The legacy of Günter Behnisch includes landmark projects such as the German Parliament, says Matthew Wells
More from: Obituary: Frei Otto (1925 – 2015)
German architect Günter Behnisch, who has died aged 88, was a central figure among the designers and engineers who shaped the post-Second World War reconstruction. At the age of 22, he undertook baubelehrung (crew familiarisation during construction) for the type 23 U-boat. Built using clever steel fabrication, the submarine was under his command until the war’s end. In a British internment camp, he read about building construction and was recruited to train as an architect at Stuttgart Technical University.
The idea of a ‘technical fix’, even of social or cultural matters, from the act of building was strong among this generation of survivors. At his RIBA Gold Medal speech, engineer Frei Otto recalled planning a future of lightweight structures while held in a Russian camp. Behnisch and Otto came together to complete the Munich Olympic Stadium in 1972. The wide-spreading tent built on the heaped up rubble of the city, pragmatically detailed, landscaped and completed in record time, signalled the intentions of the nation.
Behnisch supported Willi Brandt’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) in its pursuit of a domestic reform programme, promoting social ownership, and received support in return. His 1973 design for the German Parliament in Bonn finally opened in 1992. Intellectual underpinning was provided by the SDP’s theorist Jürgen Habermas with the concept of ‘communicative rationality’, whereby human rationality is the necessary outcome of successful communication. Hence Behnisch’s adjustment of organic architecture by an insistence on legibility.
School and university projects provided the earlier opportunities to establish an approach. Initially free of ideology, the post-war school-building programme suited Situationsarchitektur – design closely bound up with particular place and circumstance. This later stiffened into a countermeasure to an increasingly confident productivity teaching.
In a discussion piece on school design he showed how directly ideas can be coupled to built form: ‘Our approach was based on a concept of mutual respect and individuality, in a society with common values, yet free of compulsion… Although the geometry of the loadbearing structure lends [Schäfersfeld School] a strict underlying order, the subordinate systems don’t have to follow this.’
Hampered by strokes late in life, Behnisch’s output was increasingly supported by his colleagues and son Stefan. Their excellent competition scheme for the aquatic centre in the next Olympics narrowly missed out.
He had a developed sense of humour. Asked if his transparent feel for space was a reaction to his war experience, he replied it had more to do with the words of a folk song celebrating the sun. Of three aphorisms quoted in Der Spiegel’s obituary, his reaction to the suggestion that traditional building reassures the traumatised seems characteristic: ‘If people want comforting they should get a cat’.
Matthew Wells is creative director of Techniker