Cookies disclaimer
Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device. I agree


Carson Chan

Reconsidering Ungers Brief Observations on a Legacy

92-Chan-2 Oswald Mathias Ungers, House Ungers 3 ("House Without Qualities"), Cologne 1994-1996

Oswald Mathias Ungers created one of the most influential oeuvres in postwar modern architecture, but his position is also difficult to pin down. In today’s perspective, Ungers’s principle of generating architectural forms from simultaneous conflict with and integration into existing contexts as well as his way of working with a basic morphological vocabulary are as appealing as they are enigmatic. In the “urban archipelago” and the “urban villa”, he proposed visions of promise for urban life and architecture that still await realization.

In retrospect, the summer schools held in West Berlin in 1976 and 1977 in connection with which these concepts were developed – participants included Rem Koolhaas and Hans Kollhoff – appear as primal scenes of our contemporary architecture. Carson Chan explores the question of whether and how the influence of Ungers’s ideas on today’s architectural practice and theory can be assessed.

Channeling Isaiah Berlin, British-American architect and pedagogue Colin Rowe saw the architectural psyche fall into two basic categories. Hedgehogs focus single-mindedly on reaching their goals, while foxes skip and jump from place to place, idea to idea. “Palladio is a hedgehog, Giulio Romano is a fox,” he said, adding that, “Wright is unequivocally a hedgehog, Lutyens is just as obviously a fox.” [1] Writing in 1978, Rowe (with Fred Koetter) saw modernists, with their unapologetic determination to mold the world to their vision, as hedgehogs. “Gropius, Mies, Hannes Meyer, Buckminster Fuller are clearly eminent hedgehogs, then where are the foxes whom we can enter into the same league?” If Rowe had longed for a fox to prance through and dirty the architectural utopias of his time, in 1968 he found such a beast in Oswald Mathias Ungers, and hired him from the Technical University in Berlin to lead Cornell’s architecture school the following year. Like Rowe, Ungers saw the city as a set of formal conditions that architects must understand the logic of in order to operate, and they both insisted on the importance of human and historical relevance these forms have. Rowe saw history as something to develop upon, where Ungers saw it through constant interpretation. Understanding the reciprocity between the city’s historical, social, and physical dimensions is a messy affair – answers do not come easily, analysis is time-consuming, and their results don’t arrive in the form of prescriptions. His teachings on architecture and the city are not easily disseminated bullet points; his designs and his name are dim in the public’s imagination. Yet those who know his work claim to see his presence persist today, five years after his passing.

92-chan-3 Isa Melsheimer, „Nr. 294“, 2012

Oswald Mathias Ungers was born in 1926 near Cologne, and like many other Germans of his generation, published accounts of his biography beginning after the war, when he entered architecture school in Karlsruhe in 1947. Germany then was both cowed and invigorated; it was a blank page, wiped clean, and an opportunity to start again. At a conference on town planning in 1945, the mayor of Stuttgart gave voice to this tentative optimism, proclaiming: “The catastrophe of wartime destruction gives our generation the unique opportunity for a complete renewal of town-building.” [2] For young Ungers, architecture and city building needed to be acts of intense sensitivity, care, and creativity. As if to prevent ever more violence done toward the city, architecture is not an imposition, but a “vital clash” that creates out of a given context, and its “creative function is to manifest the task by which it is confronted, to integrate itself into that which already exists, to accentuate and amplify its surroundings.” [3] Definitively, Ungers adds in a pamphlet he published in 1960 with Reinhard Gieselmann: “[architecture] always consists in the recognition of the genius loci out of which it grows.” The history of European architecture is rife with forms that have persisted – the loggia, pitched roof, portico, and so forth – and these would form the basis of a morphological vocabulary with which Ungers would design and teach architecture. Central is the idea that buildings exist in symbiosis with their surroundings in a morphological whole; that buildings are “cities within cities” containing the spatial genetics of urbanity; and that the history of architecture is best received as a relationship between forms, rather than functions. For Ungers, the urban context is a language and any new architectural expression must know intimately the native idioms and syntax. Rejecting Hans Scharoun’s Expressionism, as well as the dominant strains of postwar Functionalism manifesting itself across Europe and America, Ungers instead turned to Schinkel for lessons on translating tradition and the unimagined variations one could derive therein. In the woodlands around Wannsee, Schinkel’s Schlosspark Glienicke (1826) is a collection of disparate buildings and types held together in a picturesque landscape by the subjective logic of picturesque planning. Though it was designed, the fact that Schinkel didn’t impose an order to the arrangements of buildings produced, for Ungers, a self-renewing, reciprocal relationship between place and concept. The sylvan idyll of the park produced an architectural response, which in turn produced a new sylvan idyll, and so on. [4] Urbanism, in other words, is engaging in a productive relationship with the existing, not an accumulation of various architectural egos and wills.

