architects’ practice make entertaining reading to this day.
It was a flying start: in the first year, the team won seven competitions, which were followed up with contracts. That that actually worked and was successful can hardly be fully appreciated from today’s perspective. Because just being a good designer is not nearly enough; the architect has to be a businessman, a site manager, a technical draughtsman and an organiser – all occupations for which the university education provided no preparation. To take the example of Tegel Airport in Berlin: this was not only based on a highly innovative concept which – in the age of the motor car – allowed passengers to drive almost directly to the check-in counter, it was also completed in the planned construction period of five years and it was five percent cheaper than the original cost estimate. And even the fire protection system seems to still work today…
The practice’s success story is largely common knowledge: more than 325 first prizes in competitions, more than 370 completed buildings – that is a record that no German practice and very few international firms can match. Today, gmp is one of the leading global architects’ practices, a fact that is borne out by international acclaim: von Gerkan is an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects, has been awarded several honorary doctorships, has been awarded the Romanian State prize, has been appointed honorary professor at a Chinese university, advising professor at another; he gives lectures and teaches at universities all over the world.
In Germany too, the practice and person was honoured with numerous awards, including the award of the Federal Cross of Merit. However, how does the prophet fare in his own country? Success was and is not always acknowledged among colleagues and architecture critics; the practice is said to be good at pleasing the taste of jury members. There is a grain of truth in this, but the underlying assumption that this is negative should be questioned. Because conversely one should ask: what is the sense in always offering eye-catching designs at each and every occasion? What is lacking in contemporary architecture is not sensational design but good quality "normal" buildings. That is not something architects like to hear – they are confident enough to be convinced of their own capabilities, and rightly so. But not every office block, every commercial building and every residential development needs to demonstrate that it is unique. It is more important that such projects are part of the built environment and hence part of the buildings representing a society – something that is usually achieved by gmp. Such representation cannot be achieved with an agglomeration of buildings that are each outstanding and unique.
Meinhard von Gerkan recognised this at a very early stage; in 1974 he was appointed Professor at Braunschweig University, and in his inaugural lecture – which no doubt was somewhat polemical – he said: "Salvation cannot be found in condemning technology, but in subordinating technical options to social objectives", and furthermore, he stipulated that the work of architects "should aim at tearing architecture from the realm of thought and action dealing with consumer goods and at elevating it to the status of a cultural asset". In its essence, this means that architecture must not lend support to the "Aldi paradigm of thinking", which considers that what is cheapest is also best. This society, which builds itself a city and its public spaces, this society which confronts architects, building control authorities and construction companies with a demand, a request – this society is us, is it not? If we speak of public spaces, if we speak of the State – we are talking about ourselves! Why should we be content with poorer quality, with what is second-best, or even the cheapest?
The firm conviction that the design of the built environment is the way to promote the well-being of society – that is what motivates von Gerkan; designing and shaping things does not only serve its own purpose, but it creates added value for everyone. When this is not recognised by others, von Gerkan becomes angry – he is not always an easy person to deal with. The obstacles put up everywhere on the path towards designed order make him lose his countenance at times – the court battle about the quality of the Berlin Main Station has become legendary. This is something only few architects in Germany would embark on. When one partner goes missing during what he calls "dialogue in design", nothing good can result: the society that challenges him also has to give him, the architect, the appropriate means. And that may be said, and the wrath made public – as von Gerkan has done in his book about the disaster of the Berlin airport. And one can do something about it when a serious deficit has been detected; the Academy for Architectural Culture, which was founded by gmp and of which von Gerkan is President, represents a – privately financed – step towards the better education of architects.
After the stormy but successful early days of the practice, its success has lasted for many years with its main focus on Germany, but the practice was always curious about also gaining experience outside the Republic; early signs were the 1st prize in a competition for the National Library in Teheran and that for the airport in Algiers. However, the real push for the practice’s work abroad came with the success in the competition for the German School in Beijing in 2000. The fascination of building for a country such as China, with its dynamic development – and later on also elsewhere in East Asia, and nowadays all over the world where projects are mostly not hampered by the bureaucratic obstacles encountered in Germany which are perceived as narrow-minded (but sometimes face other difficulties) – provided a new impetus, not only to the practice, but also to its two protagonists. And the opportunity, at almost seventy, to design an entire new city for 1.3 million inhabitants (Lingang near Shanghai) – presents a challenge for any architect, a challenge readily taken up by von Gerkan. He thrives on the challenge and loves the public recognition, which gives him wings. At its core, the issue of architecture is simple: von Gerkan sees "Umweltmisslichkeit" (a term coined by him meaning something like "mishap in the built environment") everywhere, and he wants to change that. He wants to create order in the world, from the smallest piece of furniture to the whole city (and his furniture designs are the epitome of what he promotes: "of the most simple, strive for the best").
"Creating order in the world" – there is no question that there are good reasons to assume that this is something architecture cannot really achieve. But why not try it anyway?
Prof. Dr. Gert Kähler, Hamburg, architecture journalist and publicist
Rodrigo Andaeta Torres (drawing), Timmo Schreiber Photography