Matthias Castorph (MC) in Conversation with Daniel Gethmann

© GAM.Lab, TU Graz

Matthias Castorph is Professor of Design in Consisting Structure and Architectural Heritage Protection at Graz University of Technology since September 1st, 2021. He studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich and was awarded his doctorate from TU Kaiserslautern. Castorph is also associate partner at Lehmann, Tabillion & Castorph Architektur Stadtplanung Gesellschaft mbH in Munich.

GAM: As a newly appointed Professor at the TU Graz but also as a practicing architect and designer: how would you describe your career path, from studying to leading a professional working life?

MC: I think it is actually two-pronged to this day. One thing is that as a student assistant to the Chair of Architectural Design and Conception, I wanted to teach too. After graduating, I was lucky that Andreas Hild, who already knew me from this chair at TU Munich and who was at the time a visiting professor at TU Kaiserlautern, took me with him to Kaiserlautern as an assistant. The other thing is that I have always been keen on really doing or making things, and not just teaching, because one should only teach what one has at least partly already done himself. That is how it came about that I started my first office in parallel to university teaching and later on, joined an existing office as partner. When you start working for an office that is a few years ahead of you, you can contribute to larger projects, that you could not have achieved all by yourself from scratch just like that. After working with Andreas Hild at the University in Kaiserslautern, which shaped me just as much as a postgraduate course does, I decided to pursue the title of a Regierungsbaumeister. The reason behind this was that we learned far too little about the significance of real-life situations during our studies; and also about the conditions of building or of architecture even.

GAM: What is the qualification of a Regierungsbaumeister?

MC: It is a formality which involves doing the preparatory services for the higher civil engineering administration. The requirements consist of professional training, working for building authorities, postgraduate studies and courses and finally passing the second state examination. You can then call yourself Regierungsbaumeister. Usually almost 100 percent of the graduates end up working for in-state building departments and planning authorities.

GAM: So after gaining insight into the administrative practice of planning, you find yourself today juggling between designing buildings and urban planning. Was this perspective shaped by your university research or by your office experience?

MC: I believe both, because to me, you cannot have one without the other. Making architecture, thinking about architecture and teaching architecture are related, but nonetheless are three different things. After I had finished my dissertation quite quickly and the excursion into administration was all done, I thought to myself, now I would like to go back to university. And that is when junior professorships were invented in Germany. I was amongst the first to apply for a position and had the opportunity to develop the general topic of my dissertation intensively for six years. The field of teaching and research back then was called bauteilorientierte Entwurfsprozesse (component-oriented design processes), and I dealt with different questions: How does component-logic work in design? What does this mean for cohesion or also for typologies? With these issues in mind, the question arose about context, and about the relationship between architecture and the city; and this ultimately led me to a deputy professorship for the Chair of Urban Art, which was to be filled at the time.

GAM: You completed your dissertation in 1999, with the wonderful title Gebäudetypologie als Basis für Qualifizierungssysteme (Building Typology as a Basis for Qualification Systems). It deals with exposed aggregate concrete and typological issues, amongst other things.

MC: (laughs) The subtitle is much longer! It goes: Grundlagen einer Theorie zu Gattungen und Typen, entwickelt anhand systematischer Untersuchungen von industriell gefertigten Waschbeton-Minimal-Baukörpern als Verwahrräume für Entsorgungsgüter in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1998/99 (Basics of a Theory on Genres and Types, developed on the Basis of Systematic Investigations of Industrially Manufactured Exposed Aggregate Concrete in Minimal Structures as Storage Rooms for Disposal Goods in the Federal Republic of Germany 1998/99).

GAM: Right, which is why the university library of Technical University of Munich also uses the keyword “garbage can” for the book!

MC: Yes, well, in addition to abstract typology research, what has always interested me is the everyday-life… the mundane and insignificant; the infra-ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary. My hypothesis was that it is possible to consider most of the typological questions, according to Kant’s distinction between the cognitive judgement and the aesthetic judgement, a matter of cognitive judgement. Then there was the idea of doing a model test. Similar to the way biologists research relatively simple organisms, I examined exposed aggregate concrete garbage cans, and not Gothic cathedrals or French castles. You see, the good thing about exposed aggregate concrete garbage can storage rooms is that they form a self-contained population for research that could be examined according to all immanent criteria. But actually, my dissertation was rather about the term “fluctuating type.” The objects with their properties are collected, unbiased, in a database and the respective types only arise at the moment of inquiry; in other words, only through the properties that it itself has. At the time, I was able to do this research with Ludger Hovestadt and Bernd Meyerspeer. After that, the six-year junior professorship was exactly what I needed, to do further research on this basis.

