Leaf International at Berlin: discussing “starchitecture”

25 May 2018



Now in its 18th year, LEAF International was held at the Berlin Marriott in October, bringing together leaders from a mixture of the world’s largest and most progressive international architectural practices, contractors, developers, engineers, designers and suppliers.


If events of the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that forecasting is a thankless task. From Brexit to Trump to who knows where; how can we prepare for what is yet to come, when events all too often get in the way of even the most meticulously crafted plans?

In the context of our built environment, however, one cannot afford to remain rooted in the reassuringly knowable present. Amid unprecedented technological advancements, a changing climate, growing world population, shifting demographics, mass urbanisation and dwindling resources, failure to look over the horizon could spell disaster for the architectural community and society at large.

This was a theme running throughout the 17th LEAF International, held in Berlin on 12–13 October. The title of this year’s event was ‘Specifying the Future of Architecture’, encompassing presentations, keynotes and round-table discussions that covered an array of challenges and opportunities facing our built environment, from smart cities to artificial intelligence to the future of the workplace.

And where better to host an event discussing uncertain futures than Berlin? Few, if any, European cities have undergone such a seismic and varied series of transformations since the beginning of the 20th century. To talk through the architectural and legislative legacies this history has wrought, Manfred Kühne, head of urban planning and projects at Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing, delivered an absorbing keynote to kick off the event.

Introduced by Tillman Prinz, secretary-general of the Federal Chamber of German Architects (BAK), and a popular and perceptive master of ceremonies throughout the opening morning, Kühne helped to anchor LEAF International in its host city, while simultaneously evoking universal issues facing urban planners across the globe.

What a series of economic, social and political disasters have created, he observed, is a culture of development that values high-quality, socially orientated architecture and extensive public engagement.

“We learned that destroying one’s architectural heritage is not a reasonable strategy and a deep respect for remaining structures is a central part of our work today,” he observed, as he took his audience through a wide range of previous and ongoing projects, including the 300ha Tempelhof redevelopment that was rejected at the ballot box by Berlin’s citizens in 2014. “But destruction provided the opportunity to focus redevelopment, post-reunification, in the heart of the city. There’s a long-standing strategy to redefine the urban texture, and we are the only European city to have so much central space,” he said.

No audience with a senior member of Berlin’s planning department would be complete without a question regarding the current state of the much-delayed Brandenburg Airport, under construction since 2006. “The delays have destroyed a lot of trust in our work and approach,” Kühne lamented of a project with which his department has not been involved. “It has greatly damaged the respect for what we do and makes sharing our message with the city’s citizens that much more difficult to get across.” The theme of public engagement ran across this year’s event. In a roundtable discussion on smart cities, chaired by Prinz and featuring contributions from Ricardo Moreira of XCO2, Sanjay Tanwani of Atkins, HOK’s Chris Fannin, Iain Macdonald of Scott Brownrigg and IA Interior Architects’ Guy Messick, the conversation returned time and again to how buildings might empower their users. “Are we even smart enough to live in a smart city?” mused Prinz at one point.

“We talk a lot about user control, but we should also think about the reverse communication, the feedback loop,” said Moreira. “Can all that collected information, the metadata, inform our design, our systems, and help create buildings that work better? There’s an issue there of communication and education; a lot of this data is already available. We have these incredibly advanced building control systems but, all too often, very few people can use them.”

But that may not be the case for much longer, as connectivity becomes all-pervasive. “Human behaviour is changing and will shift dramatically over the next decade,” offered Tanwani. “We are at a stage where almost everything, from how we build to how we navigate our cities, is in a state of flux. Yes, that creates a degree of uncertainty, but it’s also incredibly exciting.”

Premier event

LEAF international has a track record of attracting some of the world’s most dynamic studios, a fact particularly highlighted by two essential architectural keynotes on the opening day. The first came from Jürgen Mayer, described by his old friend Prinz as “a very un-German sort of architect” – a classification clearly intended as a compliment, despite coming from BAK’s head honcho. “I’m an architect that’s based in Germany, but it’s difficult to see what I do as being defined by national borders,” Mayer agreed. “What I’m engaged in is not an inherently German discourse.”

Mayer’s choice of featured projects was indicative of this fact and included his Sarpi Border Checkpoint in Georgia and the Metropol Parasol in Seville, the world’s largest freestanding timber structure. Through his own work, Mayer was keen to address the use and inclusivity of shared spaces. “There is a natural public curiosity about public space, even if people don’t always have the language to articulate it,” he said. “If you allow them to follow and engage in this process, it makes it all so much smoother and should also create better design.”

