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“I think that architecture can heal”

GRAFT is the label. The trademark of a German architectural fi rm that makes its home in Los Angeles, but also in Berlin and Beijing. “GRAFT is our message, it is the pursuit of happiness” says Lars Krückeberg, one of the founders and CEO of GRAFT, architects operating in the highest echelons of the international scene. and whose work is esteemed worldwide. Together with Thomas Willemeit and Wolfram Putz, Krückeberg is responsible for an architecture marked by lightness and that plays off of conventions. An architecture in which sustainability and local building traditions play a major role, combining the down-to-earth with the foreign.

Your architecture is indeed dynamic, with flowing and also soft boundaries between inside and out, between wall and ceiling, and between architecture and furnishings. The KU64 dental surgery in Berlin is a typical example. A differentiating jump-start? “Perhaps. In any case we have brought some visibility to new ways”, says Lars Krückeberg in his talk with the D’life editor. “The sector has woken up.”

D’life: Architecture affects consciousness in different ways. What does architecture have to provide, what does it have to consist of in order to heal?

That’s a difficult question that has not yet been answered in a scientifically measurable way and is only now to be answered by a joint research project at the Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. I fundamentally believe that architecture can heal, but it is extremely difficult to demonstrate it. It would be presumptuous to say that architecture can change society, but it is just as presumptuous to claim that architecture has no influence on how we live, form communities, on whether we feel comfortable, safe and protected. Spaces, atmospheres and moods in architecture lead to people interacting happily, being friendly toward others – or perhaps not.

How is architecture relevant to the doctor/patient relation?

What applies to patients, of course, also applies to doctors, dentists and midwives. Physicians, surgery employees and nurses are not just at the surgery or hospital one time or for a short time, but rather for the entire day. They spend more time there than in bed, than with their families or with their significant other. This means that we must create surroundings for them that make for a good mood. When doctors enjoy working in spaces that make them happy, patients take notice and come back.

In the health sector, surgery owners are architect customers. Whose perspective is more important to architects and surgery architecture – the practitioners’ or the patients’?

When we build for someone we know, we can custom tailor our work. It gets more difficult if one doesn’t know the ‘end customer’. Then we’ve got to sit down with the client and sound out where their values lie, how they wish to be identified, which service they offer and in which atmosphere they would like to be recognised, perceived, viewed and make themselves felt. In this case we see ourselves as stage designers whose design can only be as good as the stage play, the director and the actors. We pen a script for it, a scenography from which we develop the architecture. First of all, that requires listening in order to learn what is going to be played. How is the personnel? Where are the strengths and weaknesses? What does the communication look like? Is an open, sweeping space preferred or are closed, smaller structures called for? Unfortunately, the expectations of core customers are far too easily underestimated, their aesthetic preferences, their options to transform themselves, and also their willingness to be surprised.

So for a client who is a dentist, for instance, you would also have them explain the sensitivities and composition of their patients?

Of course! We do that with all clients, it is what we perceive architecture to be. We must learn what their needs are, listen and research - every project has a long research phase. We have to find out what people want, which they may not even yet know themselves. Each piece of architecture is a challenge and provides opportunities to identify new perspectives to then produce a solution that works. Just surprising and doing the unusual for the sake of being unusual doesn’t cut any mustard. We believe in grafting, in assembling different realities for the purpose of finding solutions. But one certainly can’t be scared to do the unusual!

Showing openness and protecting privacy are part of the basic requirements of a doctor’s or dentist’s surgery. How do you reconcile these opposing necessities?

The KU64 example points it out well. We were able to create great openness via the structural specifications, and further enhance it with a floor bump. We created a beach and dunes landscape, a panorama that allows a horizontal view with warm colours and lots and lots of light. We translated the desire for retreat and privacy into the physical structure. Using glass and prismatic films, we created units and privacy. Neither in the waiting room nor adjacent room is a drill to be heard. The dune architecture is oriented south toward the KuDamm – our sea – with large terraces out front and treatment units that seem to spring from the dunes, essentially like those roofed wicker beach chairs that also enable privacy.

