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Florian Beigel dies, aged 76

Florian Beigel 2007 by Richard Marks 2
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The influential architect and academic Florian Beigel has died, aged 76

Beigel died in hospital on Saturday of natural causes. 

Born in Konstanz, southern Germany in 1941, he gained a masters at University College, London, in 1969 having graduating with a Diplom-Ingenieur (Architektur) at the University of Stuttgart in 1968.

As a student in Stuttgart he worked as an architectural assistant to Professor Rolf Gutbrod in 1965. In 1969 he was a research assistant with Gunter Behnisch and Juergen Joedicke, working on the 1972 Munich Olympic Structures in conjunction with Frei Otto at the Institute of Lightweight Structures (see AJ 16.03.15).

In 1969-70 he was an assistant architect in Group 5 at Arup Associates in London. From 1971 until the late 1970s he began a private practice with Konrad Frey in London called Building Planning and Resources.  Beigel and Frey worked on thin-shell patent applications and research into energy-efficient, low-cost and lightweight building systems, as well as built projects such as the Fisher Fine Art Gallery near St James Square in Central London and the Fischer House in Grundlsee, Austria, completed in 1979.

However, he became best known for founding the inspirational design research studio, Architecture Research Unit (ARU), in the early 1970s at the London Metropolitan University, then the North London Polytechnic, where he had begun teaching. This gave him the opportunity to build full-scale prototype lightweight structures such as timber grid shells and catenary net structures similar to those he had experienced in the studio of Frei Otto as a young graduate.

Otto’s Institute of Lightweight Structures was a model for Beigel as a working practice embedded within a university where innovative architectural works could be designed and realised. He pursued this model throughout his career as it allowed him to work on small or unusual projects with fewer of the commercial pressures that most architectural practices are faced with. In parallel to this, a private practice was formed, Florian Beigel Architects to work on projects for private clients that were not seen as prototypical.

Beigel subsequently became professor of architecture at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design (The Cass) based at the London Metropolitan University. He held the role until last year, when he decided to stop regular design teaching after more than 45 years of continuous service.

Beigel became well known internationally for the design of the Half Moon Theatre in London (1985) and the Bishopsfield Housing Modernisation project in Harlow, England (1994). Other projects in London, such as the Apartment in Kensington (1992) and the Apartment in Clerkenwell (1999) received much interest and attention from the profession.

Large-scale urban and landscape designs in international architectural competitions in Germany, such as the Regeneration Design of the Brikettfabrik Witznitz, Borna, Germany (1996-2000), Kunstlandschaft Cospuden near Leipzig, Germany (1997-2001) and Stadtlandschaft Lichterfelde Süd in Berlin (1998-2002) led to further urban design and building commissions in South Korea. The urban and landscape concept of Paju Book City near Seoul Korea (1999), and a series of three buildings for book publishers at Paju designed by Beigel and ARU with Korean collaborators were completed between 2000 and 2007. ARU’s large scale urban design land reclamation project, Saemangeum Island City, Korea (2008) was exhibited at the 2010 Biennale in Venice and has been published widely.

In 2012 Beigel and the ARU redesigned the interior of Central House in Aldgate, London to house the Cass, and the design studio of the ARU was in a central position within the school. In the spring of 2018 the plywood walls that formed two floors at the CASS were reconstructed in the new KANAL – Centre Pompidou museum in central Brussels.

In 2014 the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that Beigel and his partner Philip Christou were one of 12 teams of architects working on the regeneration one of the last remaining of Seoul’s shanty towns, known locally as ‘Moon Villages’, with a strict remit to preserve the existing urban grain. Following a recent competition held by the city for the site immediately adjacent, it is expected that the Moon Village design will be built in the near future. In recent years Beigel and Christou have continued to be involved in large and small projects in South Korea.

In 2016 they were involved in designing a district of more than 6,000 apartments on a city block immediately next to the Han River in Central Seoul. The urban design concept proposal was for a series of approximately 40 slender towers ranging up to 50 floors high, standing on top of 4-6 storey street buildings that enclosed shared residential gardens inside, and publicly accessible pedestrian city lanes and streets outside.

