The Power of Consequent Concepts

architect Stefan Marte
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Tadej Glažar

PDF Download: Click here.

Interviewed in Weiler on 13 October 2014


Bernhard and Stefan Marte left neither their birth village nor their birth home, which was turned into a studio in the village of Weiler in Austria. Their architecture, created on the periphery, is of central importance, and cannot be separated from its location. The intensity of the architectural process is the same in the pavilion for the village brass band rehearsals, as in the bold engineering bridge structures. They relentlessly develop their own formal language, always with the aim of responding with the best possible answer to an assignment, but with no sign of unambiguous functionalism. Marte.Marte are the protagonists of the architectural scene which makes a small mountain region of Vorarlberg a favourable life environment.


ORIS: The most successful projects in Austria are created in very small communities. Your work proves that too. How is it possible that projects of major significance can be designed and completed in peripheral areas? It is especially interesting for us, as we are not centrally located ourselves. Can you give us the historical background of this situation?


Stefan Marte: We are descendants of the Vorarlberger Baukünstler Group;[1] as a succeeding generation we have benefited from it. If we look back, we have to say that a small revolution occurred at that time. The group modelled itself on Scandinavian architecture in the sense of restraint and simplicity; they found their way in opposition to the then conventional system. In the last thirty to forty years, the phenomenon of self-conscious architectural culture has been observed in our country; it has many advocates, and it has found its place among the general public. In the construction of their public buildings, the communities opted for architecture. All these are the results of the activities of the Baukünstler Group; they did a truly missionary job of persuasion. Most likely, all of that was possible because our federal state is so small. A rather lively competition activity developed. The persons responsible have recognized the added value of quality architecture, and the positive effects it has on social environment. It is not just about the quality of architecture, it is also about the quality of our living space, our environment.


ORIS: It is probably also important that politicians saw a chance to establish themselves using architecture, to distinguish themselves, and thus win the votes.


Stefan Marte: Active persons are always important, for years we have always had provincial heads in Vorarlberg who regarded architecture as their issue. We also have an institution called Vorarlberger Architekturinstitut, where we try to provide information about architecture. It is very important to have a house of architecture, a number of questions can be raised there, and a lot of things can be initiated.


ORIS: The Swiss architectural scene is located in your vicinity. To what extent is it important for your work? Is it possible to draw a parallel between the Vorarlberg and Graubünden region? How does the influence work? Through literature and the media, or are there any personal connections?


Stefan Marte: The proximity of Eastern Switzerland and Graubünden region is both, spatial and emotional, the east Swiss are closer to us than either the Burgenlanders or the Viennese, although we appreciate them very much, as well. A person such as Peter Zumthor is, of course, a role model for us. We do not want to follow in his path, but he has a big impact on us, he created these charismatic, perfect works of great strength. We consider a project successful if it simply touches us emotionally when we experience it.


ORIS: Your works are always closely related to a specific place where they are located; it is impossible to transfer them. All the same whether situated in free space, as in the case of the family house in Dafins, or in the case of the tower of the shelter in Laterns, or you built in the existing ensemble. In the case of the school in Dornbirn, you redefined the image of urban area, in Fresach, where the old ensemble is also already present, you formulated and organized the space anew. In the case of the chapel in Batschuns, you have defined the end point for the village.


Stefan Marte: You understood it in exactly the same way as we see it. Our work is actually very often misunderstood. Regarding the shelter in Laterns, which is very modern architecture, there were comments that we did not respond to local conditions. We believe that we have the right to use the language of form, which does not follow certain traditional clues, we go our own way, and it follows the present. We also use steel or wood, but our way of designing is such that we try to express functions in a sculptural way, and you can hardly avoid using the poured concrete for that.


ORIS: You show a tendency toward certain adventure, which is rare today. The bridges—the Schanerlochbrücke or the Alfenzbrücke—bear witness of courage, of satisfaction when the work is bold. Do you see this as your motivation?


Stefan Marte: Yes, that is always the case. Each task, which is potentially exciting, and in which we can express something new, is interesting to us. We are less comfortable with the optimization of pragmatic concepts and their multiple reproduction. We are delighted when we are able to express ourselves in our own way within an engineering task, to develop an uncommon structure, which gives a special character to a particular location. We typically strive for the new when working on a particular task, on a particular location. Then we are unstoppable, it is our life, we like that. The task we are committed to is to build schools, which, of course, allows us to survive. That is a very nice topic, we like to work with and for the children. It is presently advantageous for us that a new school system is under development, new school forms are sought that require new spatial structures.


ORIS: We were talking about materials, your structures often have rough exterior shells as in the case of the Maiden tower. This is where the duality comes in, sensuality, tactility, developed from the inside. Do you intentionally achieve this double function?


