Jun 20, 2015


My office asked me if I wanted to go to an 'Expert Seminar' and learn about window systems last week. I asked if I was going to be in German. Ja, naturlich. I said, Ja, gerne. It was at least going to get me out of the office on a friday afternoon. And, truth be told, I was curious what German 'lunch and learns' were like.

I went with Benni and we headed over after lunch to the Garden Hilton at Neckarpark. The Garden Hilton has been pushing a lot of PR about how wonderful Stuttgart is lately, for reasons that remain infathomable to me. The location of the hotel is great- if you are either going to the Mercedes-Benz museum, the stadium, or whatever event is going on at the Wasen, like Oktoberfest.

We found our way to the conference rooms where I ran into an ex-colleague, Luis, who apparently found work in less than three weeks. Right now is apparently a great time for architects in Stuttgart, lots of work, lots of jobs. My office isn't seeing it, for reasons that remain unclear to me. However, despite our current win/loss record the office doesn't give me the feeling of being strapped for capital.

Anyway, what made the presentation by the manufacturers interesting for me was 1) the fact that they told us how old they were first thing, as in, "my name is so and so and I am 43 years old..." 2) I learned some new german vocab for window parts, and 3) after the sales pitch, everyone knocked on the tables, which is apparently something people in the Uni here after the professor concludes a lecture.

Of course there was swag. A piece of recycled plastic they are now using as a thermal break in a window system, and a surprsingly useful compact USB power reserve charger.

After the spiel, we all walked over to the Mercedes-Benz museum and bought us all a guided tour, focusing on the architecture.

The MBM is a bit of a missed opportunity in my book. The outside is a mess, it looks like a glass building and a steel panel building got sucked into the same black hole and froze in a warped state. The glass has a wavy frit pattern on it for no reason other to suggest movement.

I can accept the rounded triangle form since it reflects also the interior spiraling circulation and the rotary engine movement (which Mercedes-Benz engineers devised). The spiral circulation, the triangular form, this is enough. Let the building stand on it. But they don't. They tart it up with fritt patterns, an overabundance and over use of different materials, lighting, themes, etc.

For me, this is somewhat symptomatic of German design. There is a rigorous and meticulous design process which produces something highly efficient, well-thought out, and well-made. But something that makes a thing warm and human is also stripped out of it, or was never a part of it to begin with. Cameras, clocks, cars.

There is a mechanicalism at the core of German-ness. There is an expression in German das klappt or das klappt nicht. Klappen is a kind of onomatopoeia, the satisfying sound of something closing correctly, like a car door or a cabinet door or really anything mechanical with a flap where metal has to meet metal in a precise way. The expression has come to mean if something, anything, works, or fits, or makes sense.

But this reductivist mechanism can be depressing and cold. Nobody really wants to live in a "machine for living in". So Germans decorate and ornament. They build refined clock movements and conceal them behind gingerbread, kitschy, deliberately rustic wooden facades in the form of cuckoo clocks. Overly adorable signage and lawn gnomes and balcony plants to hide and distract from the ruthlessly sterile utilitarian housing behind it.

In sharp contrast, the Japanese have always emphasized the human-ness of their designs. They make things that elevate what it means to be human- there is a heavy use of wood and natural materials because not only does it feel better, but there is a psychological and physical connection to nature. Laquer bowls designed to be held and viewed in the dim light of a candle, when the laquerware technology originated.

Anyway, I have once again rambled far afield here.
We were out of the museum at 5pm, an hour before I would have gotten off normally, so we sat down at nearby bar and translated the words I wrote down at the seminar, drank a beer, and waited for our colleauges to come join us.

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