Their colourful facades had an enormous influence on British architects, but scratching the surface reveals a rigorous approach to design, says Felix Mara
Two very different office buildings in Germany, designed by Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton, were completed last year. KfW Westarkade in Frankfurt and Oval Offices in Cologne demonstrate the practice’s interest in sustainability as well as the more sensual and artistic aspects of design, but with varying emphasis. This is an opportunity to reassess its work, the foundations of its approach and the principles of office design.
The practice has had an enormous influence on architects in Britain, where it originated, and abroad, especially after the completion of its GSW Headquarters in Berlin in 1999. If you were designing facades in one of the UK’s more commercial practices at the start of the noughties, a photograph of this ‘precedent’ was likely to have landed on your desk.
Sauerbruch Hutton is also interesting as a practice that was founded in London but moved to Germany, combining design skills developed in the UK with interests in sustainability and the high construction quality that flourished in Germany. Although it feels like a young practice, it has pedigree: founding partner Louisa Hutton worked for the Smithsons for four years.
This provides an insight into the practice’s work, although Hutton stresses that the Smithsons were more preoccupied with the non-visual aspects of architecture, whereas she and Matthias Sauerbruch are attuned to its sensual qualities. This distinction is at the core of its philosophy, which acknowledges architecture as not only a service but also an art.
Those who don’t really understand Sauerbruch Hutton’s work sometimes dismiss it as a ‘one-trick pony’. The artist David Batchelor’s coinage ‘chromophobia’, invoked in a Sauerbruch Hutton monograph, helps to explain these jaundiced views, which ignore the depth of its work and its grounding in the tectonic and artistic ideas of Gottfried Semper and Josef Albers. There is continuity in Sauerbruch Hutton’s work, although it also strives to rejuvenate itself. There’s no need for every practice to be an architectural jukebox. As Mies van der Rohe once said, ‘You cannot invent a new architecture every Monday morning’.