Rainer Hehl is an architect/urban designer and a guest professor at the TU Berlin, where he is also the program representative of the Master of Architecture in Typology M-ARCH-T. He has graduated from the RWTH in Aachen, the University of the Arts in Berlin and the École Speciale d’Architecture ESA in Paris, and he also holds a Ph.D. from the ETH Zurich. In addition to his labor at the TU Berlin institute of architecture, he has been a honorary professor at Yokohama National University, and has been part of the teaching staff of the ETH Zurich, where he directed the Master of Advanced Studies in Urban Design. He has worked as a project architect at Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s studio and OMA in New York.
The TUBerlin’s Master of Architecture in Typology M-ARCH-T program, led by Professor Hehl and other professors was selected in our BAM Ranking 2020 as the 11th best postgraduate architecture program in the world.
We hope you enjoy the interview that Prof. Hehl kindly completed exclusively for the BAM platform.
BAM Interview with Rainer Hehl
1.- Describe the beginning of your academic career at TU Berlin. What would you like to highlight about its Institute of Architecture?
I started to teach at the TU Berlin in 2013 in the context of a guest professorship that was established in order to invite various architects and academics for a 2-year teaching experience. By then the Institute of Architecture was witnessing a generation change and many new professors had to be appointed, a process that hasn’t been fully completed yet. So it was the start of a very stimulating discussion about the new orientation for teaching and research and how the institute would position itself regarding pressing issues such as digitalization, sustainability, the role of civic engagement and participation in architecture, etc. Internationalization of the studies has been identified as one major objective and subsequently the new Master Program M-ARCH T has been initiated in 2016 with a focus on typology. I believe it was an important moment as the intention of the establishment of the M-ARCH T is to integrate its curriculum within the general Master Studies instead of running it as an independent program. I suppose a highlight of the studies at the TU Berlin is related to its specific location. For the diverse Chairs of the Institute of Architecture the context of Berlin offers to be a laboratory for experiments on how the urban future could develop. With its historic layers and contemporary challenges, the city can be considered a testbed for innovative ideas inspired by contributions from students from all over the world creating transfers between local and global approaches.
2.- Do you remember a turning-point during your architecture career that pushed you to be a better architect? Can you describe it?
I think to be a better architect, or to produce better architecture, has always been an ambition, which accompanied my career and I consider this ambition as a basic prerequisite for teaching, with the aim to always improve the current status quo in architecture and to push the next generation to do better than the previous one. However, there definitely has been a turning point in my career that expanded the notion of what ‘a better architect’ could mean. It was the moment after working on signature projects in renowned architecture offices such as DillerScofido&Renfro and OMA when I discovered the dimension and complexity of urban development in the cities of the global south during the research of my PhD project on the so-called ‘informal cities’. While exploring the subject of how cities are built without significant intervention by architects and planners I realized that being a better architect would also concern the ability to take responsibility and to turn the everyday world into a better place with means of architecture. From then on my ambition has been concentrated on the question of how to develop great architectural quality for relevant tasks that are usually not at the chore of design practice.
“Being a better architect would also concern the ability to take responsibility and to turn the everyday world into a better place with means of architecture”
3.- What would you say is the most relevant highlight of the TU Berlin’s M-ARCH-T?
The thematic concentration on typology — which was somehow inspired by the teaching methods of Oswald Mathias Ungers, who was a very influential professor at the TU Berlin 50 years ago — allows for an interdependent collaboration and approach to architecture in regards to the various orientations of the Institute, all dedicated to a shared topic. With the thematic lens on typology an investigation on the language of architecture has been launched that addresses the role of architecture within current processes of transformation and that understands typology in terms of models of change with a special focus for future challenges: multi-use of hybrid building types, conversion and expansion of existing structures, adaptation of spatial arrangements according to new programmatic requirements or the development of open frameworks allowing to accommodate future scenarios. The range of typological transformations shows that the rethinking of existing building types can serve as the basis for a new vocabulary of change. Further, the M-ARCH T’s focus on typology allows a dialogue between architectural languages introduced by the students according to the variety of their social and cultural backgrounds. What kind of typological systems are common to all of us, and which design practices have to be specifically developed considering the local building cultures? I would say the highlight of the M-ARCH T program is to investigate typology within current transformation processes and to develop narratives leading to new constellations of existing and future building types.
4.- How do you see the architecture academy in 10 years? What would you like to be different?
The academic field is increasingly exposed to economic pressure, which has a significant impact on the role of architecture education today. On the one hand, digitalization has thrown architecture production into a new field where data-driven processes determine the way we relate to other disciplines and how we communicate with the world. On the other hand, urgent issues such as climate change and the transformation of cities into sustainable livelihoods require a rethinking of value systems and the reorganization of spatial production – it requires new networks and new agencies. Academic institutions are struggling with the scope of transformation and architecture education is increasingly torn between external market forces and the obligation to contribute to systemic change. In turn, knowledge production in the field of architecture is at best taking the role of mediating between economic constraints, technological innovation and social change. In this sense design practice has to be thoroughly connected to research into contemporary conditions and the development of new tools for communication and collaboration. While this process is inevitably changing the way we teach and produce knowledge, architecture can only take a clear position if it is also strengthening its chore task as design discipline, as a practice, which is able to envision and materialize other possible worlds. In order to do so, architectural education should reset its focus on ‘Gestaltungslehre’ (design teaching), a key term for the methodological approach of the Bauhaus. Beyond responding solely to external forces, the architecture academy of the future should offer the freedom for exploration and provide a laboratory for the speculation on alternative models to the current condition from the perspective of design practice. I believe if we reinstall ‘Gestaltungslehre’ as the chore of the discipline in view of present and future challenges, the role of architects can again be turned from the provision of services into an active and leading position in shaping future realities.
