Annual theme 2023: Refurbishment of High Modernity – Cultural Concepts and Ingenious Strategies for a Difficult Heritage

Over the past 20 years, the objectives, research interests and the fields of operation in architecture in Germany have shifted at an impressive pace from new construction to conversion and continuation of existing structures.

The “preservation of historically significant buildings”, to which the pioneering DFG Collaborative Research Center 315 was dedicated from 1985, is no longer the only focus on the agenda. 

The great challenges posed by climate change as well as the scarcity of resources and the sealing and destruction of natural environments caused by new building projects are forcing a fundamental change in the guiding principles of building that goes far beyond this. 

“Building on existing structures” is the buzzword of the day, the latest report on building culture by the Federal Foundation for Building Culture calls for a “new culture of conversion,” and initiatives such as Architects for Future even fundamentally question the legitimacy of demolition.

A new term with an old-fashioned tone

In direct correlation to this significant retrofitting turn stands the term “Ertüchtigung”(refurbishment). This 19th-century neologism is based on the adjective “tüchtig” (capable, valuable; much), which, like the substantive “virtue”, belongs to a group of words that can be traced back to the verb “taugen”(are suitable).

In the beginning, “Ertüchtigung” was used to describe physical as well as mental activities that were intended to make people fit for certain tasks or purposes in the modern world of work and life.

Following its inflationary and unfortunate use up to “racial training” during the Nazi era, the term seemed to have burned out after 1945.

About two decades later, however, it gradually found its way back into the German vocabulary – now, surprisingly, in the field of engineering and no longer referring to people but to artifacts. 

Coinciding with the end of high modernism, it has also been used in the vocabulary of the construction industry since the early 1980s.
While “Ertüchtigung” referred originally to increasing the load-bearing capacity of existing buildings, the term has experienced an almost explosive expansion since the 2010s and, in addition to established technical terms such as “renovation” or “modernization”, has moved into ever broader contexts (building services engineering, fire and noise protection, life cycle assessment …).

Today, the term is used not only to describe the improvement of a building’s performance, but also to include structural measures that merely serve to regain the building’s original condition in the sense of “repair”.


Ertüchtigung during the High Modern Era

Regardless of the still very recent history of the term, the practices associated with repair and rehabilitation are part of a line of tradition that goes back to the beginnings of human building: not only the construction of new buildings, but presumably more importantly the adaptation of existing buildings to (newly) specified tasks is a fundamental constant that runs through the history of building and construction.

The progressive high modernism marked a break in this self-evident way of rebuilding and continuation of construction – exemplarily represented in Le Corbusier’s famous “Plan Voisin”, intending to sacrifice half the city of Paris to a completely new city.

Steel and concrete were the building materials of the new age – so why bother with restoring the existing buildings? 

However, in the shadow of the ultra-modern world of new buildings, the question of making them usable remained relevant.

Therefore, civil engineers used the potential of new construction methods for the engineering-based development of new methods of structural strengthening – from the reinforcement of railroad bridges to advanced protection measures for endangered cathedral buildings. 

Above all, however, modern civil engineering has laid the scientific foundations with which the potentials and limits of strengthening measures can now be assessed in a well-founded manner.

Exemplary for this are August Wöhler’s experiments on the durability of steel and the resulting theory of durability and service strength of dynamically exposed components and structures.

The fact that the thinking in terms of a predictable technical service life, which was initially established in the field of mechanical engineering, also found its way into the construction industry, was admittedly a dubious success.

Nevertheless, this forced a previously unfamiliar culture of disposability for entire building structures.

Upgrading towards High Modernity

In the 1970s, several shifts in perspective increasingly challenged the established high-modernist mindset in the construction industry.

The growing awareness regarding the importance of historic heritage led to a successive expansion of the concept of culture, which generally attributed greater importance to the preservation of traditional building structures (European Year of Monument Protection, 1975). 
At the same time, there was a growing awareness of the finiteness of natural resources (Club of Rome: “The Limits to Growth,” 1972; oil crisis, 1973) and of the fatal effects of ecological overexploitation by industrial society (founding of the Green Party, 1979/80) – a change of paradigm with which the end of high modernism was directly associated. Since then, not only cultural values, but above all sustainability balances have demanded a revision of thinking in life cycles as well as new considerations and methods with regard to possible options for rehabilitation.

Half a century since the end of high modernism, the artifacts of this rather history-despising era have themselves become history and historical evidence of a key phase of the Anthropocene. The architectural legacy of high modernism now requires rehabilitation itself – and does not make it easy for the actors who are confronted with it. The optimization of functions, materials and components, the former mass-produced products that are no longer available today, and the limitation of the service life calculated from the outset are just some of the challenges facing planners today.


The Think Tank as a Place for Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue

The annual theme “Upgrading High Modernity – Cultural Concepts and Ingenious Strategies for a Difficult Heritage” will be the focus of the third think tank of SPP 2255, which will take place on July 6th and 7th, 2023 at the Haus der Wissenschaft in Braunschweig. Among other things, the focus will be on the meanings that the various disciplines involved in SPP 2255 assign to the concept of refurbishment. Furthermore, the think tank will be oriented towards the following guiding questions:

  • How did the guiding principle of refurbishment develop out of the high modernism?
  • With regard to refurbishment, what are the conflicting goals of monument preservation, technical, economical, and today, above all, ecological aspects?
  • What are the challenges for the preservation of historic buildings and monuments when refurbishing ultra-modern heritage?
  • What ingenious strategies and methods are available for the restoration of monuments? What new impulses are emerging from current research?
  • A great deal of refurbishment is possible – but how much refurbishment is really necessary? And up to what depth are retrofitting interventions still sensible and compatible in terms of monument preservation and technology?


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