In Praise of Bad Taste: Mensa von Jürgen Mayer H.

Mensa mit Geschmack

Mit der »Mensa Moltke« in Karlsruhe zeigt uns Jürgen Mayer H. wieder ein Stück seiner seltsamen Welt. Dort konfrontiert er uns mit einer deformierten Architektur, die uns schwarz für weiß und oben für unten verkauft – mit Mitteln, die als schlechter Geschmack oder gar als schlechtes Design gelten könnten. Wie durch ein Wunder fördert er jedoch mit solch kontroverser Taktik schöne Räume und überzeugende Formen zutage. Die Mensa steht für eine neue Art öffentlichen Bauens. Sie wiederholt nicht zum x-ten Mal die geschmackvolle Box aus Holz, Sichtbeton und Glas, sondern zeigt aufregende, überraschende Architektur. Jürgen Mayer H. ist, wie viele seiner Generation, von den Möglichkeiten des Computerdesigns begeistert. Deshalb sieht die Mensa aus, als wäre sie aus Karamell. Da eine Umsetzung in Kunststoff, Beton oder Stahl zu teuer geworden wäre, besteht sie aus einem Betonkern für die Küchenräume, der durch eine Hülle aus Holzelementen mit Polyurethanbeschichtung ergänzt wird. Um die Anmutung des Computer- modells aufrechtzuerhalten, sind alle gewinkelten Übergänge der zwei Geschosse hohen Cafeteria abgerundet. Leuchtstoffröhren und gerundete Glasbrüstungen verstärken die unlogische Zuordnung von über- und untergeordneten Elementen. Indem Jürgen Mayer H. die offene Seite nach Süden, zu einer Nebenstraße, drehte, schenkte er den Studenten einen geschützten, sonnengesprenkelten und dennoch lebendigen Bereich. Die Kehrseite dieser Entscheidung ist eine geschlossene Wand zum Platz vor der Mensa, den mittlerweile Müllcontainer und Lieferwagen verunzieren. Obwohl hier ein Balkon durch das flach geneigte Dach stößt, ist dieser von außen kaum wahrnehmbar und bleibt bei schlechtem Wetter, wie die umliegenden Sportplätze, ungenutzt. Zum Glück kann dieser Kritikpunkt die eigentliche Botschaft des Gebäudes nicht entkräften: Ein öffentliches Gebäude soll nicht alltäglich sein.

~Aaron Betsky

In Praise of Bad Taste: mensa by Jürgen Mayer H.
In the strange world of Jürgen Mayer H., black is white, up is down and front is back. Or rather, what we would expect to be white is brown, grey or lime green, what we think is the building’s plinth hovers precariously over us, angles replace right planes, and the monumental façade becomes the stretched face. In short, Mayer H. presents us with a deformed architecture that revels in what we think of as bad taste or even bad design. Miraculously, he manages to rescue beautifully composed spaces and convincing forms from such contrary tactics. His latest realized design, the Mensa for the Technical, Pedagogical, and Art Institutes in Karlsruhe, is a good example. Faced the wrong way, looking nothing like its context, and built in a way that contradicts its visible form, it is yet a good example of how to make communal space and form that is useful and convincing.
Mayer H. (who uses the last letter to distinguish himself, both literally and figuratively, from all the other German architects with that name) first made a splash with an astonishingly accomplished first project, the Town Hall for Scharnhauser Park, outside of Stuttgart. Painted in shades of brown that harked back to the unlovely aesthetics of the 1970s, it shifted and slanted both inside and out, producing unsettling façades and skewed interior spaces that created a sense of space that was the building’s own. His accomplishment earned him the Mies van der Rohe Award for Young Architects in 2003 (I was a member of the jury).
Now he is designing a large market hall and event structure in Seville, a few houses, and other public structures that have solidified his status as the producer of some of the most startling structures in Europe. At the same time, he continues to work as an artist, specializing in the application of heat-sensitive material that leaves the imprint of human occupation on the smooth, artificial forms that surround us.
Stretching artificial forms and materials to allow for a sense of human quirkiness has become his trademark. To do that, he has to confound normal design practices. In Karlsruhe, Mayer H. has produced a building that looks like it is organic because it seems to be made out of taffy. It is in fact a conventional structure covered in painted polyurethane. He has made a grand gesture towards a small street and turned the Mensa’s back on a large public space. And he has made a building that seems at first to have no connections to its surroundings. What happened, and why does the building still somehow, like all this architect’s buildings, work?
Like many of the members of his generation, Mayer H. is fascinated by the free-flowing forms the computer lets us produce. In his case, he is especially fond of three-dimensional frames or basket-weaves that take Gottfried Semper’s notion of a »textile architecture« from the two- dimensional realm of the wall into three dimensions. In Karlsruhe, he imagined the main, two- story cafeteria space, which is what the building is really all about, as the result of delaminating the roof from the ground, lifting the former up at an angle, and leaving a trail of supportive structure to maintain a spatial and structural coherence around a double-height interior volume. Since these angled supports and space-definers could not be made out of the zeros and ones of the digital realm, he proposed using the fluid properties of plastic, concrete or steel. When the cost of these materials became prohibitive, only the core, containing the kitchen’s service elements, was poured in concrete, while the supports became plywood tubes covered with polyurethane that he then painted with a UV-resistant, fluorescent green paint. To maintain the fiction of the computer model, Mayer H. rounded all transitions between horizontal and vertical or angled planes, creating a sense of the continuity of surface over all the different materials and forms hiding underneath this curvaceous continuum. Fluorescent tubes embedded in the corners of the columns and beams and curved glass balustrades further dazzle the eye and reinforce the sense of being in an integrated environment idea by contradicting a sense of a logical relation between major and minor elements.
The building is thus a lie in that structure and form are contradictory, but the effect is one of letting one wander around and through a loosely assembled forest that is morphing into a space ship. This building once again evokes a 1970s aesthetics, but this time it is one of science fiction movies such as 2001, with their continually curving space station interiors. It grounds that sense of a fictional other place in the site by recalling the trees that are as much part of the context as the hodgepodge of institutional structures that make up the Institute’s campus.
The Mensa stands in the middle of that collection of bureaucratic confusion and stretches itself up to the public street to match their volume, while opening up its face into a large, South-facing porch that both gives the students a chance to be sheltered, sun-dappled and in touch with the liveliness of the passing parade, and evokes the porticoes of the classical tradition that the Mensa’s neighbors unfortunately seem to have forgotten. However, this grand and generous civic gesture has the unfortunate side effect of pushing the service elements to the North, where they face a large playing field and the green spaces beyond with a closed façade already marked by the presence of garbage, delivery trucks and all the unsightly things necessary for the feeding of 1500 student meals a day. Perhaps this space is not as public as I, as somebody used to the American campus with its inward-turned emphasis on courtyards and green spaces, would believe it is, but yet it seems well-used and of a scale that would demand a response from this public gathering space of a building. Mayer acknowledges the outdoor open space from the inside out with a large balcony that cuts through the sloping roof and views out to the playing field on the North. However, this space, though it will be occupied exactly when the fields will also be used, which is to say, when the weather is good, has no enduring presence when one looks at the Mensa from the outside.
Unlike the other bad-boy traits of this and Jürgen Mayer H.’s other buildings, which actually enhance the sense that a new kind of space is emerging out of a deformation of form, function and »good« taste – a space that is exhilarating and slightly disturbing at the same time – this particular organization seems merely unfortunate. Luckily, it is a relatively minor drawback to a building that otherwise produces soaring, surprising rooms and a self-confident response to its confused context.
What is more important is that Jürgen Mayer H.’s Mensa also stands for a new kind of civic structure that is beginning to answer Europe’s prevalent mode of monumental minimalism with a verve all its own. The well-designed, tasteful box with slightly shifting planes, the careful mix of wood, finely poured and finished concrete, white walls and glass has become the lingua franca of educational, community, sports facilities and even supermarkets all over Europe. There is nothing wrong with these structures, but Mayer H. shows us that sometimes the polite and the expected is not always as exciting and as full of surprise as an architecture that twists, turns, billows, stretches and angles from good taste to something grander, maybe grosser, but always affirming of the fact that the civic should be something other than the normal forms of everyday life.
Aaron Betsky ist Direktor des Cincinnati Art Museum. Davor leitete er das NAI und war Kurator für Architektur, Design und Digital Projects am San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Als ausgebildeter Architekt hat er rund ein Dutzend Bücher über Architektur und Design verfasst, zuletzt »False Flats: Why Dutch Design Is So Good« (2004).