Machines of Perception

written by Florian Heilmeyer
architect Peter Grundmann
projects House for an Anarchist, House Neiling II, Cinema Quillo


To understand Peter Grundmann’s unusual way of practicing architecture, it seems important to look at three facts in his life first, before taking a closer look at three of his most recent projects. Peter Grundmann was born in a country which doesn't exist anymore, as he was born in the GDR, or more exactly: in Röbel an der Müritz, a small town with hardly 5,000 inhabitants in the intense landscape of the Mecklenburger Seenplatte in the northeast of Germany. I began studying in the GDR, he recalls, and when I was finished in 1993, it no longer existed. It seems also important that he didn't study architecture in the first place, but rather shipbuilding. His professional life began at a shipyard in Rostock, where he enjoyed the fantasy he was allowed to use in order to solve problems – the engineers at the shipyard were partly mechanists and partly inventors. However, he only stayed half a year as he wanted to work more freely.


That he became an architect was rather a coincidence: he was commissioned via personal contacts to build the private residence for a famous GDR canoeist, Torsten Krantz, and his family. Those were the wild days, he says. The old state was gone, and the systems of the new one were not yet established. There were no fixed, standardized rules, and people allowed themselves more freedom. You could do things without constantly having to prove your references. Nobody had any anyway. Grundmann started a quick self-study into architecture by obtaining books about Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but then decided that he might need a more professional education. He started to study architecture in close-by Wismar in 1994, while the constructions of his first two buildings were already under way. The architecture department at the university had just been founded, everything was rather provisional, he remembers. There was no sophisticated curriculum, but instead there was a lot of freedom for students, and most people had, like me, been doing something different before.


These three facts from his CV – originating from the countryside, witnessing the drastic system change in the wake of Germany’s reunification, and changing from shipbuilding to architecture – have lead him to a critical thinking and a DIY approach to architecture which continues as a firm belief with Grundmann until today – and this can be found in the highly unusual homes that he keeps building continuously. So far, most of his houses can be found in the countryside around Berlin and further North, in his home region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. His three latest projects seem to involuntarily confirm this, as all three of them are within an hour’s drive by car from Berlin.


In the tiny village of Rutenberg, in the middle of nature reserve Uckermark Lakes, he has since 2012 helped Marieke Verheyen and Martin Hansen, a Dutch-German artists couple who moved here from Amsterdam, to gradually convert their former vicarage into a travel destination named Rehof Rutenberg. Part of Grundmanns architectural believes is that you can do more by yourself than you would assume – and that by building it yourself, better and more innovative solutions can be found that are not only cheaper but also more fitting to the problem in question than the standard solutions offered by the building industry.


The slow transformation of Rehof Rutenberg is a perfect example to this: The former stables have been turned into holiday homes, and the enormous barn is now a collective space for visitors, hosts and can be used as event room. Verheyen and Hansen developed most of the ideas together with Grundmann, and all three have carried out many of the constructions with their own hands. This has led to a wonderfully overgrown site with many visible layers of interventions that can be perceived in their entirety today. It is hard to distinguish clearly between the old and the new, except for some extra-large new windows, plywood fittings, and translucent polycarbonate sheets here and there, which seem to be part of Grundmann’s signature as they are comparatively cheap and easy to assemble.


To the back of the site, barely visible through the thicket of willows, wild hops and blackthorn, there are three pavilions used as guest houses. One of them was designed by Grundmann, he calls it a House for an Anarchist. At first sight, it remains unclear why he would recommend this nice small house to someone from the ultra-left, but Grundmann can explain his title easily: My initial idea was to conceive a small house with just a completely open space that makes no predictions, a floor plan without preassigned functions or directions. But he also happily convicts that he did not fully succeed. Inside the rough wooden structure, you’ll indeed find a single open space on a square floor plan. Yet it is not completely free for your own, anarchistic adaptations. All functions are housed in little cubbyholes which appear to be stuck into the outer walls: One of these boxes is filled with a bed, a second is occupied by the kitchen as a long counter, and the shower is a glass-panelled room that cantilevers out from one side of the pavilion into the branches of the cherry trees. The entire pavilion is elevated, as if it could be carried away at any time, and the south façade is made entirely of polycarbonate. It is a poetic wall, as Grundmann puts it, that slightly buckles inwards. When the sun moves over it, it softly draws the moving shadows of the surrounding willows on the wall to contradict the otherwise maybe too rational and functional design of the pavilion.


If there is such a thing as a critical architecture that can still be built, it is Grundmann’s. At the heart of his architecture lies a thorough and open discussion that questions the common believes of the building industry and their easily-sold standard solutions. At the beginning of each project, says Grundmann, it is important to find out what the client actually wants. Many architects do not advise or counsel anymore, but immediately offer solutions: a drywall here, some plastic windows, estimate costs of 2,000 Euro per square metee – and in a flash, it’s all done. Of course, things that everybody already knows don’t need be explained and discussed. But my question is whether we can think beyond that. In that sense, Grundmann is an optimistic idealist who believes in thinking the unthinkable and inventing houses that no-one had thought of before – and which turn out to be far better than any standard solution could have been. His projects start, as he says, from three major points: What can the clients afford, what do they need. and what does the place need? From there, his projects evolve in various directions. Although he has been running his practice for more than 20 years now, it’s easy to believe him when he says that every project still feels like a stroke of luck. Grundmann hasn’t realized many nor exceptionally big projects so far. But every single of his projects is so unconventional and individual that one sees immediately how much thought, discussion, and doubt is contained in it.


