Imagine you spent your entire career researching and developing modular building systems. Imagine you gave the world radical new approaches to construction design and helped introduce the use of computer technology in architecture.
And then imagine that most people only know your name in connection with one office furniture system. An office furniture system that you developed once as part of one contract for one company based in one small village in Switzerland.
A system that despite its lowly origins became a global success and a universal by-word for simple, functional storage.
And publicly overshadowed all your efforts as an architect.
Such a fate is that of the Swiss architect Fritz Haller.
We’ve written at length in these pages about the USM Haller storage system. But much less about Fritz Haller and his architecture. Largely because there is so little reliable information. There is however one very reliable source, Dr. Georg Vrachliotis, interim professor for architectural theory at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
Following an architecture degree at the UdK Berlin, Georg Vrachliotis studied philosophy at the TU Berlin. Finding his home in architectural theory Georg Vrachliotis undertook various positions at the Universities in Freiburg, Bremen and Berkeley and as a guest lecturer for architectural theory at the TU Vienna before arriving at the ETH Zürich where he completed his PhD on “Geregelte Verhältnisse. Architektur und Technisches Denken in der Epoche der Kybernetik” (Springer Wien/New York, 2011). Currently he is working on the research project “Fritz Haller, Researcher. A History of Abstraction in Architecture”.
In March 2012 Georg Vrachliotis organised the symposium “Fritz Haller. Architect and Researcher” in co-operation with the Chair for the Theory of Architecture at the ETH Zürich. Shortly afterwards we caught up with Georg Vrachliotis to discuss Fritz Haller, his architecture, his legacy, and why he is most famously remembered for System USM Haller. But started by asking how Georg himself first “discovered” Fritz Haller……
Georg Vrachliotis: My introduction was, as for so many people, through a certain piece of furniture, a piece of furniture which is omnipresent in Switzerland. What initially interested me was the person behind the furniture and the architecture behind the furniture. Fritz Haller was and is primarily an architect, not a furniture designer, and it was very quickly clear to me that he is very much a raw diamond in architecture history. Fritz Haller was in contact with Konrad Wachsmann, was in contact with Charles Eames, he developed various excellent construction systems, he developed his own software to help him plan his projects: but he passed more or less unnoticed through the history of architecture and so I started to take more interest in him.
(smow)blog: How did you then start polishing this rough diamond?
Georg Vrachliotis: Initially I worked in a fairly unsystematic fashion. In the first couple of years I travelled every few months to visit him at his home which resulted in a series of transcribed interviews which formed an initial, relatively unsystematic, biographical text. Then Fritz Haller offered the ETH Zürich his archive. That process started about two years ago, I was involved from the beginning and and that was then the start of the systematic research.
(smow)blog: “Fritz Haller’s Archive”, that sounds like a challenge….
Georg Vrachliotis: Especially when you consider that we have documentation from 50, 60 years work! Fortunately it’s all very well organised. Fritz Haller was a designer of systems, and so he naturally also developed a system for his archive…
(smow)blog: Designer of systems is a good keyword. Why systems?
Georg Vrachliotis: Fritz Haller’s systems were answers to questions he posed himself. Fritz Haller was never interested in the building as a fetish object, standing somewhere in the environment; rather he was always reflecting, re-evaluating and developing how one built. He would ask, what type of system can we develop? Then came a building. Then he developed the system further, and then came the next building and so on and so forth. Fritz Haller’s intention was, as he puts it, to develop systems that are completely flexible.
(smow)blog: One of the most flexible of these systems was and is his Mini/MidiMaxi construction systems. System is that still relevant today, or is it just a nice historical architectural artifact?
Georg Vrachliotis: Although in terms of industrial architecture, energy efficiency etc, we are much, much more advanced than we were then, the elegance with which one can combine the Mini/MidiMaxi systems is, I believe, still very relevant.
(smow)blog: If we see things correctly Fritz Haller only every built in Switzerland, we certainly can’t find any reference to any projects outwith Switzerland. Is that so and if so, do we know why? Was he not interested in working in other countries, did no one ask him…..
Georg Vrachliotis: It is the case that all his buildings are in Switzerland; however, why that is the case is currently an unanswered question. He certainly participated in numerous architecture competitions in Germany, albeit without success. I suspect that the answer as to “why” is to be found in the nature of the architect and engineer chambers of that time.
(smow)blog: But also in America. Fritz Haller spent six, seven years at Konrad Wachsmanns’s Institute for Building Research in California but seemingly didn’t construct anything?
Georg Vrachliotis: During his time in California he concentrated solely on fundamental research questions, work which only had very little to do with architecture as “buildings”. It was pure geometry research, assembly considerations, so how the various elements could be fitted together. Very basic research.
(smow)blog: In the late 1960s Fritz Haller’s research led him to develop a “Space Colony”, a “Space City”. Was that just playing about or can one see that as interesting and useful research?
Georg Vrachliotis: Fritz Haller was always very interested in the future, how will our world look in 20, 50 years and how can we prepare for that. He explored topics such as over-population, ecology, infrastructure or communication networks. In terms of the work he did at MIT on the “Space Colony”, I would say it was a systematic and strategic consideration. Fritz Haller was the opinion that if you were to go to a location such as space, a location where nothing is as it is on earth, and if you tried to develop architecture there, you would have the same problems we have on earth, just more intense, more radical. Consequently you have to pay much more attention to the details and much more precisely consider, for example, what is function, what is energy, what is context. And so in principle Fritz Haller went to space to be able to think better about earth.
(smow)blog: And briefly to end, why do we know Fritz Haller better for his furniture than his buildings?
Georg Vrachliotis: Fritz Haller never understood the architect as an author, was never interested in ideas of “author architecture”. Fritz Haller developed systems and not buildings and so ultimately Fritz Haller himself was anonymous, the antithesis of the modern star architect. Through his work Fritz Haller evaporated as architect and only the structure remained.
Fritz Haller "Integral Urban - A Global Model" 1975 (Copyright Fritz Haller /gta Archiv ETH Zürich). About as far away from modular furniture systems as you can get.....