GAM: Now, you have spoken about your real interest in the infra-ordinary. In another publication you also use the term “normal buildings” or “normal city.” How do these terms differ from the ordinary, or from what goes unnoticed and doesn’t seem to raise any questions?

MC: The problem is that the concept of the normal, which I have used for a very long time now, no longer works with Corona, due to the inflationary use of the phrase “new normal.” Before, the terms “normal city” or “normal situation” were actually incredibly beautiful to me, back then when I was working on the booklet Veduten der Normalstadt (Imaginary Views of the Normal City), together with the sociologist Julian Müller. The approach is comparable to the way of thinking of Philipp Garnier’s Über die Lauheit (About Lukewarmness), where he writes that between the high points, as in between hot and cold, the lukewarmness is always in the middle, which is actually the ideal temperature for life. What interests me in this concept is not the average, but this central amplitude. In other words, normality, the ordinary, or the everyday-life, or whatever you want to call it, is how the city and architecture actually exist. A city, for example, needs the not-so-good areas just as much as it needs the fantastic ones; the same applies for architecture. On the one hand, there is this idea that an architect could or even should create an ideal world, which is simply illusory, because the hunt for precise ideals always leads to disappointment. On the other hand, in terms of my point of view, hardly any attempts were made in finding interest in the non-ideal and, as a result, in the non-interesting, which is the closest to “normal.” When it comes to cities, there is what I call the “normal city ideal,” that I would like to further explore.

Veduten der Normalstadt, Franz Schiermeier Verlag, Munich, 2015 © Matthias Castorph and Julian Müller

When you examine these questions aesthetically, I find that if you do not see the beautiful and the ugly as polar; in other words, when I see the extreme differences between the beautiful and the ugly in a circular model – then there is only a tiny gap between the extremely ugly and the most beautiful – and then you could actually take a leap and create a connection between these opposites, given you no longer think in polar categories. This is very similar to the realization that the earth is no longer a disk, but a sphere. Then you can set out on the discovery of the “sea route to India” and discover completely different and unexpected things in this gap––and this is the kind of research that interests me.

GAM: In other words, the discovery of the sea route in the everyday-life, isn’t it? But how can I really perceive everyday-life as something infra-ordinary and something exciting at the same time?

MC: Right, and how can I work with all this too? To that end, we launched a format for students a few years ago, which I called “Site Repair.” It is a design strategy in which you work with students on real issues, situations, and properties and try to make “amends.” And here again, it is an approach that deals with the failure of ideals in everyday-life. Because architects in their designs, usually formulate the “beautiful”, “innovative” and “perfect” as ideal goals and aspirations, and hope to be able to cure the deficiencies of everyday-life. However, the real site locations do not seem to always win with this design strategy, as the previously existing inadequacies often become apparent. In a figurative sense, this would be comparable to the situation, say if we were to place a “top model” next to a normal citizen, for example. Therefore, at “Site Repair” we want to rethink this common design process and conduct experimental workshops to investigate whether and how it is possible to formulate an “ideal” intervention that alters a real situation in a positive way. It is a procedure that claims the normal as an ideal and––without giving up the claim to quality–– consciously gets involved in the everyday context and its appearances. Attempts are made to isolate the necessary potentials from everyday reality, to name them as references and analogies, and to use and transform them in the design. For this purpose, the intervention should be as “minimally invasive” as possible and nevertheless transform the substance in such a way that an existing deficit, be it a matter of function and/or form, is eliminated without tension. To sum it up, “Site Repair” is an architectural process in which an operation is carried out, similar to a dentist or a traditional plastic surgeon, if for example a tooth gap is closed with an implant, or a human appearance is recreated through appropriate intervention––matching the “evolved” context. Whether a small single-piece is inserted, as a “denture” for example, or whether the real environment is reassessed using an affirmation-strategy, all depends on the specific location, the situation found there and the individual approach of the designer.

GAM: Last year you were appointed to the professorship for the Chair of Urban Art and Design at TU Kaiserslautern and now at TU Graz at the Institute of Design in Consisting Structure and Architectural Heritage Protection. What will the focus of your work at TU Graz be, with regard to “Design in Consisting Structure”?