In 2013 Beigel was awarded the Grosse Kunstpreis für Baukunst (Grand Art Prize for Building Art) by the Akademie der Künste Berlin, for his inspirational work as a practising architect.

One year later he was named winner of the RIBA Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education, an award handed out every two years to the individual who has made making a significant contribution to the advancement of architectural education in an institution offering RIBA-validated courses.

Speaking at the time, Roz Barr, RIBA vice-president of education and chair of the judging panel, said: ‘Over four decades of inspirational teaching, Florian Beigel has revealed an unparalleled commitment to the School of Architecture of the London Metropolitan University framed in entirely unique terms.

‘His penetrating intelligence, generous spirit, and abundant talent as an architect make him a most deserving winner of the RIBA Annie Spink Award.’

Beigel dedicated the award to Christou, who was his collaborator at the university.

The new building for a publisher in Paju, South Korea designed by Florian Beigel + ARU (2007)

The new building for a publisher in Paju, South Korea designed by Florian Beigel + ARU (2007)

The new building for a publisher in Paju, South Korea designed by Florian Beigel + ARU (2007)

Paying tribute to Beigel, Patrick Lynch of Lynch Architects said: ’Florian has left behind a relatively small number of exquisite buildings, which nonetheless place him among the best architects of his age.

’He leaves behind also an almost incredible legacy; an entire generation of London architects who knew him as a colleague and as a teacher, shocked and saddened at his death, but inspired by the beauty of his work, and the childlike wonder of his approach. He was one of the most passionate, sensitive and talented people I have ever met.

Lynch added: ’Florian was fortunate to have the love and creative partnership of Phil Christou; together they produced some of the most thoughtful and joyful books and buildings of any partnership today. Together they helped turn North London Polytechnic department of architecture into one of the most respected schools in the world. The late flowering of ARU projects in Korea are a profound source of continuing inspiration and education for us all.’

Among the books written by Beigel and Christou are City Structures (2009), Architecture as City: Saemangeum Island City (2010) and Baukunst: The Art of Building (2011).

Next year the Architecture Foundation plans to publish the complete works of Beigel and Christou in a special edition.

Tributes

Tony Fretton of Tony Fretton Architects
Florian was a quiet but significant influence on British architecture. His Half Moon Theatre predated Herzog & De Meuron’s rhetorical use of construction, and in fact was better, in that it had actual social purpose for the Half Moon Company and its audience. His commitment to research-based practice in the form of the ARU at North London Polytechnic/Cass resulted in a very sincere form of education, particularly in the early days with part-time working students. He has gone but what he brought to architecture persists.

Julian Lewis, director of East
Florian was an exceptional architect and educator who has had a profound and lasting impact and influence on my architectural education and practice development over more than 20 years. He introduced me, and many others, to a fresh world of ideas in architecture; ideas about everyday life that could be manifested into space and architecture. I worked with him in the late 1980s and remember him sitting drawing for hours with his head bowed down in intense concentration; one layer of detail upon another, looking, through drawing, to find something that was required to make the architecture convincing. The thing he sought was always about space in some way; whether made by a window or a road. Sometimes his preoccupation with a seemingly minor detail would later be revealed as the key to unlocking a large idea.

He was an exceptional architect and educator

Florian introduced me and my contemporaries to many key architects and educators over the years. He brought Luigi Snozzi, Jacques Blumer, and Jacques Herzog to the Polytechnic of North London in the early 1980s when these figures were little known. He opened up a new understanding of Walter Segal’s work through exhibitions and conversations with Segal. His fascination with architecture, addressing urban and interior scales, and shaping relationships between people and space through architecture has been hugely influential to generations of students and architects, including East. Even last year, East was planning to collaborate on an urban project in Ghent with Phil and Florian. Florian’s insightful and profound interest in architecture never diminished, will continue to resonate, and I will miss him greatly.

