Berlin – Nestled between a handsome collection of hipster bicycles stands a colossal iron structure. This unfathomably heavy historical landmark is adorned with larger-than-life wheels and a sheet-metal bending machine from the industrial age. A few steps up, in the model building shop on the mezzanine floor, the operation is still up and running—machines hum along, bundling, folding, and forming directly adjacent to a glass box encasing a digital milling machine, laser cutters, and other mysterious high-tech tools. A scattering of people are seated at computers in the bright airy lofts above. A concentrated silence permeates the rooms, bathed in light cast by the classic Norwegian Luxo lamps designed by Jac Jacobsen. The juxtaposition woven between these three levels offers a glimpse into a world of internationally celebrated architecture created in this backyard in Charlottenburg. It is here that Barkow Leibinger have opened a space in which to create their work.
‘Our work flow is a dialectic of doing and thinking. A constant back and forth,’ explained Frank Barkow. ‘You can intellectualize the process, of course the concept is important, but at its core, it’s about the material. It’s about experimenting with old and new tools and with the form itself. The concept comes with the project, but it all comes back around to the design.’ This ongoing dialectic has its origins in the playfully opposing forces of the company’s founders, who couldn’t be more different. There’s Frank Barkow, a country boy from deep Montana, a bricoleur and tinkerer with a thousand and one ideas, whose fingers fly over the table top during animated conversation, as if in search of piano keys, a crayon or a hammer. And then there’s Regine Leibinger, the bubbly business magnate’s daughter and granddaughter of an art dealer, who was given a classical education and acquired a Swabian knack for business along the way.
Our work flow is a dialectic of doing and thinking; a constant back and forth
An unlikely pair. And yet, it was love at first sight when the two first met at Harvard University in the early ’90s. ‘It was really funny,’ recalled Barkow. ‘Regine was very rational, very European – so sophisticated. I was more experimental and expressive. But we shared a sensitivity to space and materials,’ he added. “True,” Leibinger chimed in. ‘We both always thought in terms of spatial layouts. And about building facades, ceilings, roofs, the fifth facade. And we shared this insane interest in materials. Mine was always concrete and for Frank, oh, basically everything. But our perspectives at that time were totally different from one another.’
And it’s no wonder. After all, Leibinger was fresh out of Berlin, where postmodernism was all the rage in the early 80s. Students were learning about residential architecture from the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Bruno Taut. The International Architecture exhibition at that time dealt with ‘critical reconstruction’ and Josef Paul Kleihues, which opened Leibinger's eyes to American architects like Peter Eisenman and Louis Kahn.
These were names which Frank Barkow hadn’t heard much about before enrolling at Harvard. ‘I came literally from the middle of nowhere. Montana was pretty far removed from architectural discourse, so the first architects I knew were Buckminster Fuller and AntFarm. Or Bruce Goff and his idol Frank Lloyd Wright.’ In the vast lands of Montana, Barkow grew up with architecture that was marked by agriculture and heavy industry – railroad, dam building, mining, timber. Infrastructure more than architecture, really. ‘This connection between landscape and building is still very important to me to this day,’ said Barkow. ‘These small mountain towns in Montana have beautiful examples of architecture that were created during the gold rush of the 19th century. That’s also why I came to love the artist Donald Judd, who said, the most beautiful things in the USA were shaped by industry.’
Our Trumpf Smart Factory in Chicago is the first building created using the principles of Industry 4.0 – the digitised, globally linked production network utilising artificial intelligence
After finishing high school, the seventeen-year-old started building wooden houses with simple tools. He developed an intuitive ‘native understanding’ of architecture, as his wife Regine puts it. But ultimately it was American self-determination, the attitude of thinking and doing for yourself, which led him to study architecture. ‘From early on I was pretty handy, and I had the manual skills to build houses on my own. But all the knowledge and references that Regine used so playfully, I had to learn the hard way, slowly, step by step.’
And yet it is due to their disparate approaches that the work of Barkow Leibinger is so special. After some initial success at competitions, the recession in the US and the narrowmindedness of Stuttgart pointed them in the direction of newly post-wall Berlin, which was pulsating with social change, art, music, and photography. Their first office was situated in Regine’s old studio apartment in Schöneberg. Their breakthrough followed soon after in 1998 with the award-winning Trumpf laser factory in Ditzingen, close to Stuttgart. This was the family business that Regine Leibinger had chosen not to enter into because she fell victim to the architecture bug.