MC: What interests me here in Graz––and that is what I like about the name of the institute–– is “designing” in consisting structure. Everyone is always talking about building on consisting structures, but according to me, building only comes towards the end. First comes thinking, then designing and then maybe building. To me, designing in consisting structures also means: designing under the influence of conditions. Again, if you think of it as a model: the conditions are on the outside and they can be economical, ecological, social, historical, etc., so everything that affects us, when we design. This of course also includes the built heritage and the built environment. When I design with the students within this framework, I have a very strong frame of reference, namely the consisting structure. Under its influence, new things arise in the design and construction that I can then refer to again in the design. This works best, if you first look at everything without prejudice, note it down, protocol it and then work with it individually and rationally. What we want to do when we come across a situation, is to learn to read it and to ask ourselves: what is this place telling me? This is the first step in how I deal with stories; and then the next thing is to ask: which means and tools do I have to then make a statement. Because ultimately, every design makes a statement because it consists of a decision-making process. To me, that is what defines “Design in Consisting Structure” and I was very fascinated by the fact that you could and should actually do it here in Graz––and that you have great scientific and didactic freedom throughout the organization of the institutes.

GAM: Which role do the other institutes play?

MC: It is about collaborating with others, who can contribute their input under the conditions of a design process in an interdisciplinary manner, such as technology researchers, or researchers of architectural theory, history, sociology or even of completely different disciplines.

GAM: How will all this apply to the teaching at the institute then?

MC: I will be giving lectures under the title “Eine Architekturgeschichte der Moderne und der Gegenwart” (A History of Contemporary Architecture). What I would like to do, however, is to link design history of the present with a design history of the past. For this purpose, I will bring objects from different times together and explain to the students how to read them in terms of design and abstraction, so that it becomes clear to them that, for example, the Parthenon, the National Gallery in Berlin or the Seagram Building, are astonishingly close to one another, in regard to the grid and the corner problem, for example. At best, it will become very clear, why it makes sense to look at old things with enthusiasm and to trace the background behind them. I hope that this way, the history of architecture will be viewed less as a history of persons but rather as a canon of buildings or designs that show certain issues that arise again and again during design, and that there are clearly timeless possibilities, tools, and design techniques available to deal with these issues.

GAM: You once mentioned that you consider looking back at the history of design and planning to be relevant for research, and that according to you it is absolutely worthwhile to re-edit pieces of work. You are the editor of Cornelius Gulitt’s Handbuch des Städtebaus (Handbook of Urban Development), and currently you are working on Theodor Fischer; and you have also re-edited Karl Henrici. These are architects from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who to you have a certain message. Are these ongoing projects perhaps something that you are bringing to Graz as well?

MC: Well, I think you always end up bringing things with you, whether you want to or not. But in any case, it is also about finishing a few things one started, which will hopefully bring one a step further. For example, next spring at the TU Graz, there will be a symposium on Theodor Fischer and the publication of a scientific edition of the Sechs Vorträge zur Stadtbaukunst (Six Lectures on Urban Design). The great thing about Fischer is that in his Sechs Vorträge zur Stadtbaukunst on approximately 90 pages, one gets an extremely smart introduction to almost all urban planning topics, for example how urban planning and architecture go hand in hand. Other great thinkers include Camillo Sitte and Karl Henrici, who are just as important as Fischer, even though the latter two were somewhat forgotten. We are interested in their timeless design tools, design controls, and a few more aspects that should be revisited. The interesting thing about Gurlitt is that shortly before 1920, also due to his knowledge that he would be overwhelmed by the modern age, he tried to summarize all of the 19th century knowledge of urban architecture one more time, because he probably suspected that soon enough nobody would want to talk about it. What I have observed is the loss of basic architectural knowledge in the 20th century, also caused by architects such as Gropius or Le Corbusier, who claimed that it was no longer needed, even though they had learned it extensively themselves. In my own office, I noticed that I was quite inspired by this “old” knowledge when designing contemporary architecture. And I believe that when you look ahead, you should definitely look back too. That may sound paradoxical today and for others even absurd, because I also deal with the forgotten insights of the turn of the century for modern designs.

GAM: That doesn’t sound absurd at all, not at all. I would like to go back to your pursuit of everyday-life or normality in architecture. Might this also become a research topic?

MC: When I deal with consisting structure, I find topics such as the outskirts, the shopping malls and so on, just as interesting as the old town, as a world cultural heritage site. And I would also like to work on consisting structures from the 20th century, that no longer exist or that will no longer exist in the near future. It is also about looking at everyday-buildings and types, such as the video store, the internet café, the sex-shop, the train station cinema––they are all gone. Probably the petrol station in its current form will also soon be gone. Many of these everyday-types are disappearing and are usually hardly documented. This is also the problem with monument protection, because ultimately only the last piece standing is placed under monument protection; but not because it is the best of its kind, but because it is still here. That is why I would urgently argue for a proactive approach.

GAM: Thank you for the interview.