Fran Balaam, senior project officer, regeneration, at the Greater London Authority
I was never directly taught by him, but in my time as both a student and tutor at London Met, he was an inspiring figure to the whole school. I really admired his approach to both architecture and teaching – direct but careful; and the sensitivity of ARU’s work has been a major influence throughout my career.

 

When Märkli met Beigel…..

Florian Beigel 2007 by Richard Marks 3

Florian Beigel 2007 by Richard Marks 3

An extended version of the article that appeared in AJ 29.11.07 – a conversation between friends Florian Beigel, then head of the Architecture Research Unit at London Metropolitan University, and Swiss architect Peter Märkli. The conversation took place at The Zetter Restaurant, the morning after Märkli gave a lecture at Tate Modern, one in a series organised by the Architecture Foundation.

Florian Beigel: In your talk last night, you spoke about how the human being had to be at the centre of architecture. How do you teach this to students?

Peter Märkli: I don’t know if you can teach it… If you have no background you can do beauty – but without a deeper context, which is the human being. You can’t do a building for a building.

FB: When you say human being, I think you’re saying a deeper understanding of the human condition?

PM: Yes, you have to have it. Otherwise you can’t produce beauty, and beauty is radical. Beauty is not what you eat on a Sunday afternoon when you have some sweets; it is the most radical thing I know. I’m provoked, in a positive sense, if I see works that are beautiful.

FB: I like this radical beauty that looks at the everyday and a not-so beautiful condition.

PM: But we can’t write a political pamphlet about beauty, we can only do a building. If you build a house with beauty, then people look at it and think life can be like that. I did all these houses in not very beautiful areas and people were provoked because the houses are strange, they speak about something other than egoism.

FB: I like this radical beauty that looks at the everyday, and looks at a not-so beautiful condition

PM: And so, in the art market, I’m not interested in a lot of works, because they speak out about the badness of the world.

FB: Last night, you often mentioned the 2,500 years of architectural history in Europe. People from other cultures might say, yes, but can you understand architecture that comes from another historical background? I think architecture can speak to different cultures, but how? Does the meeting of cultures happen through this idea of the human condition?

PM: That’s one way, but not the only way. The other is through architectural grammar. The architectural grammar of the East is the same. I can read a mosque, that’s not a problem.

FB: You can read a mosque, but can you read a Korean courtyard house?

PM: I think so, but my work and my education, my feelings – I am situated in the Occidental culture.

FB: But you’re not limited to this, if you can speak outside…

PM: But that’s normal; European culture has always been influenced by other cities because of transport. If they wanted to escape from Paris, they could go to Egypt. They made translations – they brought textiles to Persia. Then all the ornaments were Persian, but the textiles were French. Venice was influenced by Asia, but the structure of the houses was German because the builders came from the mainland.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • He was the most inspiring and exceptional tutor which I had the honour to have during my education at North London Polytechnic. His love of spaces for people and not all about the building sets him apart from so many as one of the best architects I know. There was never a boring lecture or tutorial and his joy of good food and discussions will be remembered with fondness. He will be sadly missed.

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  • I feel really embarrassed to be the quoted above, and I hope that people will understand that as an ex-columnist of the AJ they tend to contact me first. Claudia and I were really shocked and moved and sad to hear this news. I think that it’s not an exaggeration to say that Florian possessed a form of joyful, pleasurable genius. We were priveledged to see it in action.

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  • It is very sad to hear of Florien's passing. I was a student at PNL back then and Florien was indeed inspirational. With his boundless energy and enthusiasm for everything, including the science fiction he desperately thought I really should like, all delivered in his fantastic thick accent, he will be remembered with great affection.

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  • Christina and I taught for many years beside Florien and Phil at London Met. We always had a huge respect for what they did and we are gutted by this news. Our hearts go out to Phil. There must, we hope, be consolation in the huge achievements - some day a history that shows the influence they (you) both had on the English architecture scene. So many brilliant students. So much depth added to the debate. Phil must find a way to carry on this great but always quiet and un-egocentric approach. With love and great affection - Christina and Steve.

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