“A work of art does not wholly disappear with its physical dissolution. It persists as long as there are people to remember it; people to whom it is of significance even as a memory or as a concept”.
_ Leo Schmidt
The Wolf House, a modernist villa designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was located in Guben (Today’s Gubin) in Poland which was built in 1926, long before the Second World War. Sadly what remains today from the modernist brick and glass villa of Mies van der Rohe is only the foundation and the cellar buried underneath Park Waszkiewicza in Gubin, Poland. The only elements which connect the visitors to the long-lost villa are the pale information boards installed in a few points at the park.
Today, there are many debates around the reconstruction of the Wolf House. Unfortunately, there is little evidence left of the villa from the time it was standing; which makes it difficult and problematic to choose a complete reconstruction approach. On the other hand, nearly 70 years after its destruction, during the Second World War, the needs of the society have changed as well as the time/epoch. Mies, himslf, in his article, Architecture and Time, writes “architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space”. (Johnson, 1978: 191, Schmidt, 2001: 26) Later, in an interview in 1955, he emphasized that architecture is related to its civilization. (Puente, 2008: 35) Since 1977, the site of the Wolf House has been transformed into a park. Considering the size and the scale of the Wolf House, its complete reconstruction would transform the space into an artificial, meaningless, volume which could erase the long history of the site and the city itself or according to Schmidt, “rewrite history long after it happened”. (Schmidt, 2001: 68)
At the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, in the summer semester 2015, our group designed an open-area sculptural installation on the site of the former Wolf House, which can be used by the associated community for various means. The design is the outcome of the “Project Site Design: The Wolf House Revisited” given by Prof. Dr. phil. Leo Schmidt and Dipl.-Ing. Barbara Witt. This study project aimed at visualizing and highlighting the significance of the House by exploring its context including history, culture, transformation, etc. and developing innovative and artistic concepts for the future of the site. The results of the student projects will be exhibited to the public in Gubin on October 21st, 2015.
The site of the Wolf House has a long and important history. However, longer still, is the history of the city in which it resides; Gubin, formerly Guben. Officially, it was founded in 1235 as one large city called Guben. (Schmidt, 2001: 36) The city center was in the east end (east of the river Neisse) and the suburbs in the west end. (ibid.: 34) At the time, the city enjoyed prosperity due to its geographical location; it served as a meeting point within a medieval network of trade routes. (ibid.: 36) Eventually, the town grew and developed into a city worthy of its placement. The industry of textiles, machinery, and wood became the main attraction and economic resources of the area. By the nineteenth century, the area was a center for the fabrication of hats among all of Europe. (ibid.: 36) The city flourished. Then came the events of the Second World War, where Guben would go through a series of changes.
During the war, Guben became a center for steel weaponry construction. Furthermore, in 1945, it was the site of major battles between the Red Army and the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht). As a result, by the end of the war, the city was in a state of disarray. The eastern side, present day Gubin, was subjected to destructive fires that destroyed up to 90% of the area. (ibid.: 36) The remaining material was further deconstructed and moved to various other, larger, cities to be used for reconstruction purposes. (ibid.: 38)
The Polish army took charge of the area and, in a couple of months, approximately fourteen thousand residents were urged to relocate to the western side of the Neisse. On August 1st 1945, the split of the city, along the river Neisse, was announced. It was part of a group of many towns which had the river crossing through them; the Neisse was to be the new border between Germany and Poland. (ibid.: 38) Thus, the sister cities of Guben and Gubin were born. However, the relationship between both cities has been very inconsistent throughout time.