Cinema Quillo, Falkenhagen


If this text so far sounds like Peter Grundmann could be difficult to work with, the opposite is true. He never gets lost in all the questions he poses. Grundmann has a high energy-level that automatically pushes him to go out and do something, build something. An important part of his process is to try ideas on site, build a model or a mock-up, get some examples, and see if they work out in the place and for the function. Clients seem to love this way of working and of being involved. Many of his clients have come back to him with a subsequent project after the first one. Like in Falkenhagen, where he has already build a remarkable modern and utterly unusual house for Ursula Weiler back in 2004. Later, she asked him to add a tiny sauna in the garden, after which he transformed the old barn in the front of the site, towards the street, into a small auditorium for theater plays and music, as Ursula Weiler is a professional musician who now invites her friends from theater and music to come and do something experimental in this space. The latest addition to this growing cultural complex is a cinema as Center for Political Movies – something that can certainly hardly be found in the rural surrounding of Falkenhagen.


For this Cinema Quillo, Grundmann and his client converted the former stable with 140 square meters situated directly at the street. The old roof was completely removed, the four walls of rough bricks were cleaned and consolidated. The new roof with its particular and eye-catching wood construction is the only new element. It looks radical and crude, sitting above the shallow open space with rough-sawn rafters. Every screw of the construction remained visible up to the vertical timbres with which the roof is bolted to the sidewalls. The unusual high density of the rafters provides good spatial acoustics, yet turns the roof into a slightly confusing element, an ambivalent construction that could be old or new. A circumferential band of windows underneath the roof structure lets daylight come into the cinema, but in the evenings and at night, when the movies start, the darkness also seems to sneak into the interior through the windows making the roof structure disappear. The next project – a little studio for an artist residency – is already under construction at the time of writing.


House Neiling II


In Hoppenrade, about 50 kilometers north of Berlin, we find a similar situation. Back in 2005, Grundmann built a first home for Birgit Neiling, which she has recently sold with a good profit, allowing her to buy a nearby piece of land on the fringe of the village. After the first house was finished, Ms. Neiling had told Peter Grundmann that, if she would ever build a house again, she would certainly do it with him once more. Some ten years later, and much to Grundmann’s surprise, she called to commission him with House Neiling II– a rare opportunity for any architect and certainly the biggest compliment.


On the new site, there was an unobtrusive old house with a pitched roof and behind it a former goat shed made of bricks. Grundmann took a good look at the wide fields around and convinced Ms. Neiling to tear down the old house in order to start a new building around the goat shed. The old house was oriented towards the street, he explains, standing on the spacious porch in front of the wide open glass walls of the new building. But to make the best of this fantastic location, the new construction had to be pushed further back into the plot and turned towards the landscape.


Completely restructuring the plot then made it possible to place the carport, storage areas, and ancillary rooms at the front of the house, by the street. From there, the building stretches some 23 meters long over the site, opening its long side towards the neighboring fields. The house is elevated 1.30 meters above the landscape by the stilts, which are part of a wooden structure of posts and beams that wrap around the house like an envelope. Inside this envelope, the interior is defined only by large glass walls. The façade and wood construction do not follow the same structural grid, which was of special importance to Peter Grundmann. Looking at the landscape from the inside of the house, these different systems result in vivid superimpositions which seem to relate to the trees in the distance, he says. Definitely, the continuous veranda around the open floor plan inside is a liminal zone that creates a certain distance to the landscape. This generates a complex network of access and sightlines in a relatively small house, and also creates an atmosphere of sitting in a safe cave looking out into the wilderness.


I often separate the façade from the construction of a house, says Grundmann. If both systems are self-confident and autonomous, then they are not hierarchical but equal, creating suspense and friction. The buildings acquire complex narrative properties that stimulate various uses without dictating too much. But it has to be an unobtrusive complexity, one that does not demonstrate the design ideas of the architect all the time – as if it was completely un-intentional. As a resident, you do not want to deal with your house in such a pedagogical way every day.


Indeed, these appear as/to be the main topics in Peter Grundmann’s architecture: ambivalence, transparency, intermediate spaces, and the manifold connections between human, house, and landscape. The discussions with his clients seem to prevent him from repeating any static vocabulary or form. Form is not the most important thing in my architecture, he says. Architects aren’t designers. I prefer to try to increase the range of possible associations to the maximum for users and visitors through the collage and montage of various motifs and materials. That also means leaving apparent formal errors visible, not correcting violations against any stylistic purity laws. Contradictory forms and materials collide with each other unexpectedly. From their friction emerges the complexity, ambiguity and diversity of a space.


Peter Grundmann does not reduce the complexity of a place, but worships and enhances it by adding a building – and thus he creates a new place at large. A good house is a house that makes you mentally richer, that enables you to experience yourself, the house and the surroundings every day and again. If each day that you walk through the rooms of your house, you experience something new, then you’ll be happy there. Only new perceptions satisfy humans, and just like classical music or a good book, architecture too can give us insights and therefore provide happiness. A house creates the scope for a dialogue between its inhabitants and the place. A good house functions as a machine of perception that activates all senses. It is no small achievement that Peter Grundmann was able to keep up this energetic way of working for more than 20 years now. His three latest machines of perception in the small towns of Rutenberg, Falkenhagen and Hoppenrade demonstrate that he has continued to make his architecture ever more complex over the years.