Architecture is a statement with which a dental surgery positions and differentiates itself. About ten years ago you created a visionary dental surgery in Berlin that is still highly modern today. Are there half-lives for today’s architecture?

Almost all builders harbour the wish to be “innovative, modern, sustainable”, whatever it is, but it has to be “timeless”. It’s foolhardy and naive to make such demands. All art is contemporary. There are objects that have the chance to become something timeless because they were boldly conceived in their time, especially daring, but with a clear framework. There is no timeless art that can be invented. Just like architecture, art must prove itself. And it’s only really good when it is bold and has been developed in its time – then it has a chance of becoming timeless. Something timeless cannot be invented; one can only hope to make something properly, something of the time and right for the time, which can then become timeless.

We try to act in our time and with the knowledge of what we now have, with a positive outlook and the hope that the future can be better if we shape it. This means that when we are hired by a client who is ready to accompany us on this path and contribute, then something special can emerge, something that has the chance to become timeless. Timeless refers to aesthetic half-lives, of something that is best practice in its time.

Today’s patients rarely do not visit their dentist any more so as to avoid drilling. There is hardly any other field that arouses the negative associations of a dental surgery. How can architecture contribute to shedding a more positive light on these feelings?

Expectations must be broken and something new invented. Sitting at the dentist’s with a feeling of actually being in a wellness oasis, of sitting on the beach or in a library is the goal and can be achieved in many ways. On the one hand with colours and light, but also with things that evoke positive feelings and sooner remind more of a club or of the cosiness of a holiday home. With furniture that one can fall into and relax, with newspapers right at hand. I know of a surgery that cooperates with a bookshop to supply books for reading and for purchase. Fascinating. Dental surgeries are all about health and beauty, and visitors’ sense of smell can also be appealed to, for instance with a freshly prepared cappuccino. The expectation is actually, “coffee stains teeth, it shouldn’t be at a dentist’s surgery”. While this is quite true, the dentist can counter with, “no problem, we’ve got something for that.” Going against the grain implies luring someone away and offering something that they don’t normally have time for, like reading, for example!

Children react very sensitively at dental surgeries. Do you see any particular challenges there? Does a children’s dental surgery require any particular architectural concept

It’s important to invent a world for children. A world that they can dive into; kids have to be able to scream a bit, they are physical, need room and activity, such as on a climbing wall. Of course you must ensure that softer materials are used, but kids must be offered something so they forget that they are at the dentist’s. That might be a dune landscape with strange figures for them to discover, or a water world with fake fish. It doesn’t matter that you can then say, “oh, I’m going to an underwater world.” The more literal or easily decipherable something is, the faster it becomes boring. I love offerings for kids that are also fun for adults, because kids don’t go to the dentist’s by themselves, they are accompanied by adults who also decide which surgery they go to.

In hardly any other room in the world is the ceiling paid as much attention as at a dentist’s. How do GRAFT architects deal with ceiling surfaces?

The desire to question the tectonics, to hash out what a space needs can be seen in most of our jobs. Does it need a wall or not? Can’t floor and ceiling, wall and ceiling be one and the same, yielding a space continuum? To basically pour everything into the same mould, to consider it as one and create something that cannot be attained when the floor is the floor and the ceiling the ceiling. Dissolution of boundaries is the term for what fundamentally fascinates us. Since ceilings are underestimated and seldom used, we find them interesting. At a dental surgery they are extremely important and can have a starring role. We always advocate for integrating screens or projections in which the entire ceiling ‘works’. When I am reclining in a dentist’s chair I wish for a ceiling that is a complete image without frame, an image which is abstract or on which a film can be shown, or an image I am familiar with but that suddenly moves. Architecture should not be a boundary on anything, but rather capable of receiving an image – without frame. Of course this is also a budget issue…

The Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, together with GRAFT architects, have been looking in to the effects of room atmosphere on the healing process of intensive-care patients. What does the solution look like?

