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Recalling a university challenge

There are few opportunities to hear a public appraisal of a building by its architect, generally considered to have had a seminal influence on the subsequent history of architecture. Manfred Schiedhelm, speaking at the aa last week, was a lead collaborator on the Berlin Free University project (first phase completed 1973), with the practice of Candilis, Josic and Woods. He took responsibility for the construction programme, and his own practice later extended the complex.

Schiedhelm's talk launched a new volume on the university published in the aa's 'Exemplary Buildings' series, and a small exhibition. His discussion of a building described as 'a monument' by Peter Smithson, and 'a space for an alternative social order' by Gabriel Feld, focused mainly on the construction process. As he noted, the translation of an ambitious intellectual and political idea into built reality was a challenge: 'The competition was easy compared to the construction.'

Shadrach Woods, who had worked with Candilis in Le Corbusier's office, was a key figure in Team X and its reaction against the ciam agenda. The competition was undertaken in 1963-64 in Paris, and according to Schiedhelm the vivid street life of the French capital was an important inspiration along with a fascination with the Cartesian grid, and the grid model offered by us cities.

These resulted in an extensive mat-like building of routes and courtyards which, on the one hand - to quote Woods - predicated 'Places of teaching and learning . . . as . . . an integral part of the structure of the city', and, on the other - to paraphrase Scheidhelm - resulted in certain problems of orientation - which were addressed by using different coloured carpets,and lighting.

Schiedhelm admits that the team was 'overwhelmed by the huge programme', and also believes they probably overestimated the importance of flexibility for alteration and enlargement. But the fundamental problem was finding 'an adequate method of building' the competition idea, when modern building technologies were still in a formative period. The structural system developed with Prouve comprised a post-and-beam framework with a space-frame on top carrying all the services, and a building envelope of Corten panels, which were to cause some problems. The roof was supposed to be entirely turfed, but this was dismissed as technically impossible. A decade later, Schiedhelm was able to prove the consultants wrong in his library extension, using a different palette of materials - anodised aluminium panels, stone and wood, for the sake of the senses, he said.

As Peter Smithson pointed out, it is rare for an architect to persist with the same building over 20 or 30 years, but Schiedhelm is encouraged by the extensive use of the courtyards, the way the students have opened cafes along the internal 'streets', and clearly believes the investment of dm50 million has been worth nurturing.

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