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"Open for the Unforeseen"
An Interview with Graft Architect Thomas Willemeit



They are Germany's most glamorous architects. Even Hollywood star Brad Pitt was thrilled about Graft's inventive designs, and he had the trio from Germany design a guesthouse for him. As part of the program around Phoebe Washburn's architectural installation Regulated Fool's Milk Meadow, Thomas Willemeit, one of the three founders of the architectural firm (which has branches in Los Angeles, Peking, and Berlin), held a lecture on the close connections between sculpture and architecture and Graft's innovative architecture.



Graft, Stack Restaurant, Las Vegas 2007,
Photo Ricky Ridecos, courtesy Graft


Achim Drucks: What links do you see between Phoebe Washburn's works and Graft's projects?

Thomas Willemeit: Phoebe Washburn's work incorporates a lot of things we deal with, for example ecological architecture. In addition, she installed a carpentered booth in a Deutsche Bank building, producing a relationship of tension. Then there's the connection between landscape and architecture. But her house is of course not just a house. It possesses a sculptural power which cannot be described in purely architectural discourse. This is a topic we are very interested in. That architecture can have a powerful message, which is communicated and transferred to the viewer or user as strong energy. In other words, we believe architecture can also have sculptural qualities, and ideally, always will.



Graft, Entwurf Kirche Wünsdorf, 2006, courtesy Graft


What is your view of the relationship between architecture and sculpture?

We believe that architecture and sculpture overlap strongly. They can never be completely separated from one another but are different facets of one and the same thing. Gothic cathedrals, for example, definitely have sculptural qualities. As regards some modern architecture, on the other hand, there is at least the theoretical view that the architecture is primarily derived from the function, from practical use. Modern theories express the desire that architecture should be perceived as an independent discipline with its own rules. In direct connection with art, for instance, it should provide a neutral background for an important artwork. We take a very different position from this modern stance and divorce ourselves from it – at least from this aspect.


Graft, Hotel Q, Bar, Berlin 2004,
Photo hiepler brunier architekturfotografie, courtesy Graft


Some of your designs resemble sculptures that could be encountered in a gallery. Could you imagine them on show?

We have no difficulty imagining that. But of course our top priority is not to exhibit our architecture as a purely sculptural object. Most of our architecture is developed for a specific use and can be explained as such. We never view it as a pure object. In this respect these figures differ strongly from what is generally regarded as sculpture. Sculpture possesses a power which transfers to the space and relates to it. Nor is there any architecture that exists in a neutral space, in a vacuum. If you take our designs out of their context, it would surely be a sign of quality if they still possessed such sculptural power. But then we would expect an exhibition maker to invent a dramatic context for this architectural object, which would then have a relationship of tension with the object.



Graft, design Knothouse, courtesy Graft

The special qualities of your designs are indebted, among other things, to the possibilities afforded by computers.

The computer has had an enormous influence on the development of parts of our formal vocabulary. Suddenly entirely new forms could be conceived and built, and could be communicated. When we were studying, the boundaries between architecture and sculpture lay in two-dimensional sketches. As soon as you could transfer a form to two-dimensional drawings and then give these drawings to someone to build in line with the intentions, it was architecture. As long as personal manual work was needed to produce a figure, it was sculpture. With the computer you can now communicate much more complex forms and thus the boundary-line between manual procedure and built object disappears. These complex figures cannot only be read from the four points of the compass, but also from a perspective of 360 degrees, and they look different from every perspective.




Graft, dental practice, Berlin 2005,
Photo hiepler brunier architekturfotografie, Courtesy Graft


In a short period of time Graft has developed from a three-man operation to a company with almost 90 employees. What has made you so successful?

For us, the important aspect is that we always have a very special relationship to our clients. We’re very curious about why a particular client is different from all the rest. We derive childish joy from confronting clients with something they probably didn’t expect at all. Which, however, has a lot to do with aspects of this special building task that are different from comparable projects. We always try to encourage our clients to let themselves in for something that is still unknown along with us. And when we then arrive at an unforeseen result, this makes all of us happy. It makes us happy because we’ve discovered something new again. And it makes our client happy because he or she – perhaps after an initial shock – has something which others can’t say looks like this or that.





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