At Charité we sought a place where the healing process can be mapped, and for the intensive-care unit we have created a unit that sooner resembles a hotel room and provides four patients with a high degree of privacy. Technical devices step into the background, alarm bells are muted, etc. The care unit works efficiently, also in the sense of financial sustainability. Wood tones, soft shapes and a room in which architecture and rhythmic light project soft movements and colours onto the ceiling to create an atmosphere of well-being. Ongoing measurement of patient stress factors generate an algorithm that immediately affects light intensity and frequency, relieves stress and alleviates fear.

In an intensive-care unit, the focus is on patient medical services. How do you draw this aspect into your intensive-care unit?

Our care unit easily provides and even optimises everything concerning medical procedures. The perspective in intensive care has changed – the focus is on patient needs and feelings, and not on technology. We have already taken this new view into account. Although the final trial results won’t be in until the beginning of 2015, all intermediate results indicate that it will provide the first scientific evidence that architecture can heal!

GRAFT architects form part of the global architecture elite. In only a few years they have carried out many fascinating projects and built a brand with global significance. What’s the secret behind the success?

Loving what you do. Finding partners with similar work styles, who share your values and vision and possess the same curiosity. It’s important to stay curious and never to think that I have now understood everything and can do everything. That puts one at a disadvantage and squanders one’s own potential.

Respect for others is also central to us. That means that one can only discover something when there is curiosity and a willingness to understand and leave behind what one already knows. By listening and thinking in order to understand. One has to be ready to be multidisciplinary, to be a team player, to include other people and listen to their ideas instead of imposing one’s own ego. Being open to new things and having respect for others leads to being able to newly define architecture, to expanding one’s occupational profile, and to inventing new things. Finding and inventing involves searching – one must remain mobile, there is no progress without a loss of balance. A seeker must observe every detail and allow for detours; this gives rise to moments of serendipity and produces synergies that make work faster, more intelligent and innovative. And that brings success.

Berlin, Los Angeles, Beijing – GRAFT has offices on three continents and works for clients from three cultures. What does that mean for the GRAFT style? Do you adapt your style or do the different cultures require entirely different architectural concepts?

We have learned a lot in America, mainly our openness and our belief in innovation. That has changed us. America has given us an opportunity that we would never have had here. But we have been able to bring in our culture. Thinking things through from concept to detail and doing them conscientiously are German qualities that are valued as highly in the USA and in China as they are by us.

It can basically be said that what applies to China also applies to the USA. Global thinking is indispensable for portraying larger associations. On the other hand, it must always be measured in local values. When speaking of China we speak about the local Dalian, about Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. Each city not only has its own climate, but differing local conditions. China is interesting while also difficult because it had to accept a loss of its past and is just now rebuilding the loss of its centre, its culture and tradition. Yet it also represents an opportunity, because people are not burdened with the baggage of the past, like here. The Chinese say, “We have a project, who’s the best architect? We want to work with the most interesting architects.” This means that the spirit of innovation and readiness to consider the future are disproportionately greater than here.

And finally a look to the future. Digital processes are also increasing at dental surgeries. Do you have a vision of the dental surgery of the future?

In health care there will be an overall evolution toward hospitality, especially at dental surgeries, which are run as businesses. The issue of defining clients not as ill patients, but rather as guests and offering them more services, will take centre stage. Solutions can be very different and depend on the desired client base and on set-up and positioning. Digitalisation will make the future interesting. It makes it possible to better know the guests and better respond to their wishes, yearnings and needs. The main mission is plain and simple: to listen and get better. It will depend on better understanding and use of the information society in the future. Whoever properly utilises and better commands this space will be successful. Dentists have a fairly clear profile of the people who go to them. It doesn’t cost much to learn their wishes, perceptions and backgrounds. But perhaps also to determine that a fringe group, which might like to come to the surgery if just one thing were done differently, is not being serviced. Growing more intelligent with information – I think there is a lot of future potential in that.

Thank you for the talk!


Published by: rf/tk 04/14
“I think that architecture can heal”

“I think that architecture can heal”

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