Starchitect Trio: The Men Behind Germany's Building Debacles

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Stuttgart's train station, Hamburg's concert house and Berlin's airport: Three projects in Germany are currently competing to be seen as the country's most disastrous. SPIEGEL spoke to the star architects behind the construction sites.

Christoph Ingenhoven, Meinhard von Gerkan and Pierre de Meuron are among the best-known architectsin the world. So how is it possible that these grand masters are responsible for construction sites where many things have been going wrong for years? What are the reasons that public building sites in Germany so often turn into scenes of disaster? As different as the three architects' projects are, their problems are similar: delays to the point of construction freezes and hundreds of millions of euros in cost overruns. The train station and railway project Stuttgart 21 is identified with 53-year-old architect Christoph Ingenhoven, although he is only responsible for the construction of the main train station. The Hamburg architecture firm of Gerkan, Marg and Partners built the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport, under the leadership of 78-year-old Meinhard von Gerkan, who was fired by the airport company in 2012, only to be brought back to the project this year. Finally, the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron designed the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, while the construction portion was managed by the construction giant Hochtief, with which Pierre de Meuron, 63, and his partners were long at odds. The fees for all architects and general contractors involved amount to €93.9 million ($125 million) for the Elbphilharmonie and €36 million for the Stuttgart train station. According to Gerkan, an exact amount cannot be determined at this time for Berlin's long-awaited new airport. The three men recently met at the SPIEGEL building in Hamburg to discuss their controversial projects.


SPIEGEL: Mr. de Meuron, Mr. von Gerkan and Mr. Ingenhoven, architecture's reputation in this country is worse than ever. How much of the blame do you bear?

Gerkan: It's a big mistake to voluntarily serve as a figurehead, because then everyone knows whom to target. We are these figureheads, not the clients and not the construction companies. And we are liable for everything.

De Meuron: Is the reputation really that bad?

Ingenhoven: I have to say that the reputation is not bad. In fact, outside Germany, it's even excellent.

SPIEGEL: People are protesting in the streets because of your train station in Stuttgart, Mr. Ingenhoven. The three building sites we are discussing are the most prominent in Germany. They are talked about worldwide, because all kinds of disasters are happening with them.

Ingenhoven: What I can confirm is that there is a frenzied political discussion about the issue in Germany. But I don't believe that architecture's reputation is actually being harmed.

SPIEGEL: You are architects. But, in these cases, you are also general contractors, working in collaboration with the builders and construction firms. Plenty of things are going wrong with the Elbphilharmonie, Stuttgart 21 and Berlin Brandenburg Airport.

Cost Overruns and Delays with Three Major German Building Projects Zoom
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Cost Overruns and Delays with Three Major German Building Projects

Ingenhoven: Mr. von Gerkan said that we are figureheads. One reason this is true is that we were asked to represent the project in the public eye. In Stuttgart, the whole thing started in 1995, and it won't be over before 2021. If you look up the project costs on Wikipedia today, you will find that the original estimate of (German rail provider) Deutsche Bahn was €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion). Today we're talking about 5 or possibly 6 billion euros. In other words, we are talking about a project that will take 25 years to complete and for which the costs have doubled. If you compare this to what a VW Golf cost 25 years ago and what it costs today, this is acceptable, especially in light of the extensive changes and tightening of laws.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that the price tag of €6.5 billion, which is only an estimate at this point, is acceptable?

Ingenhoven: Yes. And I believe that this country can only survive if it builds these kinds of projects.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Meuron, do you feel that the price for Hamburg's new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, is reasonable? It currently stands in the neighborhood of €865 million.

De Meuron: There is no doubt that the way the project has progressed has been far from ideal. This is very regrettable, especially for taxpayers. We are no less upset about this than the city is. We have also never experienced cost overruns and schedule delays of this magnitude before.

SPIEGEL: Can you tell us how much you think the Elbphilharmonie should have cost?

De Meuron: Whether the Elbphilharmonie could have been built for less is a hypothetical question today. Since the first draft plan, the project has undergone countless changes and been expanded to include substantial extra features, such as an additional concert hall. But what is more important is what the city ends up getting for its money and what the Elbphilharmonie truly means to residents once it is in operation.

Ingenhoven: In other words, Pierre, you're allowing yourself to evade the question.

De Meuron: No, I'm not, because it's the truth!

