Dr. Kristin Feireiss (born 1942) is a Berlin-based curator and author in the field of Architecture and Urban Design, as well as a Pritzker Architecture Prize juror and the former director of Netherlands Architecture Institute.
In 1980, she co-founded together with Helga Retzer (who died 1983 in an accident) the Aedes Architecture Forum, the worldwide first privately run institute for Architecture. Since then, it has developed into a globally renowned centre for interdisciplinary and cross-generational discussions. To date, the mission is not only to communicate architecture between experts but also to open it up to civil society and encourage discourse.
Hans-Jürgen Commerell (born in 1960) is a Berlin-based architectural photographer, curator and since 1994 co-director of Aedes Architecture Forum. In 2011 he has co-developed with Feireiss the new educational platform ANCB, Aedes Network Campus Berlin.
In its history, Aedes has shown more than 500 exhibitions and had published catalogues for example on Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Peter Cook, Kazuyo Sejima, Ai Weiwei, Francis Kéré, Liz Diller, Olafur Eliasson, Xu Tiantian.
In 2006, Aedes moved to a new location in Prenzlauer Berg, where the forum was expanded 2011 by the Aedes Network Campus Berlin, ANCB. The focus lies on urban discourse, exploring the interplay of the built environment, social life, technology, education and research for the future of our human habitat on an international scale. The ANCB collaborates with numerous universities to discuss interdisciplinary processes on critical issues of the built environment.
Partnering Universities are: University College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Shanghai; ETH, Zürich; TU, Delft; TU, Berlin; École Spéciale d‘ Architecture, Paris; Universidad Europea de Madrid; Universidad Iberoamericana/Universidad Anáhuac, Mexico City; University of Applied Arts, Vienna; Pratt Institute, School of Architecture, New York; St. Petersburg State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering; Zurich University of the Arts, ZHdK; London Metropolitan University; Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology; University of California Los Angeles, UCLA; University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago; Institute of Technology, MIT, Cambridge; Korea National University of Arts, Seoul; and more.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How and when were you first exposed to the field of architecture? What attracted you initially?
KRISTIN FEIREISS: I never thought of studying architecture, I studied philosophy and art history. My interest in architecture came from my work as a journalist, where I occasionally reported on architecture. After discovering the field step by step, I realised that at that time the media were not very interested in architecture, there was a lack of information about architectural discourse among the public. We are all surrounded by and interact with architecture on a daily basis. I wanted to raise this awareness of our living environment among the general public.
I saw Aedes as a communicator of architecture – we were not architects, and that was the best possible position for us. We had the freedom to be independent and critical observers.
LŠ: Perhaps we could revisit the state of the architectural industry of the 80s in Berlin?
KF: The architecture of the 1980s in Berlin was shaped by the International Building Exhibition (IBA). It was the first international architecture exhibition on this scale in Berlin since the 1950s and was headed by director Josef Paul Kleihues. He was a representative of postmodernism and so the architectural debate and also the way architecture should look were very much shaped by him. Other styles took a back seat during this period.
Our intention for the Aedes Forum was to present various approaches and different concepts against the background of social, ecological and cultural debates within the national and international building scene and to discuss them independently of trends and epochs.
LŠ: This brings us to the next question: In 1980, you co-founded the architecture gallery Aedes together with Helga Retzer in Charlottenburg, which was West Berlin’s cultural hotspot at that time. How and when did you meet Helga? When did you decide to create the gallery?
KF: I met my friend Helga Retzer at the end of the 1970s, through the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), where she was working at that time. We were both interested in communicating architecture. Our first gallery was only 40 square meters and was essentially an old shop space.
Aedes was the first architecture gallery worldwide. At that time in New York there was the Max Protetch Gallery, that in addition to its focus on art, also had exhibitions of drawings by architects. With Max we became good friends, but it was a completely different model of a gallery that we ran. He showed architectural drawings as art, beautifully framed, and we showed architectural drawings as part of the process rather than as works of art. For us, catalogues were an essential part of an exhibition, they allowed the dialogue to continue.
I remember Max Protetch saying, “Are you crazy? Why are you spending money on catalogues?” But we always liked to have a follow-up to the exhibitions.
LŠ: An extension of exhibitions – we could say portable shows.
KF: Exactly! Of course, it is not always possible for everyone to visit the exhibition. With the catalogues, exhibitions can be viewed independently of the location. We understood this very early on, with our second exhibition: “Im Memoriam Kongresshalle Berlin”. After the collapse of this building, we asked architects from all over the world to create visions for this symbol of German-American friendship. Thanks to the Aedes catalogues, the exhibition was also noticed internationally and attracted a great deal of attention.
