For the Twentieth Century Society’s 1970s conference, taking place this week, I was asked to talk about Germany. I chose the work of Günter Behnisch’s practice as my main example, because their radical change of direction around 1970 seems to me so essential to that time.
In the early to mid 1960s, this Stuttgart firm had stood at the forefront of system building, making schools in precast concrete which were rigid and repetitive, if cunningly contrived. But they soon lost patience with this technical approach, for as Behnisch later remarked, ‘such ordering systems can become instruments of domination, first taking over design processes, then moving on to architecture, and finally to life itself ’.
In 1968, Behnisch and Partners won the competition for the Munich Olympics of 1972 with a flowing landscape covered in tent roofs, designed with Frei Otto. The practice moved into what they called ‘situational’ architecture, and a ‘collage-like’ way of doing things, increasingly angular, working with the specificity of each project and even improvising on site.
This major shift in their work marks for me retrospectively the crucial revolution of the 1970s – the rejection of total control, the suspicion of perfection, the embrace of irregularity and the gaps between things.
Architect, critic and journalist Peter Blundell Jones is a professor at the University of Sheffield
Resume: Behnisch bucked the system builds and learned to improvise