Tributes have flooded in for the influential teacher and architect Florian Beigel, who died last weekend
Peter St John and Adam Caruso of Caruso St John Architects
Florian Beigel was such an unusual person, passionate and burning with nervous energy in his younger days, sweet and tender, difficult and demanding. Adam and I worked for him in the late 1980s, in his office and as his teaching assistants, which was an experience for us both. He was in many ways a mentor, with an influence that it was hard to escape from.
His work, including the beautiful and generous Half Moon Theatre in Whitechapel, was important for a generation of architects in the UK. His form of practice, together with his partner Phil Christou, combining teaching and building, was unique in London. The talks, exhibitions and publications they would organise introduced us to the most interesting European architects of the time. It was an invitation to participate.
For at least 30 years the Architecture School at London Metropolitan University was energised by Florian’s teaching, and many of us gathered at the school as a result. He would never leave a student without pointing out what was the soul of their project for him. He would make them believe that they were searching for an important truth, making a connection between poetry, formal ideas and politics. While they couldn’t always live up to his expectations, he made the attempt seem really worthwhile.
London Metropolitan University was energised by Florian’s teaching
He had an expressive voice, singing and snarling. He would sigh loudly if he was dissatisfied. If he was happy with something, he would do a little dance on the studio floor, lifting his hands in the air, and pointing to a little drawing that held the secret. He was extraordinary and we were fortunate to know him.
Andrew Clancy, professor of architecture, Kingston University London
I knew Florian long before I met him. His reach as an educator and an architect was profound. Those drawings. The radical humanity of the Half Moon Theatre. The work with Philip that followed showing a restless onward conversation. Their students’ work in the Cass on summer visits to London.
Florian seemed to have an ability to see with clarity, to capture something, and then to communicate this scholarship in a generous manner. It was a conversation we felt part of and carried with us even though we had never met. ‘Look at this,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’ I saw things differently as a result of how he saw, and how it was manifest in his work.
In latter years, in Coimbra, Shatwell and Kingston, we met many times. He and Philip welcomed us into this conversation as if they had always known us. Florian spoke continually with love for architecture.
Half Moon Theatre, London
Source: Phil Sayer
The last time I saw him was in Venice for the biennale. He was standing slightly to one side of the group, tired perhaps, and looking around him. During a break in the conversation I stepped over to him to ask how he was. He grabbed my arm with a strength that belied his seemingly frail form. His eyes, fully alert and full of intelligence, but visibly moved by something, looked straight into mine. ‘This is all so beautiful,’ he said.
His loss is profound, and will take a long time to come to terms with
Architecture is a conversation that started before we were born and continues after we go. Florian, more than anyone I met, made clear that this conversation is one of empathy, scholarly learning and humanity. The field of his influence extends far beyond those who he taught directly. His loss is profound and will take a long time to come to terms with.
Andrew Mead, former AJ reviews editor and journalist
One of my most vivid memories from working at the AJ is of the hours I spent with Florian discussing his projects in Germany and Korea. What especially struck me was his concern with landscape: for instance, his nuanced reading of a huge former US military base on the edge of Berlin, due for redevelopment for housing.
Florian saw five distinct chronological layers to the site – geological, agricultural, industrial, military and ecological – and made this temporal dimension central to his scheme. ‘Our concern is with the traces of history,’ he said, ’and we want to expose and intensify them.’ Attentive though he was to the design of individual buildings, Florian’s understanding of the architect’s responsibility went far beyond that. It’s heartening to think that his ARU students might follow his example.
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Elizabeth B Hatz, professor of architecture at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm
What made Florian Beigel into a beacon at dusk was his outstanding architectural sensibility; it was seismographic. A unique combination of sharp lucidity and extreme perceptiveness made his judgement on architecture shockingly precise and unyielding.
Florian could have a vulnerable fragility, like a mussel without a shell, in front of a project, a building or a place – it was as if architecture touched directly the nerve of his soul – when it was architecture. That architecture was often ever so humble. The repulsion in front of its opposite was equally powerful.