Ingenhoven: I would say there is no way this should cost more than €800 million. It's impossible to spend €800 million on this site and on the space involved. In other words, some of that amount must have something to do with the process and the delays.

De Meuron: What makes it unnecessarily expensive are the legal issues and everything resulting from them. Scheduling delays, project disputes and even shutdowns have played a key role in pushing the price up to this level. Look at this cup in front of me. Let's say it represents the Elbphilharmonie. They initially said it had to be white and somehow contain tea. That was roughly what was stated in the call for bids at the time. But no one said how big it should be, that it also needed a saucer and possibly even a spoon. And if all of that isn't in the specifications, you cannot, with a clear conscience, set a price or agree to fixed schedules. What we lacked at the time was enough time for careful planning. Now policymakers have finally figured that out, at least in Hamburg.

SPIEGEL: But people expect the architect to tell them what is feasible and which budgets are realistic. And they expect him or her to object when the amounts they quote are too low.

De Meuron: We did that. Constantly. Verbally, in writing and at the right time. Please don't advertise for bids and don't award any contracts, and plan properly, we said. We can prove this, because it was all addressed in the parliamentary investigation committee.

Ingenhoven: Pierre is right. This is how it often happens. When policymakers are the client, they hire a general contractor, and he says: I'll do this much for you, and it'll cost you x amount of money. For lack of sufficient planning depth, however, no one knows at this point how much is really included in the package.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Meuron, together with investors, presented the Elbphilharmonie project to the public in 2003. At the time, it was said that the city merely had to provide the land, and that it would have no other costs. The building itself was supposed to cost €40 million, which the investors would raise by other means. The figure of only €40 million was mentioned -- and you were there, Mr. de Meuron.

De Meuron: We never mentioned such figures.

Gerkan: Mr. de Meuron, your original investor, who was later awarded a medal, did indeed create the impression that the whole thing wasn't going to cost the city anything. After that, only the best would do. Then-Mayor Ole von Beust, for example, asked for the world's top experts on acoustics.

SPIEGEL: Soon they were saying that the whole thing would cost €187 million, and that the city was responsible for €77 million of the total. After that, new figures were constantly being quoted. Herzog & de Meuron were no longer the figureheads, but rather the bogeymen.

De Meuron: Regarding your point, Mr. Gerkan, that was never my investor. And, regarding the bogeyman theory, that isn't how we see ourselves.

Gerkan: A building project doesn't simply progress from A to Z, with everything going according to plan. Most plans start at the end. The first thing a client wants to know is when it will be finished. The last thing he's interested in is what it will look like and how it will be furnished.

SPIEGEL: And he isn't interested in what it'll cost, either?

Gerkan: In Berlin, the client -- which was the federal government, together with the states of Berlin and Brandenburg -- had the crazy idea that the airport would pay for itself through passenger fees. Every passenger who entered the airport was to buy an entry ticket first. Each of the two general contractors that had applied was supposed to calculate how much this entry price had to be, but without having a reasonable numerical basis to go by. Was it 5 million passengers, or 20 million? At the same time, the clients were tripping over each other with requests for changes.

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1. The Men Behind Germany's Building Debacles
Overseasreader 06/14/2013
After reading this very informative article, matters starting to take shape in my mind. First regardless of what project is in debate, no one really is responsible for anything. Second it is terrifying to see how the taxpayers money is spend without the awareness of people involved of any consequences. If these projects would have been considered by a company investing for their future, none of these would have passed beyond a discussion stage. Never ever and that is the reason, Governments should not be involved in these ventures.
2. Architects, not Project Managers
pferrucio 06/16/2013
I would not blame the Architects for the failure of the projects. The success or failure of a project is related to the ability of the management team to deliver what was contracted and that includes a design review prior to the execution. However, specially in the case of BER Airport there were a lot of politicians performing the job of project managers.
3. Dear, Mr.Ingenhoven...
spon-facebook-10000587892 06/18/2013
You said, "In Germany,entrepreneurs are not allowed to make money." If you were not in Germany as an inexperienced architect who just starting career through the big budget 'Competitions'.... You would have never had a chance in those countries you're praising. You know why? cause you don't have any relevant experience. Only for big boys like SOM. You really should think of yourself very lucky to be born in Germany. -from an architect never had a fair chance to compete in competitions of such countries...
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