“How can we build elastically?”

“How can we build elastically?”

How do we want to live? This is the question posed by IBA’27, the International Building Exhibition to be held in Stuttgart and the surrounding region – in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Until 2027, this exhibition will look for answers to how cities, villages and settlements in the highly industrialized metropolitan region of Stuttgart can meet social, technological and ecological change. Above all, the aim is to rethink, perhaps even reinvent, an urban region and to develop a new definition of city and region. Is city the same as region, region the same as city? We talked to the artistic director of IBA’27, Andreas Hofer, about cultural images, accelerators of transformation, the legacy of modernity and why places on the edge, places of transition, of being in-between are precisely spaces of the future.

Interview: Anja Koller


Dear Mr. Hofer, you are the artistic director of IBA’27, before that you worked as an architect for the Swiss architectural firm Archipel. The website of the office displays a quote that caught my attention: “For us, the city is a living space that is constantly transformed by changing needs, political demands, economic processes and cultural images.” So my first question is rather obvious: What are the current needs, political demands, economic processes, and cultural images mentioned in the quote? What is changing our cities at this time?

We are in a process of social transformation. Right now, everyone talks about coronavirus – and that has reconfigured other debates. But what we’re experiencing at the moment is a process that has been a long time coming, and it has a lot to do with social change in the private sphere. Many images shaping today’s urban planning are still predicated on a nuclear family that lives in an apartment or a house on the outskirts of town all their lives. But this assumption no longer matches the reality of most people, in fact it has even become a minority project, for our private lives nowadays are made up of highly different, diverse and alternating phases. To these, we as planners also have to find answers. The other aspect, of course, are work environments.. In the Stuttgart region in particular, both the product and the mode of production are changing – for example through digitalization, through robotized manufacturing and new mobility concepts – as is the view of the world of work. And as a result, we are experiencing a fundamental transformation that is already changing our cities.

Corona certainly has acted as a transformation accelerator…

Yes, the pandemic has, as it were, struck right across all of our lives and placed under a magnifying glass issues that had been smoldering and burning for some time.

The pandemic has also exacerbated other imbalances and problems, has made them more visible. It holds up a mirror to society, whether relating to environmental destruction, climate change, housing demands, the lack of resources or the social division of society. Inevitably, one asks oneself: What does our future actually look like? After all, IBA’27 also stands for questions such as “How do we want to live?”, “What kind of dwellings do we want to inhabit?”, “How do we want to work?”, “How do we want to move from A to B?”, “How do we want to build?” How radically, Mr. Hofer, do you plan or will you be able to deal with these questions, and the approaches they entail, over the course of IBA’27?

Starting from the conflicts and challenges of the time in which we live, our ambition is to depict what a just, livable city of the future might look like. However, as regards the promise of modernism that architecture can make the city healthier, more democratic, more permeable for all – I would be rather careful with respect to such a claims. I don’t think architecture can heal humanity, in fact architecture inflicts a lot of damage on humanity right now. The building industry is one of the biggest consumers of resources, one of the biggest consumers of energy in operation, and one of the biggest producers of waste. We need to address these issues if we don’t want architecture to be an environmental burden. While I’m not the kind of architect who is primarily concerned about aesthetics, I would like to talk about houses again and not always just about mobility, social transformation and economic processes. That’s why I said right at the beginning: let’s do the IBA and demonstrate in the architecture, in the built projects, what answers we can find to social questions. For when we talk about architecture, we feel that things are connected, whereas when I talk about houses, I also have to talk about how they are used and about the values of society towards these houses. And you have to make lay people understand that as well. After all, people talk about the problems and challenges that affect them personally. Translating that into architectural language is the task of us professionals. I see this as the central theme of an IBA, namely to develop new forms of settlement and spatial configurations based on social needs.

Aerial of the city of Winnenden in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Photo: Benjamin Beytekin
"Winnenden productive urban neighbourhood": Architects JOTT architecture and urbanism from Frankfurt/ Main have won the open urban planning competition by Winnenden municipal authorities and Internationale Bauausstellung 2027 StadtRegion Stuttgart (IBA’27). The design for a productive and liveable urban neighbourhood for the future mixes areas for industry, business, housing and leisure in new high-density urban building blocks that are embedded in generous shared open spaces. Image: JOTT architecture & urbanism GbR

What does that mean specifically related to IBA’27: What are the needs here? What drives Stuttgart, what drives the region? You see Stuttgart and its region as an urban space – the region is the city, the city is the region. What does that mean exactly? Where do you start?