The closing architectural keynote came from Andy Young, technical director of BIG’s London office. His overarching theme was the extent to which Silicon Valley had influenced BIG’s outlook on architecture, with a particular focus on the firm’s work with Google on the tech giant’s California HQ and its campus in London’s Kings Cross. This session proved so popular that the audience insisted Young continue well past his scheduled finishing time, foregoing the rush to the bar for the opening night cocktail party.

Neil Pennell, head of engineering and design at Lansec, had touched upon a similar theme when discussing the development giant’s new offices earlier in the day and Young’s message was even more succinct: the workforce is changing; their expectations of the workplace are changing, so architects must change accordingly.

He pointed to the fact that what’s often talked about as the latest trends in office design are things that companies such as Google were doing a decade ago. The advantage of working side by side with these companies now, he continued, is the insight it affords into what form the office of the future might take.

“We’ll see designs based upon the principles and values of these tech companies, and new typologies of buildings coming out of that,” he explained. “Young people in California or London now find it difficult to conceive of ever owning a property, so they tend to live their lives in a quite different way; having a good time and living life in the moment is highly prized. Home may not be the anchor it once was; domestic spaces are smaller, so the office needs to become an almost 24-hour environment that blurs the lines between work and play.”

Green dreams

Delegates reconvened the following morning for an opening presentation from Coen van Oostrom, CEO of Dutch developer OVG Real Estate. Much of the discussion surrounded what he was looking for in architectural partners and OVG’s partial transition into a technology company. But perhaps the most startling personal insight surrounded how a chance meeting with a former US vice-president dramatically altered the direction of Van Oostrom’s career.

“Al Gore was in the Netherlands to promote his book and, to be honest with you, at the time, I was far from being one of these ‘green knights’,” he admitted. “But we talked, he explained how important business would be in addressing the problem of climate change, and I was convinced. I also saw how central real estate was to the issue. That realisation has impacted everything we’ve done since.”

Like so many people who took to the stage over the course of the two days, Van Oostrom said it was difficult to overstate the role that technology would play. “When looking at architects, there are two things that form a minimum baseline for working with us,” he said. “One: do they understand technology? Two: can they put this knowledge into practice without considerably increasing the cost of the building? Sustainability and well-being are still things people are not necessarily willing to pay for. The challenge is providing those things without making the tenant having to pay the cost.”

Other highlights of the second morning included a keynote from AECOM’s director of strategic planning and design, Carlo Castelli, on creating a more integrated, collaborative design approach; and a series of intimate, interactive breakout events on the challenges facing the architectural community. These included a session on the potential impact of Brexit, led by Harbinder Birdi of Hawkins\Brown, and a discussion around the design of educational spaces moderated by Werner Frosch of Henning Larsen.

The closing afternoon centred around two round-table discussions addressing new technologies and future trends. The former featured Dirk Songuer of Microsoft HoloLens, Trimble Mixed Reality’s Jordan Lawver, Guy Messick of IA Interior Architects and Judit Kimpian, chair of the sustainability group at the Architects’ Council of Europe. It covered an array of issues, including augmented reality, 3D printing and designing in the virtual realm.

Might there be a time when a generation of ‘starchitects’ emerge who do not even build in the physical world, the panel was asked. “One only has to look at video games to see that it’s already happening,” Kimpian responded. “Technology is impacting how we even define architecture.”

The final session brought together Elvin Box of Mace, HOK’s Andrew McMullan, Arrow’s Ulrik Raysse and Joan Roig of BATLLE I ROIG ARQUITECTURA. Looking into the future, McMullan, who had joined HOK from Heatherwick Studio only a few days prior, also believed the architectural discipline was undergoing some fundamental changes. “I think it will be much more collaborative,” he said. “Of course, we’re used to working with engineers, quantity surveyors and so on, but I think you’ll see much more dialogue with groups such as anthropologists and environmental scientists.”

A recurring theme was that one couldn’t allow technology to control the creative process and that it was all too often seen as a catchall solution. “Tall buildings are not necessarily the future,” Raysse said, referring to a panel discussion from the previous day. “The future is big buildings, but the technology to help us successfully create such projects does not necessarily exist yet, so we simply build higher and higher.”

Roig lamented the fact that education placed technology before creativity, a fear shared by Elvin Box. “I get off on the fact that I’m creating a legacy, and I bore my children rotten as we drive around: ‘I worked on that one’, ‘there’s another I helped build’. It’s a huge source of personal pride. One of the things that concerns me is that architecture retains its sense of soul. AI is one thing, but emotional intelligence belongs to the human,” he said.

Whether the future bears that fear out remains to be seen, but it was a fitting note on which to close the event.

BIG and Heatherwick’s design for the Googleplex in California.
BIG and Heatherwick’s design for the Googleplex in California.
The M_Eins building from Dutch developer OVG Real Estate.


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