interview with beate engelhorn

Beate Engelhorn photographed by Thomas Raggam. Image courtesy of the curator.

Beate Engelhorn is a Graz-based curator, educator, and architect. Since 2019, she is the director of the Haus der Architektur, an institution that is part of the Lina Community and the Future Architecture Platform.

Engelhorn studied architecture at the TU Braunschweig and ETH Zurich. Following her education, she worked as an architect for offices such as Hans Kollhoff in Berlin and taught at numerous international universities including BTU Cottbus. She previously curated for the renowned architecture gallery Aedes in Berlin and Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt. In 2001 Engelhorn co-founded and led the architecture gallery “suitcasearchitecture” in Berlin. She was also a part of the team for the German Pavilion at the 10th Architecture Biennale in Venice.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You started your career as an architect working for the architectural studio of Hans Kollhoff. How and when did your transition to a curatorial role happen?

BEATE ENGELHORN: After working as an architect, I went to BTU Cottbus University and I taught there as an assistant professor. With the additional free time, I knew that I wanted to do something new. The “normal way” for a young architect was at the time to start participating in competitions to obtain own projects and start an office. I saw all my colleagues entering competitions and working day and night, but even if they won – as a young office they never received the commission to build anything.  I decided that was not the right path for me.

I wanted to promote young and talented architects that were really trying very hard and with that mission, I founded a gallery with my colleague Kristien Ring from the university. The gallery was called suitcasearchitecture and was a small 30 square meters room, located in Prenzlauerberg in Berlin. We were adamant to promote high-quality architecture, especially the work of younger generations who struggled with visibility and did not have an opportunity to exhibit in places such as the prestigious Aedes Architekturforum. To exhibit in this well-known private gallery is just too expensive for young offices that often do not have the resources to be able to participate. We ran the gallery during my time at the university. As my contract at BTU Cottbus came to a close, I wished to re-enter my field as an architect. Concurrently, I was invited to a podium discussion about young architects where I met Kristin Feireiss, the director of Aedes. She initially offered a position of curator at Aedes for half a year and I eventually stayed there. So, it was not a decision to work in the curatorial field – it sort of came up!

Opening of exhibition plasmastudio at suitcasearchitecture in 2004. Image by suitcasearchitecture with image courtesy of Beate Engelhorn.
Opening of Ferdinand Heide Architects’ exhibition at suitcasearchitecture in Frankfurt, 2001. Image courtesy of suitcasearchitecture and Beate Engelhorn.

I would also have liked to work as an architect or stay at the university – as I enjoyed both. I think every part of this profession is so interesting and I enjoyed the inspiring combination of the gallery’s activity and my teaching role as I could invite young colleagues to join the discussions with students and vice versa. I would always invite students to the openings –  that was a great interaction!

LŠ: Naturally architecture exhibitions differ from art ones, as the subject is represented via archival, photographic, and drawing material. What excites you about architecture-based exhibitions? What are some of the challenges that drive your work?

BE: I don’t know if it’s so different because the question is the same: how can you bring a message across? Artists and architects want to express something. And sometimes you need other tools to bring this message across. The media like photographs or models are often not enough. Sometimes you need more artistic thinking – how to create a certain atmosphere? Or how to use specific items to give an additional dimension to the exhibition that expresses the messages of the curator and architect(s).

LŠ: You previously curated for the esteemed Aedes Architekturforum in Berlin. The latter operates as a public platform for discourse and learning, an exhibition space, and a bookstore. What were some of your favorite exhibitions realized at Aedes?

BE: Oh, that’s hard to say because they were so many! What I really liked about my role was creating exhibitions with partners – different architectural offices like MVRDV, Dorte Mandrup, Dominque Perrault, Nieto Sobejano, Jakob+MacFarlane. These collaborations and especially also working with different cultures were very interesting for me and always exciting!

LŠ: In 2008 Aedes organized an exhibition titled Bad Places which looked at neglected urban spaces. As an architect and curator, how do you see the potential and future of such spaces?

BE: The exhibition was about an industrial space and a specific situation, and the question of a big garbage mountain. I think at that time, it was a bit of an idealistic approach that had slim chance to be realised nowadays. Today we have different kinds of lost spaces. Cities, building techniques, infrastructure, and situations change – we are now challenged by climate change, the finiteness of materials, and the need for energy reduction.