Stefan Marte: It is generally extremely important to us, also emotionally, to develop a robust envelope, a sculptural form, which, however, has completely opposite qualities inside, very atmospheric, warm and soft, largely feminine effects. In my house in Dafins we also introduced the theme of curtains. If, in terms of modern architecture, we eliminate the walls, the house has only open and closed surfaces, so that anything that is not a concrete wall is made of glass. There are no windows. In order to enable a view of the landscape from the kitchen, there are just two slots in the wall, designed to suit the height of my wife. To provide the rooms with protection, we have discovered the theme of curtains. Curtains look silky; this feminine softness represents yet another level. The concepts we have in mind are always relatively robust, but in the interior, we want the feeling of comfort and protection to prevail. Whenever possible, we work very gladly with concrete in the exterior, and with birch in the interior. Birch is an exceptionally charming, very comfortable, very nice wood.


ORIS: Your windows are actually spaces, as well; it is the case with the rehearsal hall in Batschuns, where they serve the plasticity of the building, but also as additional spaces.


Stefan Marte: Time and again, it is always an issue. We just do not have classical windows in us. It is not always possible to avoid it, but ideally, it is possible, in smaller structures, or for special functions. When you mention the rehearsal hall, the idea was to use these spatial window elements to bring light into space sideways. The conductor stands there with his group, and no one should look into the light, that is why it comes from the side, and the ideal effect is enhanced due to the depth of the window space.


ORIS: Light is also very important for the chapel in Batschuns. But materiality is also an issue here; it is an archaic, archetypal material—loam. We have noticed that now, after a few years, the windward side is already somewhat dilapidated.


Stefan Marte: We worked together with Martin Rauch. He is not only an expert, but a true master in using loam in construction. We were removing the paneling, when a hailstorm came down; it was precisely that side which was affected. When Martin arrived, he said, The facade has aged twenty years today. Rammed earth is something quite particular, and it was ideal for us in that project. The intention was to make an extension to the quite beautiful, existing ensemble of the graveyard and the church by architect Clemens Holzmeister. It soon became obvious that we just could not add anything similar to Holzmeister’s masterpiece. We understood the situation as a plateau from which we wanted to develop, in a sculptural way, an urn wall and a chapel. We were able to realize the project using the rammed-earth technique, in collaboration with Martin Rauch, and with the active involvement of the local community. We realized the project in a similar monolithic form as if working with concrete. I think we also managed to achieve the massiveness we like so much when we work with concrete. When the concrete wall is lit up by the sun in the eve, it looks erotic, it has power, it is grounded, and the effect is just magical. Rammed earth has similarities. Indeed, the grounded space with its materiality, its massiveness, it has got a calming effect. As if the fear of transience disappears. The lines of loam layers with their fine ornaments are very beautiful; it is Martin Rauch’s signature. Together we agreed not to put a classic cross on the wall, but a stick of oak, each observer can see his own cross in it. Here, of course, the light comes from the side—it creates an emotional atmosphere in the interior, even though the darkness still prevails.


ORIS: Here, as well as with your other projects, the guiding of light is particularly important. It is able to emotionalize the experience of space.


Stefan Marte: Light is very important to us. We worked on artificial light in collaboration with Zumtobel, as well, especially with their expert Herbert Resch. He drew our attention to the importance of shadow. For us, the sun and the shadow are important, for him, it is light and darkness—the emotional play with different light control. There is nothing worse than a fully lit space. We, therefore, attach greater importance to the shadow in our residential buildings, as well as other structures.


ORIS: When it comes to design, Siza said that it was difficult to place windows in the wall. 


Stefan Marte: How right he was.

ORIS: In the case of the school building in Dornbirn, as well as in the Mariatal project. The shaping of openings is obviously an important tool for you in the attempts to highlight the charm and the atmosphere of the building. How does this play with irregular, shifted openings in different formats, this external effect, reflect in the interior space?


