Interview with Peter WilsonThis interview was taken by Koji Taki. Here is only the part on the Münster City Library. Source: “Bolles/Wilson 1990-1994”, Peter L. Wilson; Koji Taki, El Croquis, v.67, p.3-121 (1994)
I would like to begin by asking about your Münster Library which is a very interesting and complex building. I appreciated and enjoyed it. I observed its articulations of space and its diversity of small scale details. Above all, it is very different from the Suzuki House, in Tokyo, in its relation with the context. It has a very clear connection with its environment. It is built in the center of an old German city, but you have invented a new place and brought a new experience into the city...
THE CONTEXTS FOR BUILDINGS WE HAVE BUILT are so very different that a standard reaction is unthinkable. In Germany, we encounter two clear types of context: one is the historic city and the other the periphery, the unstructured edge of the city. Our Library and Technologiehof belong to these opposing types, one for each, therefore they evolved very different rule systems. The Library in its historic city context has taken into account the 1200 years of history of this particular place, but at the same time it is not just a mirror. It is an invention, a new layer that will speak to future generations of this moment in the ongoing evolution of the city organism.
You mean in such a circumstance an architecture must go beyond the given historical context?
YES. IT IS ACTUALLY BRINGING ABOUT A NEW PLACE, It is focusing on latent qualities inherent in the place, but it is also as with all construction, making something which was not previously there. This sounds rather obvious but it is fundamental. Around the edge of this new something there are connections. In the Münster Library these transitions to the surroundings were of major interest. They are carefully studied and different in character according to circumstance. The traffic side is unlike the block interior side. Where it touches surrounding buildings, the Library itself metamorphoses and comments on its neighbour while still retaining a material language of its own. It takes a lot of effort, sensitivity also perhaps, to actually see the site. As a teacher I was painfully aware that my students never looked long enough. Le Corbusier made a differentiation between looking and seeing. To really see, one must concentrate, it takes time to absorb details, it is the difference between drawing and photographing.
It also takes a long time for us to design because the lessons of the site must be assimilated, filtered and finally turned on their head in the finding of the appropriate gesture. In designing one must develop in parallel to site considerations also the building as independent object whose internal logic gives it a certain autonomy. There is a curious balance in architecture between the strong self defining statement and the light statement that allows its site.
Could you explain a little more the difference between strong statement and light statement in your term ? Does it concern your thinking about automonous architectural form ?
YES, FOR US THE STRONG CLEAR STATEMENT is becoming increasingly the subject of our buildings, It was always there but for example in the case of the Library, a design which is now seven years old, it is behind a layer of foreground incident. But still the ordering geometry, the struturing principle of the building was from the outset clear. In our Library the structuring principles are on a large, almost monumental scale. The book building is 75 meters long, bigger than anything in the surrounding context, it needs this clear definition of the whole, it needs this backbone to bind the lesser parts together.
One could say that the Library came into being with the defining of this clear underlying form, or more accurately in this case the two forms, the slab which closes the residential triangular block and on the other side of the framed axis the autonomous, shiplike segment of a 100 m diameter circle.
I understand about the connection between architecture and its context in the case of the Münster Library in its physical seeing. It is really different from the Suzuki House to which we will soon return. But I would like to continue a little more with our discussion of context in the cultural sense. Developing what you have just said now, maybe it could be said that the Library changes peoples's everyday life, their experience of this city.
IT IS ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING URBAN INSTITUTIONS, along with Theatre, Museum and Church that serve as public spaces outside the dictatorship of commerce. Such forums of public life are gradually disappearing from our cities. More and more exchange, social as well as cultural and commercial occurs at a distance, through the agency of invisible media: tax, telephone, television etc. City centers like Münster are evolving into theme parks, packaged history and at the same time specialist commercial zones for luxury shopping.
What is very pleasing is that the opening of the Library has actually changed the use pattern of the middle of Münster. One can see people going to the market for vegetables and also popping into the Library to borrow ten books or to read newspapers for an hour. A recent survey showed its enormous success, 50% more users than the old Library. On a busy day as many as 6000 people pass through the building... This is a very positive thing. I don't know how much it has do with the architecture. In one sense, the architecture advertises the function... and the quality of space frames the visitor. On the other hand it is also appropriate for the building to merge into its context, to gradually become anonymous, to become just part of the city.
Its context is cultural rather than physical?
YES. WE ARE OF THE GENERATION that learnt contextualism in the manner of Ungers and Colin Rowe. This responsibility to cities for us is automatic, like sleep walking. The interesting question is more how one defines todays city. Architecture has also the responsibility to frame the culture context, to try to describe or qualify this field in which it will land. This Library will be from now on a statement in the plan of Münster which represents the 1990s. Other buildings like the city Theatre represent the 1950s, the optimistic forward looking modernism of post war reconstruction.
Similarly the heavy bourgeois stone edifices that have survived the 90% destruction of the war represent the end of the last century. It is an obligation to try to clarify such positions. In this sense we see the Library as a sort of lifeboat for the public realm in a time of universal commercialism. The particular relationship of the internal spaces to the space of the street, a sort of overlapping, is a consequence of this. The social context or the political context in a city the size of Münster is much clearer than in London or Tokyo. Here there is a general consensus that such buildings represent the city as a whole. This project was particularly lucky to have a very positive city government and Library administration who firstly formulated the program intelligently and secondly took seriously their responsibility of providing social functions for the use of the general population. In England the government provides almost nothing, this sort of cultural activity is expected to spring forth from the private realm. This is an uncivilized and uncultured evolution, a mistake. As a final note on context one must talk about belonging. The Library is a curious mix of belonging to its context and at the same time due to its unfamiliarity being at odds with it. It would be too obvious to say that this is also our situation in Münster. Julia, my partner, who grew up in this city, and myself, the almost german speaking Australian operating in a foreign context.
There is a creative freedom that a healthy degree of alienation provokes which is perhaps paralleled by the element of provocation in the Library. A questioning of fixed values. As context, Münster is rather like the English childrens game of Happy Families, in which everyone has a role -Mr Cutts the Butcher, Mrs, Handshake the Mayor, Mr Rightangle the Architect...
In your Library people experience diversity of space. For example, you did not design one reading room separate from other spaces, instead you scattered reading desks throughout the building, where people can use them freely. You produced a very interesting space system which is also very complicated. It is a kind of overlapping of various orders...
YES, BUT EVEN THOUGH THE LIBRARY HAS VERY STRONG AND CLEAR GEOMETRIES, -particularly the division into two buildings- there are always many local incidents. The library is the house for many people, a public house. So in a way there is one detail, one space, one place for each person who goes into the library. It is no longer possible to do a centered space for example like in Asplands's Stockholm library -a space which presents knowledge as a complete body- or Boullee’s library -where the vault representing heaven and the wall made of books form a singular unity. The dissolution of these order systems is always presented in the library of Henri Labrouste through the carving of authors names from A to Z into the façade. A form of graffity, a subject we have already touched upon.
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