Jul 30, 2016

Office stories

Eating lunch with one of my co-workers, Magda, she was commiserating over a kindergarten project she had in the office. I asked her, what was the deal with this kindergarten? She told me this story,

Once upon a time there was a Russian Princess who married a German king and came to live with him in Stuttgart. Princess Olga, to curry favor with the locals possibly, granted the land and a school to be built on it so that students could go for free. However generous her gift to the people was, she did not provide for the savagery of time on both monarchy and architecture. The kingdom became a republic and democracy, and the buildings wore down and began to crumble.

The ownership of the property, passing from the princess to the state, desired a new building should be built, reasoning that crumbling structures are poor for most purposes, and truly unwanted for housing small children. However, to finance the construction of a new building required the income of rent from the business of the kindergarten, which was still enjoying it's tenancy rent-free vis-a-vis the Princesses edict. They didn't want to give up the position and suggested that the state simply renovate the building to which the state declined, to which the kindergarten declared it would take a long long time to move out. It is, after all, nearly impossible to evict someone in Germany, and few politicians really want to be the ones who sign the eviction order against a kindergarten.

But up to the deadlock, the client was insisting everything move quickly and we stick to a very demanding drawing schedule, while for Magda it was very clear that the tenants were not going to go quietly. We are still waiting for the resolution.


Barbara was from a well-to-do Mexican family in Monterrey. She studied cooking for several years before abandoning it for architecture, and then after she graduated, her engagement to her fiancée was broken off. Desiring a fresh start and some distance, she turned her sights to Europe. "Don't go to Paris," her friends advised her, "it's so expensive!" "Don't go to Spain!" others cautioned, "there's no jobs!" Someone suggested Tübingen, the university town close to Stuttgart, and there she studied German for a half year before moving to Stuttgart. She found a boyfriend and he came to stay with her on the weekends in their apartment overlooking Stuttgart.

She successfully interviewed at our office, Schafe+Wein, and was granted a three month trial. Sadly, shortly after she started working, her relationship with the boyfriend ended, and feeling no connection to Germany, decided to leave. She whispered this conclusion to Rafa on Wednesday the second week into her new job. Rafa confided this to me and Magda Thursday, and I confronted her about it, and she confirmed and filled out the rest of the story as I have mostly told it here. We thought perhaps she would talk to the bosses or someone and let them know, perhaps on Friday, but she didn't come at all, and never again. I related this to our team leader Apo Friday afternoon, and he was quite vexed, partly  because the way this information had moved through the office (and the fact he would have to be the one to break it to the boss) but he understood her feelings and motivations.

Barbara's year in Europe was at an end. She returned the following Monday to the comforting arms of family and speculates on starting a new business. She is 30 years old.


The planning department of Schafe+Wein consists of four people:

Apo, a skilled Greek architect a few years older than I who dreams of fashion design, clean, beautiful drawings, and high-end Italian lighting who is also our team leader and has been a close friend since I came to Germany and met him at our old firm of Lüft+Licht Architekten. He brought me to the new office.

Rafa is Mexican, and now German, the same age as Apo. He is a man of few words, but with a big heart. He is happy to go with the flow, and has the same pragmatic approach to architecture which makes him very compatible with our boss and is in fact, well on his way to becoming a project manager kind of architect, capable of design, detailed cost estimation, and construction site management. He brought Apo to the new office, and most days, literally brings me to the office in his car (and drops me off after work).

Magda came from Poland, is the oldest, not quite forty, but still insists on calling us "Jungs" (youths). She has a three year old daughter and a Colombian husband. They live in the next village down. She has only been at the office a bit longer than a year. She is a skilled drafter and detailer and has a lot of experience taking projects from start to finish. She still plays CDs in the office over her headphones, mostly abominable American pop and sometimes sings quietly while she's working.

The forth planer is yours truly, without an architect license or a driver's license or even German proficiency. I can drive some software and draw and design but not with the same experience as the others. For some reason, the office management still likes me, but I'm not convinced that it is not due to some kind of totemic "American" enthusiasm that I bring to the office. My German really needs to improve.

Apo resigned on friday. He will have four weeks, and then we will have a lot more work to share among the remaining three planners.


The office is an old winery, built in the late 1700's. It has seen numerous renovations and additions. Among the interior design now, what stands out to me are odd details: a stuffed owl perched above the receptionist. A square pond in the front filled with tadpoles and lotus plants. A toilet which reminds me of a giant porcelain round sitting pouf. A drawer constantly refilled with cheap German candy. An expensive built in coffee machine which can make lattes at the push of a button but must be disassembled and cleaned nightly. A store room for material samples with an art installation of giant metalwork ants. New roof windows which punch through the old red terracotta tile roof like a transformer in disguise. Steel and glass doors reflecting cast resin garden angels and rusty steel welded heart decorations. A wooden sign in the office kitchen: "save the earth: it's the only planet with wine"

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