Stefan Marte: In different ways each time. In principle, we agree with Siza, we like intact walls, the more powerful the figure, the object as such, the more painful it is when we cannot work with open and closed walls only. In a way, the window is a Trojan horse of banality. If we are not careful enough, even the most beautiful project can turn into an unsightly mess. In the case of Mariatal, the idea was to contemplate on the former monastery with our three building corpora. It was only logical that, for a boarding school, we would need a lot of normal windows. Already in the competition phase, the image of the medieval walls was important to us. In fact, one medieval tract with windows in different formats still exists there, in the form it acquired through centuries. We also wanted to transfer that irregular, organically developed shape of the ensemble to our project. Our competition project envisaged fifteen or twenty different types of windows. In order to be able to realize the project meaningfully, we reduced ourselves to only two window types, a square format at the level of the wall, and a vertical which was pulled back. We then worked on the variations until we were convinced that chaos dominates the facade again, in a positive way. That was our principal theme. One has to decide whether the project develops from the outside in or vice versa. We had a pretty strict, pragmatic structure inside; therefore it was not possible to achieve expressive power from the inside out. Also, I would like to mention the Alfenz Bridge. We had an idea of perforating the concrete pipe and closing it distinctly towards the road, for the sake of being more open towards the landscape. We tried to follow the diagram of forces for a shape we required, it was the absolute limit, in fact, they are steel girders covered with concrete. Then, quite formally, we expanded the nodes, with such a massive node we demonstrated respect for nature, a branching trunk also has its thickenings.


ORIS: It is the introduction of the organic aspect then.


Stefan Marte: Exactly. We consider a structure closed, and then we perforate it, more intensively towards the natural space. We tried to apply the same theme in the case of the spz (Social Pedagogical Centre) School in Dornbirn. Each room received as much light as it was required; nothing more than that. We did the same in the case of the Maiden Tower. We work hard to restrain ourselves regarding the orientation of a space. When we find ourselves in such space, we are awarded with meditative calm. We try to develop a nice shape that is sculptural in character, but windows weaken it, so we often try to find windows, or a division of windows through which we try to extract a scale from the project. Over the years, we have developed a formal language for various elements that are relevant for our projects. Time and again, we try to exclude a scale from buildings so as to attach to them a more powerful appearance.


ORIS: You mentioned scale, the parameters you use on a small scale, such as on the Shelter, or on the Maiden Tower, address all the senses. How does it work on a large scale, in the case of a school complex, or a commercial building? Are there any common denominators that are equally valid for both, the minimal dimension and the large structures?


Stefan Marte: This question goes deep. We have discovered for ourselves that the principles of our work are not dependent on the scale. Unfortunately, we still have not had much opportunity to prove it, but in the case of the Grieskirchen school complex, we could realize a beautiful school building that was 200 m long and 60 m wide. This was one of our especially important projects. We won the competition; the project was marked as a city over the city. We were able to develop a concept of a large school on a green meadow. Up until the end of the envelope execution, we had a very good client. We showed that the exclusion of the scale and modeling can be realized quite beautifully. In designing, of course, we must think quite thoroughly and radically when moving from a small scale to a large scale. We define the quality of an interior space so that the outer space, which faces the inner space, is likewise a framed space which pulls the inner space outwards, or which brings the quality of the outer space into the inner space. This is our theme. Bernhard and I attended a technical high school, for five years we were inculcated with the construction technique. We both had the impression that it could not be everything. Our father had a company for the rehabilitation of old buildings, he installed wooden floors. Each summer we would work on a construction site. We gained a relationship with wood as a material. We both decided to study. We immediately noticed that other students, who had completed high school and had a humanistic education, arrived in Innsbruck to learn all about architecture and construction. We already knew all that, the only thing we did not learn was the ability to think freely.


ORIS: Tell us something more about the school complex in Grieskirchen.


Stefan Marte: Here we also tried to achieve our own graphic aesthetics by using completely banal windows on the second floor, only with protruding framework elements. It is all fixed glazing; the school is a passive building with controlled ventilation. This graphical solution was helpful for us.


ORIS: The relation between the external appearance and the interior is not in accordance with the ideology of functionalism.


Stefan Marte: Exactly. If that were the case, from our perspective, it would mean that our intention failed. Later representatives of the client decided against certain aspects of the project, and after a number of variants, we had the impression that the project could faile. This is the real situation of creative architectural work, we try to act artistically, but 90% of the job is just sweat and struggle. Raimund Abraham argues that, in the realization, we are just lawyers for our own project; we have to defend the sensitive beauty of the project from the draft.


ORIS: We are here in the house in which you were born. Your office is here as well. We can see many models here, which are your media; does a computer play an important role?