Urbanization is a global phenomenon – and with it comes a dissolution of urban boundaries. For a very long time, this was discussed in a very negative way, in terms of urban sprawl, agglomeration, in-between city…. Everything that is not properly brought into the city is relocated to the outside – a planning practice that engenders traffic, which in turn frequently produces bad architecture. I’m thinking of the commercial boxes, the faceless logistics centers that we see standing around in so many places. I am convinced we have to change our view of precisely these spaces, we have to comprehend these margins, which are not very urban as we know them, more and more as the future urban space. And Stuttgart, the Stuttgart region, has a very specific role to play here.

What would that role be?

The Stuttgart region has a polycentric structure – in contrast to Paris or Munich, which are metropolitan regions with a single definite center and whose density continues to decrease outward, with residential neighborhoods on the outskirts. The Stuttgart region, on the other hand, is a kind of network with very self-confident, medium-sized, mixed and socially diverse cities. Esslingen, Ludwigsburg, Böblingen, Göppingen: many of these medium-sized cities are productive centers in their own right. One finds branches of global companies in these towns as well as many medium-sized businesses; there is a substantial cultural and urban life, people commute to these medium-sized cities – so we actually have something like a productive space across the entire region. However, as already noted, our images of work, of production, of products are currently changing radically and at great speed; figuratively speaking, it is as if the region was hit by a storm. Our thesis is: the region will weather this storm better if one thinks city and region together, if the two are defined together as one urban space. It means to replace the old rural versus urban debate, which in my eyes in this area no longer makes any sense at all. The countryside comes partly to the city, the city goes to the countryside. These are different types of spaces, obviously, and they must unfold their different characters, yet something like an idea of a new city could emerge. In my view, the Stuttgart region is one of the most exciting places in the world to have this discussion.

Mr. Hofer, I read in an article you wrote that you want to gain insights, in the context of the IBA, by looking back from the future, as it were, to the year 2027. What do you see there?

Let me briefly elaborate: Anyone who deals with architecture knows that houses are the most durable products, artifacts, we humans produce. I myself am sitting here in a house that was built in 1906. It’s almost impossible to imagine how people back then were able to create a shell, a vessel, that is still usable, beautiful, part of the city today. The question of durability arises fundamentally when we talk about architecture. Our children’s world will be very different from the one we live in today – I’m thinking of climate change, of the way we shape our everyday lives. This puts a completely different spin on the task of architecture. We can’t really ask anymore what we’re building something for. We can only ask: How can we build elastically – the word resilience is also being bandied about in many conversations – how can we build elastically and produce open structures so that the architectures created are suitable for as many possible future worlds as possible? This is again the very opposite of what modernism tried to do. Modernism analyzed society, broke it up, divided it down into different functions, and then assigned them to different spaces. A factory here, a residential district there, shopping in yet another place. Everything was analyzed and perfectly tailored to function. Right down to the kitchen, where the housewife’s work processes were scientifically analyzed and the kitchen was turned into a machine. Something like that most likely won’t be an option anymore today, because we need structures that provide much more openness, much more transparency, much more elasticity.

Aerial view of the IBA'27 project area of Fellbach where agriculture meets manufacturing: In the western part of the town of Fellbach, two urban production locations are situated directly adjacent to each other. Photo: City of Fellbach / Niessner Design
“The Fellbach IBA’27 Project is concerned with the core questions around the ‘productive city’, which is one of the main topics of the IBA”, explains IBA’27 Director Andreas Hofer. “How can purely industrial areas be transformed into liveable urban spaces? Image: City of Fellbach / Niessner Design

You once said, “We can bring back together the things that modernity has brought apart.” Is that the big task lying ahead?

I think it is. I’ve been confronted from time to time in conversations lately almost with a kind of reproach: “You want to make everything the same. One cannot speak of quality if working doesn’t look different from living. You want to impose something like a uniform imprint on the entire region.” But I mean just the opposite. I am convinced that out of this history that we’ve experienced as a society over the last 150 years, out of the artifacts that this history has produced, we have to create a new space, but one that has a lot to do with respect for that history. This implies that new boundaries will be drawn and new fractures created. But fundamentally, the picture will be much more open, permeable and diverse.

The functional separation championed by modernity, work, life, leisure – everything occurring in different places… This reality of life was only possible because of the car-centered city. Today we see this critically – mobility is changing, has to change. What is IBA’27’s position on this?

We are having a bit of a hard time with this topic. There are a lot of emotions attached to it, personal stories, among them stories of successful integration, of prosperity. As soon as you start thinking fundamentally about new forms of mobility, you immediately arouse enormous fears of loss. This is probably also the reason why people have struggled with new ideas and concepts for so long – especially here in this region. At the same time the issues that come with this topic have descended upon the region like a tidal wave. We as the IBA cannot and do not want to be active in all areas and offer solutions. However, we do ask: Is there such a thing as a spatial imprint of possible new systems? We are concerned with the places of mobility, for example. What might a train station look like that has a new meaning in a new transportation system? That’s where we try to take the “B” in IBA seriously, building. How can we create urban structures that are no longer conceived and designed from the perspective of the car, but with more diverse forms of mobility in mind?

