Illegal's Not so Bad

Sarah Wilson

Illegal's Not so Bad
An example of why having a lot of gall can be a good thing.

                It took two years of negotiations before construction could begin on Manuel Herz’s apartment building in Cologne. It wasn’t a matter of meeting regulations—quite the opposite. Herz flatly refused to obey them, and not simply for the purpose of defiance alone. Herz’s eventual victory in the construction of his ‘illegal’ building achieved liberation for architects everywhere.
       The dual name Herz gave to his building “Legal Illegal” refers to the two divisions to its form.  The first section on the bottom floor is the ‘legal’ part of the building, confining itself calmly inside the gap provided by the two buildings that flank it. This volume is clearly defined and, as if not to distract from its neighbors, is transparent and orthogonal.  As a ‘legal’ volume, it adheres to all building laws, regulations, norms, and rules, even going so far as to terrace itself in the back in order to not cover the whole site, as the development plan dictated.

         A few stair landings up, and the character of the space changes completely.  Far from being straightforward, the ambiguous angles and faceted surfaces create a strangely shaped space that pokes out from between the neighboring buildings. The exterior has a defiant, fire-engine red materiality that blatantly calls for attention. Harnessing sunlight through windows that jab out cheekily, the interior lights up to display bright white walls that move and bend as a reflection of the paunchy exterior.  The illegality of this volume comes in a few forms. First, the compiled square-meters enclosed within exceeds the maximum floor space the German urban masterplan allows. Second, each piece of the faceted surface on the exterior casts a shadow onto the neighboring sites, which is also prohibited in German planning law. The volume extends over the municipal building line and, as it that weren’t enough, over the historical moment (the gate) in front of it as well. This overall disregard for building codes earned this second level the title ‘illegal’.

     As a realized piece of architecture, this building became not only a symbol of defiance for architects, but a symbol of spirit for the people. Important to note is the calculation of Herz’s flouting; it had purpose. It was not a gag flung willy-nilly into the face of law, but a design whose carefully planned surfaces and jutting facades spoke volumes of the state of affairs in construction. The upwards transition from reserved confinement to unbridled freedom referenced the German building regulations that had become too greatly controlled and the need to break free from them.  “Legal Illegal” expressed Herz’s belief that such systemized control of public construction was causing more harm than good, and that a wider margin for creativity, not confinement, was needed. This sort of expression is a physical dose of the human condition. While we find some comfort in norm and regularity, there is an intrinsic need for individuality and, occasionally, an inherent trend towards resisting authority.  The victory of “Legal Illegal’s” construction after a two-year battle was won for both the architecture community and the populace they served; Germany has likely not seen the last of such creative cheek.

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