Over the past 30 years in my teaching, the plan of his Half Moon Theatre has been a source of accumulated and renewed discoveries: it transcends one of his deepest contributions – an intricate and complex ambiguity between inside and outside rooms – elaborate gaps where encounters are made possible.
Florian Beigel and Philip Christou at Elizabeth Hatz’s country house in Stavtorp, Sweden (2014)
Alan Power, Alan Power Architects
I worked with Florian and Konrad Frei during my year out in 1973-74 in their two-room office at the top of a building in Parkway, Camden, when they called themselves Building Plan Resources. At a time when architects’ practices were focused on individuals, the name was an attempt to focus on the means for creating good work, and for suggesting that the creation of architecture needed to come from a broader base than just architects. It was, for me, a very exciting time, and the sheer passion and concentration of Florian at work left an indelible mark on me.
Konrad and I were confined to the small back room, with the larger front room being Florian’s domain, where he could often be found pacing about, muttering to himself. I was asked to join the office after spending the previous summer making a model of their competition-winning project for a building below the Westway, just off Portobello Road. The ceiling of the front room at that time was almost wholly covered with grid-shell models – chain models hung with the kind of lead weights used by fishermen, to create a series of catenary geometries that Florian was experimenting with, to be subsequently refined into timber grid shell buildings. His time with Frei Otto had left him with a passion for minimal energy structures, which catenary geometry allowed, and he was particularly interested in using timber as a malleable and renewable building material, an interest he developed when working with Walter Segal.
I worked on two projects for Wolfgang Fischer – an extension to the Fischer Fine Art gallery in St James’s, and an extension to Wolfgang Fischer’s house in Hampstead, which Florian decided should be in the form of a grid-shell structure, a form he felt related to the garden of the house, thereby mediating between the house and the garden. The Hampstead grid-shell project was presented to Wolfgang Fischer at a lunch in St James’s. After listening carefully to Florian’s passionate and detailed description of the project, Fischer paused just long enough to demonstrate to us that he had thought about his response, before tapping his forehead and declaring to Florian that the idea was a ‘pipe dream’.
It is surely time for a holistic review of his work
At that time, having spent many years in the corporate structure of Arup’s, he was working out his ideas for an ideal atelier for creating architecture, and it was the subject of much debate in the office. Florian’s atelier (the form of which was influenced by Otto’s Institute of Lightweight Structures) had to have a paedagogical element, obviously, but it also should include elements of practice, with direct access to live projects. He started teaching at the Polytechnic of North London, where he created in embryo what was to become the Architecture Research Unit. The ARU was a genuinely innovative achievement, and one that deserves wider dissemination at a time when architectural education is once again under the spotlight.
I will be forever grateful to Florian for demonstrating to me the importance of thinking deeply about a project and its context, for always looking for specific ideas that may be embodied in the project, rather than projecting or recycling a pre-given design mantra. It is surely time for a holistic review of his work, academic as well as practice.
YouHwaDang Book Hall, front façade facing the Art Yard besign by Beigel and the ARU
Source: Jonathan Lovekin
Nicholas Lobo Brennan, director Apparata architects, associate professor Kingston
Florian’s work was vital and practical, radical where needed. He sought out an architecture that was deeply connected to the history of the discipline but did not ossify, it remained fresh and lively in thinking and approach. To do so he built a practice based around the art of making: making a drawing, making an object, making a building. He reflected on his practice not only in relation to the practice of architecture but also the practice of art, of cooking, and other disciplines.
His idea’s will become more relevant as time passes
He approached architecture as a set of ideas that worked across the scales, from the landscape to the table top and back again (food and garden were a key part of Florian’s architecture). Architecture in his hands was a social infrastructure that worked over time, where the discipline was a cultural practice that expressed itself through construction.
I worked for Florian at Architecture Research Unit for just under four years. It was an incredible education.
His idea’s will become more relevant as time passes. In a sense he was the keeper of an alternative line of British practice, linking him to Cedric Price, Lubetkin and a line of innovative and critical practicing architects. We would do well to learn from his ideas and keep them alive. He will be much missed personally too, from the great dinners that he hosted to his wicked sense of humour.