The border was, at first, completely closed. Then, in 1972, it was opened to all. Unfortunately, this did not last long. In the 1980s, Poland was under the Solidarnosc Movement and the German Democratic Republic put the border under tighter control; a passport or the necessary visa was required to cross. This lasted until the 1990s when the GDR fell and the border was once more free to cross; a result of the German-Polish Border Treaty of November 1990. Furthermore, a year later, both cities signed a Treaty of Friendship which allows for the present day, “sister cities”, situation. (ibid.: 38)
The Wolf family and their villa
The Wolf family was comprised of Mr. Erich Wolf, his wife Elisabet Wolf, and their five children. (Schmidt, 2001: 42) Ms. Wolf was the granddaughter of Carl Gottlob Wilke; the man in charge of the very famous felt hat industry of Guben. (ibid.: 36) As such, she inherited the wealth. Her husband, Mr. Wolf, was a wealthy man of his own merit; from the textile industry. Together, they formed a part of the wealthy elite of the city. They were able to afford such a grandiose villa for themselves, their children, and the help. When searching for an architect, Mr. Wolf considered Ludwig Mies van der Rohe based on the house he has previously designed for his friend Maximillian Kemper in 1919. Mies van der Rohe accepted the offer and from 1926 to 1927 designed and build the Wolf House. (ibid.: 42)
The Wolf House was the first of its kind. Mies van der Rohe was to become a legend in modernist architecture; the Wolf House was his first project in the style. The villa held typical features of any wealthy residence of the time except for the cellar. In this area there was a large strong room built especially to protect the countless valuable items which Mr. Wolf collected; these included paintings, china, sculpture, and other artefacts. (ibid.: 42) In spite of this, there was still furniture, especially built by Mies van der Rohe, to display some items on the first floor for visitors. The modernist style was very much enjoyed by the family, however, Ms. Wolf believed it was not soft or warm enough for a family home. Therefore, she insisted on planting many flower beds and wisterias (ibid.: 42) in order to give life and fluidity to a structure composed of straight lines and brick.
The family enjoyed the house for many years until, on the 13th of February 1945, the family fled their residence due to the oncoming war. The villa was affected in a similar way to the town; burned by fire, the entire inside was destroyed and only the villa frame was preserved. However, here as well, the remains were dismantled for construction use in other cities. (ibid.: 46)
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The well-known German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was one of the pioneers of the Modern Architecture movement. “By emphasizing open space and revealing the industrial materials used in construction, he helped define modern architecture”. (Mies van der Rohe Society, 2012) He advocated that the modern industry and technology should be the starting point of architecture. (Droste, 2014: 82)
Mies’ architecture is often referred to as expressive of its time. However, he is mostly known for his projects in the United States. According to Sandra Honey, his German architecture is widely ignored. (Honey, 1986: 11) Sandra Honey divides Mies’ architecture in Germany into three overlapping categories; “the first, an early neoclassical and vernacular period, covering all his pre-modern work; the second, a period for experiment and accomplishment, beginning with his glass skyscraper projects of the early twenties and ending with the Barcelona Pavilion; and the third, a period for thought and development, a return to classicism”. (ibid.) His Wolf House sits in the second category among his high modern works.
The Wolf House was among the four large luxurious modern villas that Mies designed between 1925 and 1930. He was the only German modern architect who used brick as the main construction material. (ibid.: 18) The landscape and the surrounding of the Wolf House became an extension of it which was settled by various means, such as; steps, terraces and walls. Here, in the Wolf House as well as other brick country house projects of Mies van der Rohe, his passion in integrating nature and its surroundings into his design was born. He was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Wolf House facade was “smooth and unarticulated – no fussy detailing, only the hint of a cornice” (ibid.: 56), another characteristic of his modern architecture design; less is more.
Present day situation
Today, there is nothing of the villa that remains on the surface. Small scale excavations in 2001 have proven that the cellar, in an undetermined state, still remains, buried in the earth. Above ground, the site was designed as a landscape park (Park Waszkiewicza). Bushes, bricks, and flower beds recall a floor plan inspired by the original Wolf House; benches and signs allow for park goers to sit, enjoy the atmosphere and learn a bit about the site history. Unfortunately, many signs are lost and the “floor plan” has many inaccuracies that are more destructive than enlightening. However, the park atmosphere is successful, the aesthetics are peaceful and remind us of the soft and warm feelings that Ms. Wolf wished for her home. Near the site, in the same park, there is a play structure for children and further on, a larger open area with benches and scattered trees were people enjoy walking through or playing fetch with their dogs.
