Reinier de Graaf: "Can a house be beautiful because of what we know, not what we see?"

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"Can a house be beautiful simply because of what we know, not because of what we see?"

A simple house features on the cover of Reinier de Graaf's new book, Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession. In this extract, the OMA partner reveals the building's secret, politically fuelled past.


The house, a small single-story building with a square plan and a pitched roof, is nothing much to speak of. The street along which it stands is straddled with similar and similarly inconspicuous homes. Apart from customised doorbells and mailboxes, only the colour of their facades varies: off-white, grey, Prussian green (or yellow) and, in the case of more recently erected homes, just plain white.

The one that has our interest is terracotta red. Its exterior walls feel like a faded shade of the area's former political colouring, but we understand that analogy might be a bit far-fetched. It is the street name – the Karl Liebknechtstrasse – that serves as the real reminder of the once potent ideology that held this part of Germany in its grip for 40 years.

We have come to know of the house pretty much by chance, from a report by the University of Brandenburg on the recycling of building components in Eastern Europe. With an ever-increasing number of the former East Germany's public housing estates being taken down, the ensuing debris – mainly prefabricated facade panels – is being reused as a resource material mostly for new housing estates in neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, but also for new buildings in Germany of an altogether different kind, such as this one: a small "holiday" home, located in an obscure German town, appropriated for permanent inhabitation shortly after its completion.

The concrete panels prove intrinsically tougher than the political system that begat them

If East German prefabrication technology was once proudly exported to friendly socialist regimes, it is now the disassembled panels themselves, the discarded products of a failed state, that attain the same status. Far from becoming obsolete, the concrete panels prove intrinsically tougher than the political system that begat them, and now operate as a finite, almost wholly recyclable resource in the context of the market economy. In an almost perverse mirroring of bygone days, when the GDR's Bauakademie obsessively researched and advocated the virtues of large-scale panel housing and urbanism, the same enthusiasm is now being professed by the Technical University of Brandenburg for low density, low rise building typologies made of the reused building panels.

The pitched roof and a thick layer of stucco suffice to erase all traces of the origin of the modernist components that went into the house. If one didn't know, one would never suspect. Can something be beautiful simply because of what we know, not because of what we see?

Apart from the more repetitive nature of its windows, there is nothing that distinguishes this house from its neighbours, allegedly all made of brick and mortar. Four walls and a roof: the house captures the sobering legacy of 20th-century architecture perfectly.

The pitched roof and a thick layer of stucco suffice to erase all traces of the origin of the modernist components that went into the house

The report references a small building firm on the outskirts of Brandenburg. Through the builder we obtain the location of the house; upon arrival we find it shielded from view. The hedge, planted at the time of its completion some 10 years ago, has overtaken the house in height, making photography impossible. If we are content to settle for a different house, the builder is happy to provide us with another address. He has applied the same construction method to numerous other houses, scattered over various small villages across the pastures of Brandenburg.

Armed with a camera, a tripod and a set of kitchen stairs, we set out to immortalise a replica of our hard-sought original. When it comes to serial production, I realise the notion of an original might be somewhat flawed.

It is a beautiful spring Sunday. The owner, who is expecting our arrival, greets us with mix of hospitality and surprise. The latter grows more intense after we decline his offer to photograph the interior of his home.

He has no objection to us taking pictures of his house. The builder and he are good friends. The series of which his home is part is small enough for the builder to have retained contact with every one of its inhabitants. In the former East Germany, the collapse of Communism has led to the revival of small businesses, including the typical familial relations that come with it.

Here, memories of an era in which the state actively encouraged people to spy on each other are still fresh

One good photograph is all we need: frontal, with an abundant amount of grey sky above. I know we have to be quick; the sun is about to come out any minute, but that isn't the only reason to expedite our work. The familial relations, as we soon find out, do not necessarily extend to outsiders. While photographing the house from across the street, passing cars routinely stop to ask us what (the hell we think) we are doing. Don't we know these are private houses of which the owners value their privacy? I have to think of the legal issues Google Streetview encountered in Germany and wonder how much of the resistance was driven by views held in the former east. Here, memories of an era in which the state actively encouraged people to spy on each other are still fresh. Privacy is a hard-fought right not to be squandered, certainly not by decadent foreign architects.

We manage to take our photograph. It looks good, and a year after our visit it is well in the public domain. The builder, meanwhile, is no longer building prefab concrete holiday homes. Trading in one form of recycling for another, he has moved on to the more profitable business of appropriating small Dutch naval vessels for German river cruises.

To him the concrete panels were but a means to an end – a way to make a living in the present, irrespective of the burden of their difficult past. There is something strangely exhilarating about his pragmatic disregard for the same history that so fascinates us. Perhaps, in the end, that is where history's resolution lies: in oblivion.

Four Walls and a Roof is published by Harvard University Press. It began as a series of essays on Dezeen.