Arno Brandlhuber: architecture as argument

Arno Brandlhuber had been invited by the Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa for the closing conference of the 3rd cycle of Critical Distance series that took place on the 15 March at CCB. The series was dedicated to two possible scenarios in an architectural context: the real scenario of a built project in an urban context and another scenario related with a research and under more extreme or unusual conditions practice. The session ended up with a talk with the architect and co-founder of Artéria – Humanizing Architecture studio, Lucinda Correia.

As referred by Lucinda Correia, Arno Brandlhuber proposes an expanded practice of architecture that consists of making architectural projects, teaching, coordinating research projects and developing projects in collaboration with other architects and artists being politically active and never questioning the ethical dimension of the architect.

Joana Duarte e Joana Jordão As suggested by the “+” in your studio name, you have different collaborative practices – you collaborate with other architects, artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, but you are also a teacher, researcher, theoretician and activist. What do these different collaborations add to your practice as an architect?

Arno Brandlhuber – Our first project was under the theme of mankind. Together with two partners, it turned out that maybe architecture should be able to communicate more about what’s going on in our surrounding, politically wise, than just being a nice object. If you start thinking about what architecture could add as arguments, it becomes much more tricky. By then we already teamed up with musicians, writers and photographers because they have more or less the same questions. They can do nice photos, but life engages somehow in a bigger discourse.

Another topic came up when I moved to Berlin, in 2005-06, and realized that new buildings were always so expensive. There was a mayor at that time, Klaus Wowereit, who had a very famous quote: “Berlin is poor, but sexy”. How could we bring that into to architecture? So that standard question somehow could be addressed with buildings itself. That also meant in our collaboration that more and more people were involved, even more people from different fields.

JD JJ – In that sense, how would you describe your architectural practice?

AB – In Germany we don’t have a verb for architecture. Do you have a word for it in Portuguese? Architecture is always related to the piece of architecture. If you read it as architecting, it is more like a practice, about how you behave. Basically, in our projects we don’t want to test every topic in every project, but there should be an argument embedded. And if you want to make this point strong then you just have to follow the logic of that argument – the building will look like a possible solution to this argument but not a solution maybe to aesthetics questions. But it has an inner logic and people could read it.

JD JJReferring to the videos that you have produced along with Christopher Roth, and being someone who has a discursive architectural practice, that passes not only by designing and constructing buildings but also by a strong communication through lectures, publications, public debates and video – what is your aim when using these media? Do you use it as a medium for public education?

AB – I have started doing films with Christopher Roth because legislation is the most boring theme to write about. Nobody will read it, even someone in the field of architecture. So how could we communicate this theme within the field of architecture and how could we also reach more people than just architects. So, when Alejandro Aravena invited us in 2016, to participate at the Venice Biennale, we produced the first film Legislating Architecture.

Then we found out that in the end it is all about the property of the ground. Ten years ago we had a lot of abandoned buildings, the ground was cheap, but then it became more and more expensive, so we started to think about the question of property. Property Drama was a film that we showed at Chicago Architecture Biennale in 2017. With it we found a very nervous point, which is now really into discussion: architects, politicians, activists now start to talk about it. Property Drama was advertised in newspapers, can be seen online, and it was shown in 400 schools in Germany.

JD JJ – Do you think that laws, in the sense that they are not adapted to our contemporary way of living, are responsible for some social injustice due to the imposition of an out-dated design of buildings?

AB – In some of our first projects, we engaged in this dilemma that you could either live or work in a building. I don’t know if it is the same here in Portugal, but in Germany it is very restrictive: it is either a housing building, for which you don’t pay VAT, etc, but where you are not allowed to work or have other type of practices; or it is an office building, normally with huge spaces. So there is missing something, even let’s say, in a kind of architectural typology. So we started to make projects that address this topic. It’s not only about the building but it’s about pointing into something, it is about bringing the argument into a wider discussion within the use of buildings. Times have changed; families are not longer as sufficient as they were in our parents’ times.

JD JJ – So, this idea of mixing uses came from the architect and not from the client?

AB – No, we would like to do housing, but then we have done what we call ateliers, because there is a gap in German legislation. There are artists that live and work in the same room, so this might be possible. We have started in Cologne and we went on with this. There is also a tax reason to do so, because in Germany if you do a commercial building, like a studio, then you get the VAT back. So a house is basically more expensive than a studio space because you won’t get the VAT back. It is somehow strange that housing is regarded as the end of the production circle. It is just about reproduction to talk about production. Thus, that was our starting point to go into legislation, and to regard legislation also as a part of design. In Berlin, even if the law doesn’t allow you to put one floor up, you can do it if you rent in the same building, the same area that you add on top, to social housing. It is a very cheap trick. It also leads to a kind of heterogeneity because you can have expensive penthouses and social housing in the same building. In this sense, maybe changing the legislation is influencing the building environment even more than a singular building. And this is a very important point.

JD JJ – How do you think that architecture is shaped by law and how can legislation be a tool rather than an obstacle to an architectural design process? Would you like to give us some examples in your work where this research is visible?

AB – The Terrace House for example, nominated for the Mies prize – it is a building where we wanted to force users to become heterogeneous in a way that they would mix work and living. Just in the typology it is inscribed that there will be a heterogeneous mixture of uses in the house. We also thought that heterogeneity is nice if you don’t fence the terraces and make a small homogeneous island. In this sense, we made a design where the escape ways always go to the terraces, or rather right or left, so that you can’t fence the whole terrace since it has two escape ways. It is about heterogeneity and how to manage to live together. And that is how now this project is described and read and how people discuss it.

JD JJSo, you think that it is in this new way of living that laws should be rethought.

AB – Yes, that is for sure, that is for sure! And properties should be distributed. The billions can be owned by some, but it is much better to organize the city or the state with the public, us, who could be owners of the ground and could be given like long term lease contracts for instance. We can’t make more ground, do we? So, if we can’t produce it, why should it be tradable? Anything we can produce is tradable, vegetables, etc. And we need ground to make housing, and we need housing. So, it is like air and water.


Architecture as Argument was Arno Brandlhuber’s main statement, a suggestion that overcomes the closed and traditional field of architecture, proposing to explore it as a medium to question and make a difference, among society, in an open and collaborative way.

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