The site can be accessed by three points, two from the east and one from the west. The access from the west is via a slope which curves up to the Wolf House site; an echo of the old drive up to the villa. This entrance comes off a road and is surrounded by a suburban area. It is on this side of the park where we find the children’s playground. On the eastern side, on either side of the terraces that once belonged to the Wolf family, are two paths of staircases. One is simply a narrow staircase from the street bellow leading up to the site. The other staircase is interrupted, midway, by a larger open area with seats along the hillside and a platform at the bottom resembling an ancient theater. The terraces are privately owned and are cut off from these staircases by concrete walls; at the top, there is a fence and tall bushes planted along it to provide privacy. These bushes also disrupt a rather fantastic view of the river Neisse and the sister city of Guben.
There is no one right method to undertake a research. Many circumstances affect the decision on which method can best be applied in certain situations. Since the design project is aimed at creating various interventions to be directly implemented on the site of the former Wolf House, and because the site has been transformed into a public park since about 38 years ago, we realized the importance of the community role in the outcome of our project.
Furthermore, Article 12 of the Burra Charter, (the charter which theoretically played an important role in our project), talks about participation; “Conservation, interpretation and management of a place should provide for the participation of people for whom the place has significant associations and meanings, or who have social, spiritual or cultural responsibilities for the place”. (Australia ICOMOS, 2013: 5)
Considering the extensive history of the post-World War ll, and the subsequent division of Guben/ Gubin, there is scarce information on the people’s associations with the place and their memories and desires for it. We were curious to find out if anyone remembers the Wolf House, if people feel associated to the architecture. We wanted to learn more about the geographical connections of people to Gubin, the use and the quality of space at Park Waszkiewicza, people’s memories and knowledge of the Wolf House, their vision and desires for the site, and to recognize its potential.
However, in our case, the language barrier and the time limitations were the two main factors that affected our research. Initially we planned to do interviews/distribute questionnaires among the citizens of both Guben and Gubin and the users of Park Waszkiewicza. We first drafted our questionnaire both in English and in German, then we realized the difficulty of communicating using those languages with the Polish speaking people of Gubin and the risk of not receiving any information.
Through one of our contacts, we came to know about the Friends of Gubin Association (Stowarzyszenie Przyjaciół Ziemi Gubińskiej) which is active in various cultural and political projects concerning Gubin; all members were born and raised in Gubin and in some ways were representing the people of Gubin. We seized the opportunity and distributed the questionnaire among the Association members and found interesting results which further were incorporated into our design.
According to the results, important aspects of Park Waszkiewicza are the view, location, culture, history, aesthetic and nature, and surprisingly most of them wished no extensive changes to be made to the site.
Concept and Design
Based on our research and observations, we envision a dynamic space which tries to connect the chain of historic, cultural, social and economic events together while symbolizing the timeline of the Wolf House’s life; its design process, its construction, its completion, destruction, demolition, and today’s situation, always keeping in mind the archaeological remains as its authentic physical fabric.
We also believe that the general essence of the park should be preserved. The area will remain a communal interaction point with a general open air quality; a cultural and recreational place where the people can meet up, relax, and learn; a landscape of cultural significance.
Therefore, to maintain the cultural significance of the site, we object to complete reconstruction of the villa, and aim a minimal intervention; however our project will be inspired by the volume, form and height of the original Wolf House. The solid walls will provide space for any temporary or permanent exhibitions. Our goal is to incorporate these structural elements, and greenery, in a form of abstract sculpture incorporated within part of the existing park. In this way, the visitors will be allowed a freedom in movement and a choice to learn from the installation or simply enjoy it as a relaxing, and aesthetically pleasing, work of art.
Our design is a solution to keep this section of Park Waszkiewicza green and open while displaying the importance that resides within it. The visitor receives a sense of the original villa; enough to allow its cultural significance to be shared, and yet still remains a park. Through the incorporation of the cellar archaeological remains, the visitor is intimately connected to the villa.
These archaeological remains are the main elements that have remained from the original structure. After the destruction of the house during the Second World War, there was only one positive outcome: the cellar was buried under the ground and no heavy structure was built on top of it. Thus, the ruins were kept intact under the ground. This fact adds to the cultural significance of the place and obliges us to always keeping in mind the conservation of the archaeological remains of the Wolf House while doing any interventions.
According to Michael Davis, dealing with ruins creates a whole different set of problems in comparison with historic buildings. According to him, the questions that might arise from such situations are “To what extent should the historic be compromised by the new? Can the new remain subservient to the old if the old is now in ruin and much is already lost?” (Davis, 2011) Accordingly, he expresses three issues which need to be considered before any interventions; building inside the ruin, building on the ruin and building over the ruin. (ibid.)