92-chan-4 from: Oswald Mathias Ungers, Hans Kollhoff, Arthur Ovaska: The Urban Villa. A multi family dwelling type, Cologne 1977

But what is Ungers’s legacy, exactly? He is certainly not a household name today, and never was. Even for many of today’s architects and students, he is known mostly for the preponderance of squares and grids in his designs (Chan: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Ungers? Bjarke Ingels: Square grids). Cornell students in particular will know of the legendary disputes between him and Rowe (but not exactly wherefore), and students of other schools would recognize his diagrammatic plans of Berlin from urban planning classes, or else his rationally derived, black-and-white, cuboid axonometric drawings. His public built works like the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt (1984), the Contemporary Art Museum in Hamburg (1995), and the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (2001) are so contextual as to be experientially innocuous in their postmodern, geometrical ways – camouflaged; designed as if to recede from attention.

Not surprisingly, many Cornell professors see Ungers’s enduring legacy as a pedagogue from his time in Ithaca, rather than as an architect. On the strength of Ungers’s reputation, Rem Koolhaas and Hans Kollhoff, giants of today’s architecture world, went to Cornell in 1972 and 1976 respectively to work for, teach, and collaborate with him. From 1968, as the campus was erupting with student protests, until the end of the spring term in 1977, Ungers led students through strategies on transforming architectural forms; showed how extrapolating from the existing context is both a formal and social act; involved students on actual buildings competitions in Germany, and, as mentioned, fought – variously, publicly and vehemently – with Colin Rowe (almost immediately upon arrival). Most of all, he is known to have invigorated his students in their own architectural explorations. “I think that what is almost impossible for somebody who has not experienced it to understand is really what the essence of Ungers was,” Koolhaas explained. “It was not a way of thinking or any kind of method, but an unbelievably exhilarating presentation of his own way of thinking. It was almost an ecstasy on his part, and in this ecstasy you would be made constantly aware of how a small beginning could be manipulated through an endless series of variations, transformations, or new ideas projected onto it. It was really about being in the presence of a virtuoso of thinking – or even a virtuoso of intuition – perhaps intuition is a better word than thinking in his case.” [5] In other words, an audience with Ungers is seen as far more affecting than the ideas he imparts.

92-chan-5 Peter Riemann and Oswald Mathias Ungers: “Cities within the city”, analytical map of West-Berlin, 1977

One of Ungers’s most known concepts, the Green Archipelago, is only vaguely understood; its intellectual provenance remaining “hazy, even in the thinking of its most ardent advocates.” [6] The Green Archipelago – a strategy devised to conceptualize a future for urbanism in a divided and depopulated (West-)Berlin – was the result of a summer studio in 1977, conducted by Ungers, Koolhaas, Kollhoff, Peter Riemann and Arthur Ovaska. Radically, the idea was to resist urban renewal schemes popular in the 1970s, and accept depopulation as part of the modern European urban reality. In the Green Archipelago manifesto, Berlin was to turn into isolated islands of buildings surrounded by a sea of dense vegetation, as nature purges the city of its unused parts. As a result, the remaining fragments of the city would intensify in activity, creating a dialectical condition that he believes to be the true and healthy condition of the city. Already in the 1960s, Ungers’s projects exhibit his belief in the pluralist city, adopting Nicolas of Cusa’s concept of Coincidentia Oppositorum, which describes the generative power in the unity of opposites (Chan: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Ungers? Jürgen Mayer: Archipelago – survival of the special). A draft of the Green Archipelago was first typed up by Koolhaas before the summer, then self-published in September in a small, German-language pamphlet made by Ungers’s wife, Liselotte. Lotus International printed English and Italian translations of it in 1978, perhaps broadening the idea’s audience beyond the pamphlet’s circulation. It wasn’t until this year, 36 years later, when Florian Hertweck and Sébastien Marot published “The City in the City – Berlin: A Green Archipelago”, a concerted and scholarly study complete with interviews and facsimiles, that we have the means to understand the Green Archipelago with any depth.