This brings us back to good architecture. With it, you can also strengthen urban structures at a regional scale…

That’s right, it also has a lot to do with beauty. I think in the urban versus rural discussion, between the lines you often hear something like: “The cathedral, the opera house, we have to make an effort there.” That is considered important architecture. Historically, we have distinguished between architecture with a capital “A” and with a small “a”. And those buildings with a small “a” simply fulfill their function. For me, the IBA is primarily about a building culture initiative, about an appreciation of all spaces. About the big “A” across the region and in everyday life. Especially here in the Stuttgart region with its strong village structures, which have been able to maintain their intensive qualities for centuries – yet these areas have lost a lot of these qualities in the last seventy years. I am not romantic about this. But I believe that these spaces must regain their diversity, their density, including their social density, and their beauty. Ultimately, it is a democratization of the concept of beauty that lies behind this debate. And an appreciation of the wide variety of forms of life and their different spatial manifestations.

Mr. Hofer, an especially interesting aspect of IBA’27 is that it focuses on extremely diverse spaces and rethinks them – agricultural areas, commercial zones, disused industrial areas, the Neckar River, which is there, but not really accessible to people due to industrial use. Furthermore, the exhibition is about places of movement like train stations and park & ride facilities, it’s about dying city centers, large suburban estates from the 1960s and 70s. In other words, it’s concerned with fringes, places of transition, of being in-between, places at the border, marginal zones….

These fringes you speak of are actually the material from which we can create the future. They are spaces that can be changed, that can be rethought. You mentioned the different kinds of spaces and typologies. Large 1960s or 70s housing estates, for example, are now reaching an age where we can fundamentally rethink them, in many cases have to do so. Often for technical reasons. We have to make them fit for the future, we have to understand these building blocks of different materials, complement them, partially transform them, place them in a new relationship. And above all, we have to look very consciously at the spaces in between. Fringes are like a border where two systems meet. Like a fine-grained web that runs through the region. I’m also thinking of social fringes. Re-thinking cities at these intersections creates new opportunities on both sides of the system. The commercial zone may be endowed with residential functions and qualities; the residential area in turn takes on urban, central functions of meeting, community, and working. The strategy should be to create new relationships here.

On the urban fringe: Aerial view of the fringes of the city of Winnenden in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany. Photo: Benjamin Beytekin

Lastly, I would like to address a concrete example of IBA’27, namely the theme of the productive city, which is of particular interest to this building exhibition.

Let’s take Fellbach, a municipality that borders directly on Stuttgart. An attempt has been made to separate the two cities through a green corridor – on one side the light rail runs across fields and on the other side of the road is the city’s largest commercial zone. The farmers who cultivate the land on one side, have naturally noticed that a farm store or an event location also does well here; economically these are propitious additional functions in this area, which despite everything is already highly urbanized. That means pressure from all sides. The marked area of the commercial zone is of enormous size, with single-story commercial buildings and box stores, parking lots – on the whole a poorly utilized area with low urban quality. At the same time, the entire 100-hectare area is part of the city of Fellbach, which lacks not only commercial space, but also open and green space. On Sundays, people take walks on agricultural land, which leads to conflicts at times. The city now wants to rethink all this while considering the various contexts. Can’t the commercial buildings be multi-story? Are there spaces where new housing could be built? Can the waste heat from the industry be used for the greenhouses across the street? More attractive environmental qualities would also be valuable for the people who work in the commercial zone. These qualities would then also benefit people on their weekend excursions. I’m thinking of shade, of pleasant areas to spend time in, of water. And we want to work with farmers to develop a perspective for intensive agriculture directly in the city, not least to comprehend them as part of an urban society. If we rethink such places, which until now have been seen as non-places, as non-parts of the city, in this manner, a kind of inversion could result. In other words, from the fringes, from the marginal zones and empty spaces, a new type of city could emerge. And such a city can and must look different.


Andreas Hofer, artistic director of IBA’27, the International Building Exhibition in the city region of Stuttgart. Andreas Hofer was born in Lucerne, Switzerland. He studied architecture at the Swiss Institute for Technology in Zurich. In 2018 he was elected as the artistic director and CEO of the International Building Exhibition in the city region of Stuttgart (IBA’27). Prior to that, he was partner in the planning and architectural office Archipel in Zurich. Andreas Hofer writes regularly about city development and housing issues, is a member in juries of architectural competitions and lectures at different universities.

Photo: Sven Weber

This interview was published in the 114 issue of topos – The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. topos 114 – which is about the main topic “fringes” – explores that which lies at the edges, that which is located in the transition between two systems; that which sets a mark, but which also merges fluidly or even in fragile ways from one element into the other while still being able to accommodate one or more centres within it. Get more information and a copy of the magazine here.