“Each excavation involves not only destruction but also begs the question of what will happen afterwards”. (Schmidt, 2008: 104) To construct our installation, we will need to fully excavate the area to allocate the original structure carefully. However, we will cover most of the remains once again and will construct our installation enclosing the original cellar walls inside the new walls. The original wall thickness is about 0.45m. Our construction thickness are 0.71m and 0.65m. The walls are to be installed in three different heights; 3m, 6m and 7.2 meters to resemble the three different heights of the Wolf House. In some parts the outer top layer of the archaeological structures will remain exposed. Hence, they will require adequate care and conservation against decay; perhaps by the addition of the new material as Schmidt suggests in his book. (ibid.)
The main material used in our design is corten steel which is a weathering steel that in our project appears in two forms; solid and mesh. The color has a high contrast with the original brick structure, and yet, is still in harmony with the original color. The corten material is also light and thin for construction which will have minimal impact on the original remains.
The mesh pattern is inspired by Mies’ design lines in his works. During daytime, the light passes through and creates beautiful inspiring patterns on the ground. During nightime, the lights which are installed inside the walls create a warm atmosphere. The parts of the plan where the mesh pattern is used are view points to the archaeological remains of the Wolf House cellar.
Our minimal sculptural staircase is one of the interesting aspects of our project. The space above the staircase allows the visitors to have a better view to the landscape surrounding and the city itself. The windows incorporated into our design are abstract viewing points allowing the visitors to recreate the experience of standing inside the villa and looking outside/inside. The solid walls will provide space for any temporary or permanent exhibitions.
The site will provide information through a dual system; working during the daytime and passed sunset. First, during the day, not only will the structure itself enlighten curious guests but also a series of artifact displays and interactive digital information panels and showcase windows. In the evening, lights and lasers will provide a way to view the original villa boundaries. Also, there will be a projector allowing short films to be viewed off the sculptural ‘walls’.
The site should remain an open space part of Park Waszkiewicza. Regular maintenance must be provided; especially during the months where snow or rain are abundant. Responsible specialist should ensure the structure remains safe to the visitors, especially the staircase.
In addition, upkeep is necessary on the green spaces. Specific plant species is not a requirement; however, we suggest a mix of colors to help create a sense of beauty and relaxation. Furthermore, the plants within the flower beds should not be able to reach heights that would obstruct the view of a standing average height adult. Finally, the bushes that partially recreate the original villa plan should be maintained in a proper manner that shall not falsify it.
Our project brings to the surface segments of the original villa cellar walls. Therefore, it is essential to provide the proper conservation techniques, and maintenance, to the site. This will require expert conservators and archaeologists.
To finalize, we recommend that further changes to Park Waszkiewicza respect the site of the Wolf House and ensure that its overall integrity is not lost. Signs and the outer walls of the site, at the park entrances should match the corten steel material of the site in order to preserve some continuity leading up to the site. Finally, if the city has the good fortune of acquiring the land where the original terraces are located, they should be incorporated within the design, following the same concept; so as to blend them as one, a true ode to the original property of Mr. Erich Wolf.
The Wolf House site is a place upon which the turning point in modernist villa architecture was first reached by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It is a staple of this particular architecture and an important piece in a legendary architects creations. Moreover, the chain of historic events and the urban transformation through all the years after the Wolf House construction reveals the challenges facing the site and its partial/complete reconstruction. It is important to remember that an architecture is beyond only a physical object. Once, the observer looks through the architecture and into the context, they realize the complexity of the subject and the cruciality of a design which respects all the tangible and intangible dimensions of such an architecture.
In our design process, we realized that the present day situation is bleak and does not do justice to the importance of the site and the structure which once stood atop it. Through our site design, we tried to fulfill the duty of bringing to life the cultural significance of such a site without recreating a copy of the original. More importantly, through our design we tried to convey this significance to those who will visit the site.
Emilie Urbanowicz graduated from the University of Ottawa in Canada with a Bachelors of Arts with Specialization in Classical Studies. Her interest is mainly conservation of heritage especially architecture with a focus on Greek and Roman.
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