Some observers have noticed a resurgent interest in Ungers. Marot has been seeing “urban archipelago” or “the archipelago city” pop up in architectural discourse in the past two decades. [7] Log – an architecture journal based in New York – published a conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist, Koolhaas, and Ungers in 2009, the same year the Cornell Journal of Architecture published its interview with Koolhaas on his relationship with Ungers. Berlin saw two exhibitions on the topic in 2012: Artist Isa Melsheimer’s “A Green Archipelago” at Esther Schipper gallery (June 2–July 28), and architect Arno Brandlhuber’s “Im Archipel,” exhibited jointly at the Neue Berliner Kunstverein and KOW gallery (September 8–November 4). Swiss theoretician André Bideau’s book-length contextualization of Ungers’s work in West Berlin and Frankfurt from 2011 has since spawned lectures, panels, and shorter articles, most recently in Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge (October 2013). “The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture” (2013), by Pier Vittorio Aureli, reads as a thoroughly researched, extended paean to Ungersian ideas (the first chapter is called “Toward the Archipelago”); and with its foregrounding of writing by architects, interest in the social history of architectural forms, and trademark black-and-white cuboid axonometric drawings, it’s not hard to see Ungers’s brand (sometimes called out by name) throughout the pages of three-year old San Rocco magazine. In conversation, architect and writer Thibaut de Ruyter opined that Ungers was “the last experimental thinker, last ‘crazy-guy’ in Germany,” and that we need him now because the “architecture machine in Germany has become so boring.”

92-chan-6 Oswald Mathias Ungers, project for housing development, Ritterstraße Marburg, 1976

Some others have suggested that the appearance of restrained, boxy geometries in the work of young firms like Office KGDVS or Johnston Marklee (none of whose principals studied with Ungers), were inspired directly by Ungers. Certainly, restrained, boxy geometries were not historically the sole remit of Ungers (Aldo Rossi, Ludwig Hilberseimer, traditional Greek houses, and so on). This would also assume that Ungers’s inspiration was only a visual one and that his lessons on urban morphology – formal, architectural variation based on an understanding of a site’s physical and historical context – have gone ignored. Indeed, Kersten Geers (of Office KGVDS) sees Ungers’s strength as that of a non-designer; as a provocateur of architectural thought. “The best of Ungers’s architectural work does not involve design; it only organizes what was already there.” In fact, Geers sees Ungers’s buildings as a downfall in his intellectual œuvre, one that he “avoided in the mid-1970s, for none of his projects [then] were actually executed.” [8]

Perhaps, as Marot claims in his new book, the Green Archipelago will act as a tonic, an alternative mode of urbanism, to the negative effects of urban growth philosophies that still plague our cities. Or that some of the squares and grids of his designs, one way or another, did in fact find their way into today’s built world. Most certainly, the permanent, intellectual mark he left on a whole generation of students is undeniable; his most eminent ones would have propelled his passion down through history in their own teaching and practices. Recalling Cornell, Koolhaas still remembers that Ungers’s “seminars, a weekly bombardment of slides, connections, intuitions, flashbacks, guesses, presented with almost organic drive, left students panting.” [9] Koolhaas’s firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architects), is named as an homage to OMU (by his own admission, Koolhaas is a hedgehog masquerading as a fox). So then what of Ungers’s legacy? Would he even want a legacy? Probably – but for someone who impressed upon his students the importance of constantly interpreting history as a strategy for creation, one can certainly make the case that legacy building would be overstepping present matters.


[1]Colin Rowe/Fred Koetter, Collage City, Cambridge, Mass. 1984, p. 93.
[2]As quoted by Léon Krier, “An Architecture of Desire”, in: Albert Speer. Architecture, 1932–1942, New York 2013, p. 218.
[3]Oswald Ungers/Reinhard Gieselmann, “Zu einer neuen Architektur” (p. 196), as quoted in: The City in the City/Berlin. A Green Archipelago, ed. by F. Hertweck/S. Marot, Zurich 2013, p. 25.
[4]Wilfried Kuehn, “Die Stadt als Sammlung”, ed. by Andres Lepik, O. M. Ungers. Kosmos der Architekturs, Ostfildern 2007, p. 81.
[5]Jeremy Alain Siegel/Melissa Constantine/Matt Eshleman/Steven Zambrano Cascante, “OMA re: OMU – Interview with Rem Koolhaas on Oswald Mathias Ungers”, in: Cornell Journal of Architecture, 8, Ithaca 2009.
[6]Sébastien Marot, “Relaunch”, in: The City in the City/Berlin, op. cit., p. 6.
[8]Kersten Geers, “Method as Form”, in: San Rocco, 5, 2012, p. 146.
[9]Rem Koolhaas, “But Most of All, Ungers”. Berlin Stories, reprinted in: The City in the City/Berlin, op. cit., p. 44.