Anne Femmer (AF) and Florian Summa (FS) in Conversation with Daniel Gethmann and Petra Eckhard (GAM)


Anne Femmer and Florian Summa have held the professorship for Integral Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture of Graz University of Technology since the winter semester of 2020. They have been running their joint practice SUMMACUMFEMMER in Leipzig since 2015. After studying at The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Anne Femmer worked for von Ballmoos Krucker Architekten in Zurich as well as de vylder vinck taillieu architecten in Belgium. Afterwards she returned to The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to work as an assistant for Christian Kerez and Jan de Vylder. Florian Summa worked in Zurich and London with Caruso St John Architects and then moved to join the Chair of Adam Caruso at The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Most recently both were visiting professors at the Technical University of Munich.

GAM: You founded your office in 2015. As a fairly young practice, how would you describe combining work at your office with your teaching commitments during the last five years? How do you manage that?

AF: We are both very lucky because we only do what we enjoy, and that is also combined with a strong sense of freedom. We know it is something to appreciate, as that freedom is almost a given as Europeans. Even before we set up our practice, we were able to study and work in all kinds of different places in Europe. Now we are based in Leipzig, but almost every week we take the train to other cities or even countries – such as to teach in Zurich, Munich or now Graz. We quite enjoy working on the train and sometimes you're surprised that you've already arrived after nine hours of traveling.

FS: It has never really been our goal to keep things separate in terms of the office, teaching, and everything in between. The boundaries tend to overlap, and you can be working for the university and your own office simultaneously. We also had our daughter a year ago, then there is the family to think about too. We have consciously decided to do everything on an equal footing: 50:50. There are no special allocations as to who does what, we are both involved in everything. We both teach, look after our daughter on consecutive days, go to various projects or to the construction sites. This also gives us a certain amount of security because we know that we can replace each other at any time – but of course, this takes a huge effort. Nevertheless, we want to fully utilise this concept and show others the possibilities that arise from it.

GAM: The 50:50 equality is a concept that generations before you have failed at, especially in the field of architecture. How can you "fully utilise", as you say, the programmatic idea behind this strict 50:50 division – what exactly is being utilised?

AF: It is actually all about the luxury of redundancy. Not only do we share, but we do a lot of things twice. Not only concerning us two, but actually in general. Perhaps this can be explained by our building project in Munich because we have been running that as a collaboration with our Belgian colleagues in Ghent. It was our first large construction project–– as was also the case with our Belgian counterparts––so the communication with the client was handled by me and the coordination of the consultants was done on the Belgian side. Drawings were created both in Leipzig and Ghent, discussions and arguments were held over WhatsApp––and every two weeks our two trains met at Munich Central Station for a briefing regarding the construction site. Of course, this has nothing to do with efficiency. Being efficient is no guarantee for the best results in architectural design, so why not give everyone their fair share of everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. After all, everyone wants to be there on site, and no one wants to deal with complaints! Therefore, everybody does a bit of everything.

FS: It seems to me that in the end, rather paradoxically, combining tasks is perhaps even efficient. With a screaming child at your side, you are already at 90 percent of your physical and emotional capacity. Therefore, the remaining 10 percent can be invested in a phone call to a yelling contractor on site. The mood is already low anyway, so that way you don't ruin two days. Or while teaching: For our job at the Technical University of Munich we have recently engaged a very good employee as an assistant. And to be honest, he has also looked after our daughter a few times. In the office, he deals with both competitions and construction management at the same time. Of course, that's where everything becomes blurred. On the other hand, everyone is very close to all aspects of the job and these aspects mutually enrich each other.

GAM: That sounds like a lot of work.

FS: That's why we prefer to work on a few projects rather than ten at once. Financially, of course, this often doesn't work at all. However, we have been able to balance our finances with other jobs, such as with positions at ETH Zurich, TU Munich, or now, TU Graz. Therefore, everything works out overall. We like the idea that the public money from the teaching salaries will ultimately flow back into built architecture, and that some of it will make this all possible in the first place. That is probably the horror of any architectural association that is concerned about the viability of the profession. Though quite honestly, good architecture requires so much time and energy that no client could possibly manage it themselves.

GAM: That is an interesting point. So it is by combining things that you make everything possible in the first place?

AF: Definitely. After all, the price of a theater ticket does not reflect the actual costs but was cross-subsidised. Large architectural offices may be able to handle this cross–subsidisation within their company with lucrative large-scale projects. We, on the other hand, tap into the universities––knowing that they will of course gain a lot from us in return. Funnily enough, this also leads to redistribution within Europe, because of course, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich can pay more than a German university. Metaphorically speaking, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has thus made it possible for us to have enough money left over to occupy ourselves with a small house in Saxony for almost two years, which is also great!


GAM: Since October 2020 you both have held professorships for Integral Architecture at Graz University of Technology. What does an integral architectural approach mean for you and how do you envision its implementation in teaching?

AF: Again, we believe in an interwoven, ramified, perhaps even chaotic approach, rather than a pure and clean one. For us, architecture is nothing autonomous. Even if architecture as a form can perhaps appear autonomous and we appreciate this a lot, architecture can never completely detach itself––or at least we are not particularly interested in such an isolated approach. What we are very interested in, however, are all the traces and paths that can ultimately become architecture and, conversely, all the ramifications that lead away from architecture.
For example, last semester at the TU Munich, we gave some books to the students. Not as part of a theory seminar but as a starting point for designing! What these books had in common was that they sketch quite provocative alternatives to our prevailing ways of life and society. One of these books was by Sophie Lewis, a queer feminist thinker who questions nothing less than the traditional image of the nuclear family. Why, Lewis asks, is genetic kinship recognised as the only sign of real kinship? The counter-question immediately arose: What does this have to do with architecture? A lot, we think, because the classic image of the nuclear family is also deeply ingrained in the minds of us architects. When we design for families, we think of the nuclear family. Though that is only one possible world, and not the only one that exists.