Stefan Marte: You ask how we work in general. We work mainly very classically on the model; that is nothing new. In the meantime, we are forced to use three-dimensional graphic images, renderings. If we participate in competitions, we have to enclose them if we want to keep up. We have learned to use 3D simulations in order to be able to check quickly whether the object is properly situated in an urban structure. The 3D simulation has become our tool which we use gladly. When we start to work on a project, we draw quick sketches in the beginning. Then we think in different directions, and then countless models are created on a very large scale. The problem of an architect is that he is often entangled in a sketch, an image. He cannot get rid of it any more. Eisenman often sought to resolve it with the help of computer programs, with success. Chaos theory reigns in our office, we only just talk, because we tend to be too graphic in sketches, too concrete. When we start to despair, we leave the office, and try to understand one another with words, to find a common path, or to think even more radically in all directions. Back in the office again, we both begin to sketch completely different things, each time the situation is the same. Many beautiful things that we like in our projects were created by misunderstanding the ideas of the other one. One had an idea, which was without doubt good and possible, but the other one accepted that idea, and developed it into a completely different direction, because he understood it differently. We just need this process. Also, in the case of the Maiden Tower, I never wanted to have a tower. For fifteen years, I lived on three levels in a very nice house. It became clear to us that at that time, we had six daughters, and we planned to build a space for the children on one level, that floats in the landscape in Miesian style. We created a model – it was a disaster, it just did not work that way. We rejected twenty concept designs, and, finally, the tower emerged from one misunderstanding.


ORIS: This brings to mind a project by Sverre Fehn, a house for a family with daughters, also with a tower. Quite different, of course, as he linked the project with the fairy tale of Rapunzel.


Stefan Marte: Of course, we have to think of Rapunzel when it comes to girls and towers. I am not familiar with that project, but would like to see it. What I did see of Sverre Fehn was particularly impressive to me.


ORIS: You have already mentioned that you worked together with engineers, structural engineers, and constructors. Do you work with artists too? We saw that your architecture is not always monochrome, we noticed color in your spaces.


Stefan Marte: It is really amazing, for almost twenty years we were afraid of using color. When working on the Dornbirn School, we met the artist Monica Heiss; she really freed us from our fear of color. Had we opened our eyes, we would have seen, Le Corbusier and many others worked very impressively with strong colors in combination with primary materials. Monica taught us how to understand color, how to use it as yet another tool.


ORIS: Another question, about visible concrete, it is perfect in your buildings, what recipes do you have. It is quite difficult to do visible concrete.


Stefan Marte: We do not have any secrets; we work with completely normal recipes. We also use quite conventional additives; we act as consultants for contractors during production so as not to make the classical mistakes. They could experience outpouring at a variety of places near holes for bolt anchors or at transitions, particularly horizontal ones. We generally select the construction site foreman ourselves; we need someone who can become enthusiastic about it. We want the roughness of concrete; we want the filling of the rather complicated formwork structure to be visible, these tons of mixture of sand, gravel and various additives. For the concrete work, first a wooden structure is made, a very beautiful creation, and then come tons of iron. Next, tons of concrete are poured in. We have already done 7-, 8-, 9-meter high walls, we fed the mix through the pipe so that it could glide, just to be sure that the formwork and iron do not get sprayed. The Swiss also always want to eliminate the anchor openings, hence the secondary structure. In this regard we are more on the side of the Japanese; we see these anchors as ornaments.


ORIS: Just as Zumthor had inserted crystal plugs into such openings in his Bruder Klaus chapel.


Stefan Marte: Yes, it is an incredible project. We believe that if there are enough anchors, if concrete is cautiously fed, then we just need someone with a feeling for the process, because the jarring of the concrete is a matter of feeling. No one can say how long, too long is just as bad as too short. Only when the formwork is removed, we can see how it turned out. If the visible concrete is flawless, it loses its character; it could just as well be molded plastics. We have a similar experience with wooden floor, to which we got an intense relationship through our father. It is something called exclusive sorting. The sorting out goes on until the wood looks like laminate, like a floor made of plastic. A complete disaster!


ORIS: Today we are flooded with information from all directions, simultaneously. I assume that you have developed resistance to it. Is it important for you to have this distance?


Stefan Marte: It is an important topic that Bernhard and I often talk about. We think it is extremely difficult to engage in this tide of superlatives, images that are breathing down our necks on an almost daily basis. Not so much because they would be devastating for us. We are not afraid of them, but it is hard to go your own way without a feeling that you should be a participant in this megahype. It is hard to stay calm and retain your beliefs, but we are going our own slow way. We have been working for twenty years now, and it has never been easy. It is a big challenge for an architect to work on his project painstakingly, to develop it further, and to be patient. I accept inspirational ideas, but they should be abstracted heavily. When Zumthor or any other, younger colleague realizes something quite nice, really inspiring, we are touched. One should not participate in every trend, if we acted that way, we would be unsuccessful. We would be pleased if our most important design could last for 500 years. We believe that sustainability cannot be expressed in the number of kilowatts. If we succeed in having a structure that will be used for generations, the real sense of our activity has been achieved.

[1] The Gesellschaft Vorarlberger Baukünstler was a group of architects, craftsmen, journalists, artists and intellectuals in the 1960s; they advocated participative architecture as an alternative to bureaucratic establishment.