30 July 2010

Günter Behnisch, German modernist architect, 1922–2010

The architect who gave post-War Germany a new face, Günther Behnisch, passed away in July at the age of 88. 

His radical modern designs, including the Munich Olympic Stadium, marked a departure from the bombastic architecture of the Nazi era and shaped the face of the new German democracy.

The world gazed at Behnisch's work on August 26, 1972 with the opening of the Munich Olympic Games. The stadium he designed at the age of 50 was an icon – a perfect symbol for the new, democratic Germany (He designed the Olympic park together with the architect Frei Otto and the landscape planner Günther Grzimek).

Olympic Park and Stadium, Munich

The open, undulating tent roof that seems so light, so weightless, reaches well beyond the actual stadium. The magically woven, transparent carpet, 75,000 square metres in size, rests gently on the Olympic Park and sent a powerful message: A democratic, open country is welcoming the nations of the world. It was an attempt to distinguish West Germany from the bombastic architecture of the Nazi era when Berlin had hosted the 1936 Olympics.

Behnisch, who was born in 1922 and who became a submarine commander in WWII, took an interest in architecture when he picked up a book on the subject in a hotel in the Italian port of La Spezia. "It was about how you construct buildings. The war was over and I had to do something for a living," he recalled. He became a prisoner of war; the British released him in 1947. After that he studied architecture in Stuttgart. He opened an office in 1952 and quickly gained kudos for designing school buildings and sports halls.

In 1973, Behnisch was awarded the coveted task of designing the new parliament in the then-West German capital, Bonn, but the project dragged on for an eternity. He only got the green light in 1987 for a modified version, and in 1992, his parliament building was finally opened. But Germany was reunited by then, and the Parliament moved to Berlin at the end of the 1990s.
Plenary Hall, Bonn (1991 - 1992)

Focusing more on public buildings than residences – his website lists only nine residential projects – many other of his designs were highly regarded, but much less in the limelight than the Olympic Stadium or the Plenary Hall:
Tower of the Nürnberg Airport (1997-1999)

NordLB bank in Hannover (1999-2002)

Therme Bad Aibling (hot mineral springs), in Bad Aibling outside of Munich (which my wife and I visited in winter 2008, swimming from the inside to the outside on a crisp and clear winter night – incredible!)

Buchheim-Museum, Bernied (1997 - 2001) located on Starnberg Lake outside of Munich, dedicated to the Buchheim art (as well as knick-knack) collection. The structure, just down the road from my wife’s and my Bavarian base camp, resembles a ship, jutting at a 90° angle towards and over the lake.

The Berlin Academy of the Arts was his last spectacular project, but also rightly criticized for design faults such as excessive noise and not enough space.

Berlin planning department officials had been horrified by his plan for a high-tech glass façade. "Why not?" said Behnisch the modernist. "I never even thought of putting a stone façade there. We didn't want to awaken any associations with the pretentiousness of the Hitler and Wilhelminian architecture." 

He deeply disliked the new style of the Berlin republic and of its architecture. He regarded historical copies as the architecture of security that served a petit-bourgeois yearning for comfort at a time when bold new visions were needed. "If someone needs comfort, they should get a cat," he once said laconically.

Günter Behnisch died on 12 July 2010 in his home in Stuttgart, Germany.

Excerpted from and based on an article in the Der Spiegel, published 7/13/2010 


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