My post on German universities attracted a great comment from an insider called “Hausmeister” (building superintendent):
As someone who works in one of these and is deeply familiar with the technical building details, I doubt that they were build the way they are to save money.
– buildings tend to have large, unusable, multi-story, inside spaces that are the result of poor alignment of lecture rooms and outside features of the buildings. Huge amounts of space are wasted.
– nearly every part is completely custom. Windows, -grips, balconies, ceiling tiles etc. are all custom designs. You would think it would be cheaper to design a building around off-the shelf items and dimensions, but this hasn’t happened. Germany pioneered the DIN norms that have become the template for most of all international norms, but at the same time, we constructed buildings that did not follow any of the preferred dimensions or recommendations of these norms.
A big issue for us today, because we can’t get replacements for anything.
– a massive amount of space went into architectural statements instead of utilitarian buildings. Look at military barracks, they are build to be cheap. But this is not what German universities look like.
There are some 50s buildings that were constructed under much more severe constraints. These are utilitarian, square, have small rooms that are a bit claustrophobic, they are built cheaply – but surprisingly, they are much more pleasant to work in and still have a lot of charm.
In the 50s, no architect would have wasted space and money for the multistory pillars and the balcony in the picture above, all for a space that is already painful to look at that I cannot imagine to sit on.
Another overlooked factor is the so-called “Kunst am Bau”. Most states have laws on the books that state that a certain fraction of the building’s cost has to be spent on art.
Sounds great till you hear that this was explicitly done as a subsidy for artists with the proper political connections. There was never any requirement that this art improve the functioning of the building or make it more pleasant for the occupants. Most of it does not. There is a famous concrete car blocking a needed parking lot, ugly tiled walls, narrow walkways, sculptures blocking windows, outside concrete stairs that lead to nowhere.
These buildings are the typical outcome of socialist thinking:
– a strong hate for the existing paired with a desire to destroy and be different at any cost.
– a massive lack of talent.
– no ability to actually create anything new.
– a complete disregard of people’s needs, which were seen as far less important than making political/architectural statements.
– massive cost overruns due to incompetence and rejection of established building practices.
– primacy of politics. These buildings were primarily political statements and no one cared about the people going to be housed inside. Anyone raising obvious issues was labeled a reactionary standing in the way of progress.
– the usual graft
This all rings true for the buildings where I used to work, at the University of Düsseldorf. There 1970s buildings feature cavernous multi-story halls which remain gloomy and dark at all times (despite the windows) because they’re made of dark brown tiles and now-stained concrete. The buildings are filled with little walkways and niches which are supposed to be “inviting” places for students to hang out (doubtless this is how they were portrayed in sketches), but which nobody uses, because they’re isolated quadrangles made of uninviting concrete or brick. The “inviting” benches are literally made of brick or metal rods or concrete.
In Düsseldorf, there’s a special bonus: the main walkway which goes through the center of campus is bricked-over. This is fine in itself: it needs to survive millions of feet trampling on it. But the architects were inspired by Hundertwasser, the Austrian oddball artist and architect, who believed that humans were never meant to walk on flat surfaces, because nature is full of hills and valleys.
So the central walkway at the University of Düsseldorf is a bricked-over series of gently undulating hills and valleys. Which means that whenever it rains or especially freezes, the main walkway on campus becomes a giant frozen-over slip ‘n slide, in which you can observe dozens of students falling on their asses, or tumbling from their bikes, when they hit a slippery patch on a down-slope. Count double bonus points for all the times elderly people or people with disabilities have taken a bone-crunching fall.
All of this was totally unnecessary, because Düsseldorf is built on a flat river plain. All of the hills and valleys and stairs which turn into winter deathtraps were added artificially.
As a bonus, here’s an infamous BBC documentary on the Smithsons, a loony husband-and-wife pair of architects who inflicted many hideous Brutalist buildings on England:
The building featured in the documentary, Robin Hood “Gardens”, was finally torn down in 2014. Good riddance to bad rubbish: