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Career Case Study #13: Ludwig Leo

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  • Born: 1924 September 2
  • Architecture education:
    • 1954 Graduated from University of the Arts (Hochschule der Kunste), Berlin
  • Architecture career:
    • 1956 Opens own office
    • 1960–1964 Charlottenburg Sports Hall
    • 1967–1974 Umlauftank (a.k.a. Circulation Tank for the Research Institute of Hydraulic Engineering & Shipbuilding)
    • 1969–1971 Federal Teaching and Research Center of the German Life Rescue Society DLRG 
    • 1971 Bielefeld Labourschule (unbuilt)
    • 1973–1975 Landschulheim Boarding School (unbuilt)
  • Architecture teaching:
    • 1976-1982 Appointed Professor of Building Planning (with special experience in the fields of social buildings and schools) at his former University of the Arts
  • Died: 2012 November 1

I found one mention of Leo having enrolled in an engineering course and, since he graduated from the University of Arts when he was 30, it could have been anything from a foundation course to a first degree. In 1956, two years after graduating from the University of Arts, he opened an office (in his own apartment, one source says). It can’t have been easy being a communist in West Berlin in the 1950s so business must have been slow or nonexistent. His first recorded project is the 1960–1964 Charlottenburg Sports Hall. Over this period, Leo also did some work for Paul Baumgarten who he knew from the University of the Arts, and he have worked on Baumgarten’s 1957 Eternit Building or (more likely) any of his later projects such as the reconstruction of the Reichstag. Leo is also said to have worked for Wassili Luckhardt but the only building he might have been able to assist with was the 1959-66 Haus der Bremer Bürgerschaft (city assembly), in Bremen. We do however know that Leo was research assistant to Oswald Matthias Ungers at the Technical University of Berlin 1963-1967.

We tend to place too much importance of the time architects spend in the offices of architects more well known. It’s less a case of the CV shaping the architect, as it is the architect shaping the CV to suit the architect they wish to be. For the period 1963-1967 Unger’s only known built project was the 1959 Haus Ungers which was both his house and office. Ungers’ next known project is the German Architecture Museum he renovated the interior of 1979–1984 so business was slow for him too. Leo’s career is usually summed up by five four projects designed over the years 1960–1975, and is the case with the 2015 Architectural Association publication, Ludwig Leo Ausschnitt (p21 [and thank you Vincent for lending me your copy!]). However, the five projects are not presented in chronological order and while this doesn’t matter for any overview of Leo’s work, it does affect our perception of his career. The Ausschnitt of the title must mean “selections”.

1960–1964 Charlottenburg Sports Hall

Leo’s first documented project, the 1960–1964 Charlottenburg Sports Hall overlaps his time with Ungers by a year. This isn’t unusual as not all architects publish every project and not every project is worth publishing. However, this is an unlikely first project for a newly-formed practice of one. If it wasn’t a competition win, then it’d be interesting to know what led up to it. The lack of mention of a a structural engineer is also strange. Leo may have been inspired but Nervi but the structural design of a 52-m free-span reinforced concrete vaulted ribbed vault is another matter. The boundary between architecture credit and engineering credit is indeed blurry. Nevertheless, according to the accounts there are, it’s an accomplished and compactly-planned building that’s still being used, and is mentioned in histories of Berlin post-war architecture as showing a regard for all the good things such as planning, climate control, mechanical services and detailing.

1967–1974 Umlauftank (a.k.a. Circulation Tank for the Research Institute of Hydraulic Engineering & Shipbuilding)

The Umlauftank. It’s difficult to get a fix on Leo’s contribution beyond the pink and mauve colour scheme. Architectuul credits Leo with exposing the cavitation tunnel pipe instead of hiding it behind a facade but Jack Burnett-Stuart and Gregor Harbusch – two contributors to the book mentioned above – say the decision may well have been taken by Christian Boës, the shipbuilding engineer. Leo won the 1967 competition to be the Umluaftank’s (a.k.a. Circulation Tank 2) “artistic director” and this was also his last year with Ungers. Before going any further, I ought to mention that there are other vertical pump-driven circulation tanks in the world. The one at Krylov State Research Centre has a maximum speed of 13.0 m/s and a test section of 1.3 x 1.3 m which means it can be housed inside a regular building. 

Current thinking is to not use propelled water and instead, like Japan’s National Maritime Research Institute (NMRI), have a 400m long tank along which models are towed in a straight line at speeds of up to 54 km/h. This requires more land but I can see how it might use less energy, create less noise and be less prone to interference due to turbulence. It’s painted blue.

Leo is however credited with putting Boës’ circulation pipe on a concrete plinth (and thus presumably “elevating” it to art) but I can’t help thinking of those 3,500 metric tons of water pressing against the lower flanges of that pipe and thinking it might have been more of an engineering decision. I doubt the plinth and those struts supporting the pipe are decorative. Leo is also credited with the design of the “sculptural” and “monumental,” “mysterious” and “subtly anthropomorphic” testing hall that [brings] “the Umlauftank into dialogue with its urban context”. However, there are too few of Leo’s distinctive drawings to support his involvement for the testing hall exterior or for its strong and purposeful interior nobody seems interested in. Photographs exist, but I’ve yet to see plans. The dialogue Umlauftank has with the river as its source of water goes unremarked. We do know the water impellers were driven by two diesel engines and so the structure was always going to have a flue of some sort. However, engineering drawings show the diesel engines at the raised end of the “plinth” and exhausting directly upwards. So what do we make of the thing that looks like a smokestack (and is also a smoky grey colour)? Maybe it balances water pressure and/or air pressure. If so, then it might be mentioned in a 1970 paper by Engineer Boës and the roof may well be chamfered to reduce the stack’s height. If not, then it becomes mere artistic direction creating a whimsical composition. It’s not that the boundary between engineering and architecture is blurred, but that there’s not enough information to bring it into focus.