LŠ: The first exhibitions at Aedes were on the work of Peter and Alison Smithson, Peter Cook, Giorgio Grassi, and Rem Koolhaas – could you tell us more about the initial formation of the exhibition programme and the gallery?
KF: We were asked this question very often. It was not about the knowledge we would have had in the field of architecture, for example, but simply about our curiosity and our joy. We were simply so interested in and fascinated by the built environment because it concerns all of us. We wanted to discover something new for ourselves and share it with others, and our hunger for knowledge grew and grew. Our enthusiasm was contagious. I simply approached Rem Kolhaas after a lecture, for example, and we have stayed in touch ever since.
In retrospect, we realise that we were very naive in our approach, but that was obviously the right thing to do. (We showed many architects long before they were awarded the Pritzker Prize and long before I was appointed to the Pritzker Prize Jury.)
LŠ: Which (colleagues) curators in the field of design and architecture impacted/ influenced your work?
KF: I admire the work of Harald Szeemann, such as his Monteverita exhibition, which opens up new unknown worlds to you. In 2003, we did an exhibition on the work of Tadao Ando at Aedes and Harald Szeemann gave a great lecture at that opening. Hans Ulrich Obrist does fantastic things at the Serpentine Galleries in London and Jean Louis Cohen in Paris. Also our friends Paola Antonelli (MOMA) and Deyan Sudjic, who was director of the Design Museum in London. Deyan Sudjic was director of the architecture section of the Venice Biennale, where he realised amazing projects.
LŠ: When and how was the Aedes Gallery reconstructed into the Aedes Forum?
KF: A gallery is usually there to sell objects. We realised that selling architectural drawings didn’t work, and above all we never exhibited works of art. Our goal was to show the process, and the two don’t go together! So if we couldn’t sell, we had to change our strategy! One day we sat down for hours and thought of a word to describe what we wanted to do and achieve. And we finally decided on the word Aedes Architecture Forum.
LŠ: In 1996, you were appointed director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) in Rotterdam. What attracted you to the role? What changes were you keen to implement to the programme?
KF: It was a strange time. At Aedes we were four people, and then I was invited to lead an institution with a hundred employees. I followed the strategy we developed at Aedes at the NAI. But on a completely different scale, it was the largest architecture museum in the world.
I had a permanent contract, which was remarkable for a foreigner in such a position. Normally, all contracts are for five years. What appealed to me was the freedom, I had to address and exhibit sensitive issues.
What I wanted to change was that all the departments of the museum work closely together, they communicate with each other all the time and hierarchies are abolished. Of course, I encountered many challenges when I started. But by the end of my time there, we were all a strong team and the museum was known beyond the Low Countries.
LŠ: What is your opinion on the future of architecture biennials?
KF: The Architecture Biennale Venice, which was founded by the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi in 1980 and which I have followed continuously since then and in which I was also partly involved as curator of the Dutch pavilion and also as a jury member of the Golden Lion, was a turning point in the worldwide communication of architecture. The exciting thing at that time was that countries could present themselves in their own specially designed pavilions in addition to the exhibition at the Arsenale, which made a dialogue with each other and with the public possible. I also find it important that these biennials are not only a point of attraction for experts, but also for a broad international audience.
When in 2003, as director of the NAI, I launched the International Biennial of Architecture in Rotterdam, Rotterdam got another place for architectural and cultural dialogue besides the NAI.
It was full of factories and didn’t have the cultural status that Amsterdam had – so I was very pleased that I was able to push that through.
LŠ: Could we discuss the formation of the Aedes Network Campus?
HANS- JÜRGEN COMMERELL: The platform at Aedes provides certain opportunities to bring different voices into the architecture. But through our work, we realized that we needed a new way to reach out to younger generations and include them in the discourse. The exhibition format has a specific focus, but we were looking for something more “fluid” – so ANCB Campus was born.
The first step was to invite experts from around the world to participate in symposia and discussions on current issues. In addition, the international universities already mentioned (in the beginning) regularly come to the campus with professors and students for two to four weeks workshops. It provides a platform for active discussion and research on current challenges such as the housing crisis, sustainability, our relationship to nature, etc.
The second step is to engage political, industry and cultural leaders to engage in public debates with experts and civil society. Our program is very transdisciplinary.
The strategy is that Aedes is an incubator that offers and promotes new perspectives and solutions. We want to keep raising new questions, like crafts in the digital age or how to connect rural and urban areas.