FS: Other students started designing with a book by Donna Haraway. Haraway combines anthropology, biology, and science fiction by speculating on new forms of kinship between the most diverse creatures on this planet. Admittedly challenging, even for master students. However, there are incredibly exciting moments in the book that are very close to architecture––even if the word architecture itself never appears. We see it as our task as architects to transfer this input into our discipline and to process it spatially and creatively. When we talk about sustainability, for example, it cannot always be about "protecting" nature or our environment. What is much more interesting and relevant is how things can merge, how we can come closer to each other, and what that looks like. For us, this is at the core of Donna Haraway's way of thinking. It is probably this poststructuralist thinking that we feel quite close to. Though in the end, of course, there are always foreign worlds into which we move. Perhaps our latent overconfidence and a certain degree of naive overestimation of our abilities help us to open these doors.

GAM: It is, therefore, important for you not to see teaching in architectural design as a closed discipline, but to integrate new input, such as from Donna Haraway. You then have to deal with such input in a relevant way, in order to avoid disappearing completely in the "Haraway cosmos", never to draw a line again.

AF: Of course, you can get lost in these foreign territories. However, we don't want to fully enter these worlds, but rather pay a visit for a short time as if on a journey. Then set off from there and connect aspects with our "known" worlds. That is the challenge in teaching. In essence, it also concerns the question of what students should learn at all in their architectural studies. Here we are quite clear: they should learn more about form, expression, and construction than about anthropology or sociology. For us, however, this does not exclude the possibility that they learn about form, expression, and construction through their study of anthropology and sociology––or vice versa. It is a bit like teaching English: there we don't just talk about English grammar, but using English, we talk about completely different kinds of things. Ideally, even chemistry classes are held in English.

FS: Of course, we demand a lot from the students. On the other hand, it is also a privilege in the training of architects that we can work very intensively with the students. We use the time so that the projects can become as independent as possible. Even if the starting points are the same, we are particularly interested in the outcome and unexpected paths a project can take. In Munich, this has led to very surprising results.

GAM: You teach several design courses here in Graz. Are you continuing the same way of teaching from your previous courses?

FS: Yes, we would like to venture further into foreign worlds as "outsiders" and see how these worlds influence architectural design. Every semester we enter a different world, which admittedly we don't always know much about either. In the winter semester of 2020, we're dealing with music––although neither Florian nor I have anything to do with it. The students do not design music halls or architecture as "frozen" music. We are interested in other paths, for example, the hallucinatory character of post-punk, the restless striving for symbolization in baroque oratorios, or the stubbornness in new music. The different musical worlds provide both associative spaces and strategies that we apply to architectural design.

AF: Let's see how things turn out in the end, it remains an experiment of course. Though already it has been a lot of fun to talk with the students about punk, Gordon Matta–Clark, and the possibility of "rude" architecture!

GAM: So it is important to you that students learn to work with a theoretical context and apply this context to architecture. What core competencies should students develop with these new topics?

AF: At the core, it is about one's way of thinking. Then again, it’s not just about thinking, there must be some action too. We want to motivate the students to do both. The universities will hopefully not train the architects so that they will later slavishly follow badly written competition briefs to produce barely acceptable forms. You already have a little more responsibility and perhaps you have to approach things from a different perspective. To do so, however, you have to have an idea of how many different paths can ultimately lead to architecture.

„San Riemo“, ARGE SUMMACUMFEMMER Büro Juliane Greb © Florian Summa

GAM: Looking at contemporary architecture, what do you think is especially important at the moment?

FS: For us, intensity is an important quality feature of architecture. When something is intense, it usually becomes interesting. Fullness can be intense, just like emptiness. Though we notice that sometimes it is no longer possible to be intense. Perhaps because the intensity is often linked to the extreme, the excessive, and is, therefore, quickly perceived as offensive, while consensus and compromise seem to be the ultimate goal. Nevertheless, we are bored by the murmuring lack of expression and are happy about any architecture that makes a statement!

GAM: In one of your theoretical essays, you work with the term "hauntology" and argue that architecture can also benefit from the spirits of the past and that you want to awaken these spirits and rethink them. What exactly do you gain from working with historical references?

AF: Architectural references are treasures. For us as well as for the students. We find it exciting how many different ways they can be made fruitful for designing. Of course, they provide formal, typological, or constructive points of reference. Though we are also interested in the "ideological" worlds behind these references. Some of them appear in retrospect as failed utopias – but can form really fail? Or can form only be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Then again, it would be worthwhile to look at even supposedly failed utopias critically but benevolently, and to give them a second chance. In our cooperative project in Munich, we have tried to revive such spirits––or spectres of the past in a new form. Among other things, the spectre of structuralism is allowed to dance through the floor plans once again...

FS: Many more spectres should be resurrected. The spectre of the baroque era is already knocking on the door very loudly, now that we have rationalised everything away and are not even allowed to make a cornice that protrudes two metres, because that would exceed the building line way too much. Though it can't always be the others' fault. We have to dare more. When I think of the Baroque, for example, I think of the omnipresent allegory, the figurative representation of an abstract concept. Anne, can't we do something like that?

AF: Of course. With Marx, the "resurrection" of spectres also has to do with “rebellion”. That in turn sounds like provocation. Though we are not entirely averse to that…

GAM: We are curious to see which of your "spectres" earns their second chance. Thank you very much for taking the time and talking to us today!

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