However, everyone credits Leo with the colour scheme. Kodachrome pink and mauve wasn’t such an unusual combination in the late 1960s when the future was either white or silver and Archigram was all assertive primaries. To us now however, it lent a sense of whimsy the new royal blue and hot pink combo lacks. One condition of art is that it tell us it’s meant to be considered as art and, as artistic director, Leo’s pink and mauve certainly did that. On that basis alone, it might be valid to call Leo the “architect” of Umlauftank. You might argue this depends upon how you think architects add value but nobody would be still talking about this building today if it looked like something Bernd and Hilla Becher might have photographed.

1969–1971 Federal Teaching and Research Center of the German Life Rescue Society DLRG 

This is the third and last of Leo’s built projects. It’s a clubhouse and boat storage shed arranged as an eleven-story building with boat storage along the inclined front and a range of activities tucked behind and under. It’s not clear why this configuration was necessary. It has been suggested that this was “to preserve the relationship between the street and the water” but the rest of the site is devoted to the parking of cars and boat trailers.

The drawings for this project are remarkable for their graphic quality that’s the product of someone who clearly enjoyed thinking about spaces and how they translated into drawings, and then buildings. The drawings are populated with people and, in the case of the one on the left below, show how the boats are removed from the lift and placed in the boat rack. The rightmost image of the swimming pool is similarly populated but doesn’t tell us how those people feel in such a constricted space despite the two skylights and one low window. The space doesn’t look enjoyable at all. I can think of more than one reason why it wasn’t built.

Many of Leo’s drawings are drawn freehand. Others such as the plan and section above are finely drafted. The large lettering is skillfully stenciled, something that was never easy. Other drawings have drawing numbers and dates stamped with an inkpad and ink. Some have lettering typed by an architectural typewriter! I’ve never seen one of these but, in the late 1970s I did hear about one from a friend who knew an intern in an office that had one. An architectural typewriter was a typewriter used for lettering. It was placed on the drawing board (above a locked parallel-motion unit, I imagine) and typed directly onto drawings. There was no carriage. The typewriter typed one character and then moved one character space to the right. It was manually moved down the drawing to type the next line. [Thanks Core77!] I only mention this to illustrate some of the drawing artistry Leo’s drawings embody. Leo gave his archive to the University of the Arts in 2008.

1971 Bielefeld Labourschule (unbuilt)

Apparently, Leo refused to sign the architectural contract for this 1971 project when various problems became apparent. Since his death in 2012, Leo is said to have been “uncompromising” but, in the world of architecture, this is sometimes be used as a euphemism for difficult to work with. He probably was. He drew most of his drawings himself, and all of them by hand. The impression is that assistants were mainly there to prompt his reflections on his ideas. He shunned publicity and, according to one anecdote from some time after Peter Cook had made public his admiration, Leo legged it upon learning Cook was wandering around the same museum. Despite Leo populating his drawings with people, he wasn’t a people person. Including people in sectional drawings shows he knew the scale of the spaces he was designing but, as with the unbuilt swimming pool, this doesn’t tell us if people would be happy using them. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into them..

1973–1975 Landschulheim Boarding School (unbuilt)

Leo participated in the limited competition for student accommodation additions to an existing building. The main idea is for rows of two-person living cells – which was a fashionable word in the 1970s. As with the swimming pool, there are thoughtful hand-drawn sections populated this time with somewhat louche students. It hardly matters now but space in student accommodation is in short supply and beds are often used as additional seating. Making them ladder-access reduces the number of ways these small rooms can be used. The project never went ahead for some reason we don’t know.

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Architecture abhors a vacuum. The problem with Ludwig Leo is that he did nothing to publicize his thoughts and processes. This is especially dangerous with such a unique and ambiguous building as Umlauftank because the void can be filled by anybody with something to say about their own design and/or publicity agenda.

“Leo’s formal hijinks and his deadpan approach to technology have historians still racking their brains trying to decide whether he was a rationalist, an organicist, a functionalist, a Postmodernist, a Constructivist, or a Structuralist.”

This list doesn’t even mention Peter Cook, Leon Krier, and Charles Jencks, all of whom had something to say. And what about me? The proportions of Umlauftnk’s elevated box look suspiciously golden, as do those of its supporting box, and the discontinuous cladding draws attention to both. Has no-one yet written a paper analyzing these surfaces for a:b = b:a+b? I’m not about to accuse Ludwig Leo of being a Neo-classicist. But nor am I going to claim him as a misfit. In the end, all we know is that Ludwig Leo designed five projects. The first three were built and the other two weren’t. It’s understandable if Leo turned to teaching in 1976 because of disillusionment with either the business or the profession but we just don’t know. We do know he retired six years later in 1982 because of ill health. A sixth project was an (unrealized) 1993 design for rebuilding the University of the Arts and there were some interviews in 2006. Apart from that, Leo career as an architect ended in 1976 twenty years after it began. Whether rightfully or disgracefully, we’re uncurious how Leo spent the thirty years before his death in 2012. For all we know, he may have been happy doing other things. Nobody’s telling us. With Leo, we take only the bits we want. Out of respect for Leo’s rejection of architectural discourse, this post is Career Case Study #13: Ludwig Leo.

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