In 2008, it was the normal way that if you build a new house, it stands f.e. along a street and the street was a public space used for gathering. Today it is utterly different. This is largely due to the real estate industry, which is primarily profit-oriented. A newly built house today has often no liveable surroundings and no atmosphere. There is no distinction between private and public space. Sometimes it’s just a residual space, where you park your car. And this is a really bad development! I think this is just one of the challenges that we have to tackle today.

LŠ: Which architects and urbanists do you admire that operate in the field of sustainability and innovation and are tackling numerous challenges that we face on the urbanistic and environmental front?

BE: Last year we had an exhibition about the circular economy. The selected offices we showed are really working well in this field and can serve as role models for the reusing of existing buildings or used materials like InSitu from Switzerland and Superuse from Rotterdam. I admire also people like Anna Heringer, who is working with clay construction in countries such as Zimbabwe or Ghana. And also, I like Lacaton&Vassale from France which are working with old buildings and trying to give them another lease of life.

LŠ: Since 2019 you have led Austrian Haus der Architektur. What changes or vision were you keen to introduce to the institution?

BE: I just follow my ideas – I think as an architect because I am an architect. This background is not common, most of the people that are running such cultural institutions, studied Cultural Management or Art History.

I see my role as a “translator” that wants to explain the subject from different perspectives and address it to an interested audience. I present the work of planners and designers, select things that are happening in practice into exhibitions, and organise events to foster a dialogue between different groups and professions. In my opinion, everything is architecture as the living environment is what we are all sharing.

I think the common ground for us is that we all are longing to live in a liveable environment where we can feel comfortable. And I am convinced that it is important to think further – about the development for the future and to involve new generations. Today for me it is vital to have different professions working together with architects – from science to artists, politicians, and designers.

LŠ: Haus der Architektur recently presented a program focused on lectures and excursions on the legacy of influential architect Günther Domenig. How do you see his role in re-imagining Graz?

BE: He lived in a very special time in the 70s and 80s. Everything seemed to be possible! Architects of that period tried new ways to invent space –  and there was less worry in terms of restrictions of building laws as they were not as strict as today. This specific generation had numerous possibilities to experiment with building forms and materials. And that’s what he did. His work flows between architecture and sculpture and I like it.

I think if one would try to re-create this type of building it would be really hard if not impossible. One would have to be extremely inventive because the laws have increased to such a level that it hinders a lot of design intentions. And that’s why our architecture today looks sometimes very sober. Many current buildings resemble a box that is very energy-consumer optimised. Solely the windows as an element have the freedom of a tiny movement. This “minimized” design is not what I think will be the best solution for our future and our surrounding. We have to work harder to make more things possible and to be freer in thinking about form and experimenting. The future challenges are too big not to try to invent different and better solutions in design and urban planning in times of climate change.

Günther Domenig: DIMENSIONAL exhibition layout. Image by Jakob Waltl and image courtesy of Haus der Architektur.
Günther Domenig: DIMENSIONAL excursion (25.06.2022) with Haus der Architektur. Image copyright by Jakob Waltl and image courtesy of Haus der Architektur.

LŠ: It feels that the fast fashion concept is re-applied to a certain degree into architecture with excessive building activity and architecture’s predetermined lifelines followed by demolition.

BE: Yes, unfortunately! A few years ago, I took a course on the valuation of buildings in the real estate sector.  I took the course because I was interested in what people do in the real estate industry. After this experience, I think that today’s construction environment is the result of very specific thinking, which calculates the life of a building according to a profit margin in about 15 years. The mentality has also changed in terms that the customer is usually no longer the user of the building. We are dependent on people or companies that make their revenue from real estate. This type of building industry unfortunately mostly does not care about the future of these buildings after the calculated profit margin of 15 years and that is a huge problem.

We should know better! We need to change the linear thinking of “build and demolish” to a circular way – and we need to rethink what materials we use. If we just glue thermal insulation and bricks together, we can’t reuse them. Glue and the ingredients of the insulation are dangerous waste. This problem is a global phenomenon and we have to find common solutions.

LŠ: How do you see the future of architecture? Given the current situation?

BE: There are a lot of current challenges. I have been following the developments in the field of architecture since my studies, and unfortunately, it’s not getting any better. I’m impatient – we need to take action! The before-described observations are surely not how we want to live. We are destroying our world. Therefore, I’m hoping for a new generation like members of LINA platform as well as people like you ready to fight for new development in the right direction. We need a common understanding that Building and Designing are not about profit and money – it is about our living environment.