Stuttgart, Parlerstrasse. A solid, middle-class housing district. Half way up the hill with amazing views over the valley. The district of Killesberg is well known even beyond Stuttgart. Neat, pretty town houses from the 1950s and 60s glorying in their elevated position. And in the middle of all this is the studio of Alexander Brenner, in a villa built in 1962. For a long time the building stood empty. Brenner renovated it. And it is here that he and his team of 12 design his now famous white villas. Or “three-dimensional artworks”, as the architecture critic Gottfried Knapp once described them.
We sit at a small meeting table, drinking coffee, and eating pasta. Brenner talks. For three hours he jumps from one thought to another, talks about clients and materials, about rooms, spaces, responsibility and attitude. About what is good and right. Here are some of the highlights from that discussion:
Alexander Brenner on his approach to building
Would Alexander Brenner also build a school? Definitive answer: “No”. Committees and organizations that lay down strict limits on time and costs – that would restrict him in building in a way that he considers right.
“We work to the best of our knowledge and conscience, quite free from the rules of technology and DIN norms. We also do not have restrictions on time. That is also the reason why we almost exclusively work on private residential projects, because there you have just one client. Many of our clients are themselves entrepreneurs who know what it is to develop something.”
For Brenner “long-lived” means: His white villas should not only look good, but also last a long time and be livable down through the generations.
“Villas are the longest living buildings I know. Our aim is to create something that is contemporary but which can still be used and is still good to look at in 50 years time.”
When you enter an Alexander Brenner villa, what strikes you is the depth of space, a feeling further enhanced by the floor-to-ceiling windows with fantastic views.
“Spatial depth is very important, I think. In the interior we try to create storage space and integrate technical installations in wall cladding so that the space itself remains free. This gives a sense of calm. A house for living in should be like a calm canvas against which the lives of the occupants play out.”
Brenner is a man of conviction, a perfectionist, someone who carries out his work with passion and dedication. He receives many inquiries, but each year selects only one or two projects to take on, ones that he believes offers the most scope for his kind of all-encompassing approach.
“I do not see myself as an assistant who simply registers the wishes of the client. As a responsible architect it is indeed my duty to point out to my clients those aspects that could be contradictory. At the same time I have to offer them things that they may not have thought they wanted or that they are not familiar with. We take on full responsibility for many things so that lasting value can result.”
Those who are lucky enough to have Brenner agree to design their house, must first of all bare all. In extensive discussions Brenner probes into the client´s daily lives, their dreams and preferences.
“I do indeed sit down with my clients before starting anything. We talk a lot with each other. I firmly believe that an architect cannot really create anything without a client. What you need is a strong partnership based on both sides having maximum understanding for the other. That also means taking into account the way the client lives, and understanding that. We take in a lot of things, so that in the end we can really create a tailor-made house for them.”
Brenner likes materials that last. High quality, tried and trusted. Wood, glass, steel, stone, concrete in all their facets. He calls them “honest materials”.
“We process everything that is genuine and suited to a particular purpose. However we have never worked with a material that purports to be something other than it really is. We use proper, decent, sustainable materials. And for our clientele that is also the wish. In terms of energy, too, they understand that they must act responsibly and sustainably.”
Lighting planning is never left to chance with Brenner. It is a part of the overall work of art. Together with two family-owned firms, the architect even designs lamps.
“With light you create atmosphere. Two things are important for us in this: indirect lighting and light spots. Indirect light is pleasant and soft and provides even illumination. With light spots you can set an accent, structure the space, introduce a hierarchy and energize.”
About the criticism that he only works for the wealthy
Brenner definitely has no love of the chichi crowd. Yet he is accused of building only for the rich and beautiful, the ones who can afford his white villas. Of course Brenner sees this differently.
“I have a determination and a need to deliver good work, a building that is attractive in design, lasting in construction and therefore resource-efficient. The energy and the love that we, but also the builders bring to our projects, must do service for a very long time and it must be evident. For 25 years we have been working only with firms who also want to do good work and be proud of it. It is important to me that these people should be rewarded for their work. In my experience the place where you find all this is in private residential projects.”
About integrated planning
In the past Brenner dispensed with specialist planners and engineers, for time and budget reasons. Today his view is still the same, but the reasons are different.
“Building construction, interior design, specialist planning, including gardens – we do all this together, in very close dialog with the people carrying out the work. We even do bespoke manufactured pieces for the project in question. This kind of planning as a complete oeuvre works like this only in private residential construction, where the task is still manageable in size.”
Building today is “dogged by fear” says Alexander Brenner. He, however, wants to be innovative, to dare, and even to experiment. And then to take responsibility for that.
“As an architect, you have a great responsibility, because you create visible, physical structures that people live in. And it is important to accept that responsibility. I have never built a house that afterwards I was ashamed of.”
Architects don´t like to go to trade fairs, it is said. “And I thought that, too,” says Alexander Brenner. Until six years ago he gave BAU a go and found everything…
“…I was interested in and all those things that are difficult to research. In all areas. That is a dream for me. At the last BAU, for example, I discovered two facade firms I didn´t even know existed. BAU is now our most important source of information. We target specific exhibitors, but also pick up on many things at the exhibition that we did not know about and which inspire us to new ideas.”
This interview was conducted by BAU Press Spokesman Johannes Manger