Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Disturbance At The Hejduk House

(Image of John Hejduk's Charlottenstrasse Housing, via)
There's a sad story unfolding over at Architecture In Berlin regarding John Hejduk's Kreuzberg housing block, which is currently subject to a horrendous 'refurbishment'. Somehow the current owners/developers have managed to transform Hejduk's highly enigmatic design into the kind of generic crap so correctly despised by Bad British Architecture. The images below illustrate the demolition job, complete with ubiquitous external render system and jaunty Ribena coloured balconies.

I remember visiting the buildings when I lived in Berlin in the mid-'90's. I was going through a fairly heavy Hejduk phase at the time (despite the poetry) and had just bought his Collapse of Time and Mask of Medusa books from the architecture bookshop in Kreuzberg just around the corner. They seemed utterly unique, really very peculiar but also beautiful in a spartan and austere sort of way. They were, perhaps, closest to someone like Aldo Rossi in their pared down simplicity and their daring lack of formal or expressionist bravado. I also liked them for daring not to be terribly exciting, at least not in the way that architects conventionally strive to be.

I've also always liked their anthropomorphic qualities, being something of a sucker for an architectural 'face' (see the alternately gurning and grinning facades of Islington Square) and the way the strange upside-down-funnel window shades and boxy balconies give the facade an air of Edwin Lutyens meets The Fat Controller. They are cartoon-like without being in the least bit 'fun' and are (or at least were) painted in a bracingly un-groovy shade of green.

In short they never seemed to fit in, either to the Kleihues endorsed Berlin block typology or the declamatory expressionism of Liebeskind et al. Instead, they evolved out of the idiosyncratic language of Hejduk's Berlin Masque series, a series of objects endowed with narrative characteristics. The strange menagerie of forms inhabiting Hejduk's world were like characters from some archetypal community, people represented by Heath Robinson-esque machines and semi-figurative forms.

(John Hejduk, Berlin Masque, 1983)

No doubt there are legitimate reasons for the refurbishment (rattly windows, cold apartments, cracking in the render etc.) although nothing justifies the deeply horrible way in which it's being done. Having argued the case before against preserving buildings in aspic, and for the legitimate and creative re-use of them through DIY, I might sound a little hypocritical here becoming a champion of preservation. But there's a big difference, I think, between the freedom of people to adapt their own houses over time (and avoid the tasteful admonishments of architects and English Heritage in the process) and developers cheaply and insensitively fucking-up an architecturally distinguished building.

There are more pictures and descriptions of the refurbishment work here and you can join a Save The Hejduk houses Facebook group here. There are also two other Hejduk projects in Berlin, including this one in Tegel, known in Hejduk's personal mythology as the House For Two Brothers.

Finally, just in case all this sounds like armchair architectural tourism at the expense of anyone actually living in Hejduk's design, there is an eloquent defence of them from a former resident posted over at Slab.


AM said...

sad story
(nice R.E.M. touch)

Charles Holland said...

yeah, it is a sad story and one unlikely to have a happy ending. Thanks for linking to it though...

Robert Slinger said...


Thanks very much for the post.

Being said eloquent former resident, I just wanted to post script that there is an online petition just gone up here:

Everybody who values Hejduk's work, please go and read it carefully, sign up if you agree, and help the cause.

Despite the fact that work has started and therefore permissions have obviously been given, the proverbial brown goo is just now hitting the fan and there is a great deal of heat on this at all levels, which I'm sure Slab and Architecture in Berlin will document as it unfolds.

Best Regards,

Robert Slinger

Jim Hudson said...

Thanks so much for covering this Charles, I really feel that things are beginning to roll on this one. I don't know if there's any realistic chance of getting such works undone (no law has been broken as far as we're aware) so the current owner is unlikely to undergo additional costs if not forced. But at the very least it will make owners of any such buildings think harder before proceeding down such a course.


bazza said...

Thanks for the interesting story.
I wonder how you think this would play out if it were in Britain? (I was not familar with Hejduks work but I sometimes see houses where the owners have added some hideous out-of-place feature and ask myself should there be laws to stop them doing it or should there be complete freedom of expression?)
I took a look via Google at his work; I love the building in Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

Charles Holland said...

Robert and Jim, yes there seems to be some definite momentum now which is great - well done. I've stuck the petition link up at the top in case it catches any more people....

N_O_R_T_O_N said...

i haven't missed the seriousness of this post, but I must say the phrase "armchair architectural tourism" has provoked my imagination...

inchirieri apartamente cluj said...

I agree that it is a sad story… too bad that now the "purple project" looks just like two chickens.

news games said...

It's sad that under the excuse of a refurbishment they act this way ... nothing ... and I mean nothing justifies the way they do it !