“The highlight of the M-ARCH T program is to investigate typology within current transformation processes and to develop narratives leading to new constellations of existing and future building types”
5.- Which are the main characteristics that a good architecture professor should meet? What’s your academic vision as a teacher?
An architecture professor should first of all be aware of the potentials of the students. Each student has a different talent, a different character and a different disposition of skills. A good teacher is able to push each student specifically according to preexisting capacities and to motivate her or him to move beyond limitations, in order to be surprised of what else can imagined and materialized. I strongly believe that in this process it’s particularly important to teach the use of rational and analytical skills while evoking intuition and a sensual imagination of the built environment. In order to stimulate a creative process, students have to learn beyond a rational understanding and instrumentalize their social and emotional capacities. This process is inspired by the idea of how we relate to the world, how we find our position, our attitudes and our own visions, it is always related to a personal development, which simply cannot be taught in a prescriptive way. The professor should provide comprehensive knowledge but also encourage the students to be critical and to cultivate their own personal tools, methods and passions.
6.- Given the current situation of the world regarding COVID-19, how do you think the global education in architecture will be affected?
There is no doubt that we are forced to improve our skills regarding to digital media. This doesn’t only affect our capacities to connect and communicate digitally. Moreover it has an impact on how we envision the reality and how we develop narratives. Digital tools change the way we reflect upon things. I experienced that the development of projects with expanded digital media formats (movies, interactive visualizations, animated 3D modeling) adds other qualities to architectural design, sometimes even regarding the communication of emotional or sensual aspects. In addition we also learn how to communicate across borders, to create international collaborations without being physically present. In a positive sense we expand our abilities to connect and create in the virtual realm. It is a process that has been resting in place before but has been accelerated significantly with the conditions of the pandemic. In the future we will instrumentalize the digital realm better, also after society got through the pandemic. However, there are drawbacks which cannot fully be foreseen at the moment. After all, architecture is a discipline dealing with materiality in the real world and we are currently losing our connection to the physical realm. I guess we will have to relearn our haptic capacities and what real life performance means for architecture production.
“The architecture academy of the future should offer the freedom for exploration and provide a laboratory for the speculation on alternative models to the current condition from the perspective of design practice”
7.- Who are you admiring in the architecture academy? Who do you usually see as a reference?
I developed most of my teaching skills during my time at the ETH Zurich and I owe a lot to my mentor Marc Angélil who is currently Kenzo Tange visiting professor at GSD Harvard and who still serves as a reference for me. I like the idea of mentorship, the passing of knowledge from one generation to the other, a system, which is much more practiced in countries like Japan or Brazil. But there are also a certain number of colleagues who I admire, Ryu Nishizawa’s teaching at YGS-A Yokohama, John Lin at Hong Kong University, Jan de Vylder at the ETH Zurich and Amica Dall from Assemble teaching at the AA in London.
8.- What would you suggest to someone who isn´t sure about what postgraduate program to take right after the architecture bachelor graduation? How to decide it?
The decision about what postgraduate program to take is obviously a very personal decision and it should always be related to the professors that are currently teaching at a specific University. It should be decided according to the personal interests of the student or potential future orientations. I also believe that the location plays a major role. Post-graduate studies are also about creating networks and experiencing a specific cultural background. I think it’s important to make a choice that also considers the local context. Architecture studies shouldn’t be taken ‘in vitro’ in the closed context of the architectural laboratory, but also ‘in vivo’ as a specific lived experience that we can reactivate hopefully as soon as the pandemic is over.
“Architecture is a discipline dealing with materiality in the real world and we are currently losing our connection to the physical realm”
9.- What advice would you give to someone who just finished her/his postgraduate studies and wants to become a competitive professional in architecture?
There are many ways to build up a professional career and for those who already have in mind what kind of architectural practice they are aspiring for, it might be best to acquire knowledge in architecture offices that correspond to personal interests. From my personal experience I can recommend to use the moment after graduation to open your horizon and explore practices that challenge your mindset. It might be the moment to go for work experience abroad or to work for an office, which is challenging conventions. As soon as you’re involved in the professional realm you are easily absorbed. So it might be better to use this special moment for an experience that is unlikely to happen after several years of consolidated professional practice!
10.- How do you start your creative processes when beginning a new architectural project? Do you have a “system” to do it?
There is no clear system for my understanding of the creative process and there is definitely no linear approach on buildiing up an architectural project. I prefer to conceive the design process as a associative and relational practice, which is always navigating between information (between research on context, program and performance) and imagination (in the sense of building up a narrative and visual language). The analysis of reference projects helps to identify guiding questions and to delineate the conceptual framework. But once the disposition of elements, the constraints and limitations of the project are established, the design process is rather about tracing relationship between these elements and constraints until it comes together in a coherent narrative. The cultivation of design tools and visualizations in this process is crucial in order to expand the imagination and discover potentials of the project that couldn’t be anticipated in the beginning.
“I prefer to conceive the design process as a associative and relational practice, which is always navigating between information (between research on context, program and performance) and imagination (in the sense of building up a narrative and visual language)”
The BAM Team appreciates the time Professor Hehl dedicated to complete our interview and we invite you to learn more about his professional and academic work at the TU Berlin by visiting the following links.