Insights August 21, 2014

UK-GER: Berlin Shuttle

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By Burkhard Green

Eight years ago, Friday September 15th 2006, one heavy suitcase in each hand, having arrived on a a budget flight from Berlin, I tried to find Elgin Mews in Maida Vale. A couple of months before, I had visited a Polish guy I knew from my first job in Berlin. As I was frustrated with my situation in Berlin, he recommended me to join his office. A few weeks later, I had an interview there, staying the night at a mate from uni on Kingsland Road. When I finally arrived in Elgin Mews, I was greeted in German by my landlady – daughter to an Austro-German Holocaust survivor. Following this weekend, I would start in a 30 people strong office in Hoxton, working alongside some Mexicans, a Chilean, a Canadian, people from Australia, Hong Kong, Holland, Ireland, Scotland, some more Germans, and a chap from Birmingham. I was right there in that proverbial Melting Pot.

But is this experience unique? Returning to Germany in 2011, I found myself as the only German in a team with Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, an Egyptian, and a Bavarian. As an architect, you will eventually go where the interesting jobs are, and, more importantly, where the money is. Indeed I would argue, this has been the case for centuries and is not just a phenomenon of recent years, a by-product of globalisation. In the 19th century, the main church of Hamburg, my hometown, was built by a Londoner, George Gilbert Scott, while two famous Hamburg architects of the time, Gottfried Semper and Alexis de Chateauneuf (not his drag name – he was a son of French immigrants), worked in London for some years. Both of them went on to build in Zürich and Vienna, and Oslo respectively. Another example: the Swiss Le Corbusier worked in Berlin in 1910 before settling in Paris – and establishing the “International Style”.

So writing about cultural differences in such a -traditionally- international environment is quite a difficult task. Yet after having worked both for 5 years in Germany and 5 years in the UK, here are some anecdotes and observations that might be of interest.

Berlin Shuttle
In 2006, I was a late arrival on what an English colleague called “the Berlin Shuttle”: during recession of the early nineties in the UK, quite a few British architects moved to Germany to participate in the construction boom after the Reunification. Ten years on, the situation reversed, and a lot of German architects moved to the UK. So when I came to London, there were already 10 other graduates from my Hamburg uni in town.

Because of that early nineties boom to rebuild Eastern Germany, becoming an architect seemed to be a promising career choice when finishing college in that decade, and now the country has one the highest architect per capita rates in the EU. (Arch Daily). Demand and supply: salaries were ridiculously low 10 years ago, so moving across the Channel was an obvious choice for German graduates – and moving to Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark…

Vorsprung durch Technik 
“So you are German? I like the idea that you graduate as engineers.”, my boss, Nick Grimshaw, said to me once. Although this small bit of cultural identity, the Dipl.-Ing., was abolished by the EU during the so-called “Bologna-Process” some years ago, it still seems that there is more focus on construction and technical knowledge in German curricula than in British. Also, we had to spend at least 3 months internship on construction sites to experience first-hand how buildings are built. This meant in Britain, German architects had a reputation to work on stages D, E etc.

Most building codes are very similar between the two countries, not to mention European Norms and DIN. Metric dimensions are used in both countries, although in Germany, we use metres, centimetres, and millimetres depending on scale and content of a drawing, while in Britain it is millimetres only, with that odd imperial dimension popping up in conversation.

A lot of specialist suppliers are from Germany, Switzerland, or Austria – so getting hold of useful information from e.g. Schüco, Geberit, Zumthobel, or that Jura limestone quarry from Bavaria, is quite easy when working in Britain. Although there are sales reps in Germany, too, you can always phone a contractor – a craftsman – to discuss technical questions. Offices often have long-established relationships with carpenters, roofers, etc., and a Meister is always willing to work out a detail or a specification with you. Of course they hope for commissions, but while I have experienced this kind of business relationship only with larger contractors that employ engineers or technicians in Britain, in Germany this is the case even with small Handwerk businesses. The reliance on tried and tested construction industry products in the UK might also be caused by ‘risk management’ – avoiding claims, which, despite being on the rise in Germay, too, seems to be more common there – or that every work is regulated by DIN, VOB, and Richtlinien in Germany already.

Despite that more hands-on approach of German architectural education, I found British architects are more at ease with the latest CAD software and more “experimental” construction methods. For example, BIM is much more common in the UK than in Germany – in a non-representative survey, most German colleagues even never heard of it. I guess British universities teach and research more computational design and futuristic technologies. So, not surprisingly, final thesis projects of British students tend to be dystopian world improvement machines, while Germans dream of more mundane community centres, or motorway service stations, or combinations thereof.

Wir sind die Roboter
The international media coverage on the recent world cup was full of those same old prejudices usually attributed to Germans: efficient, ruthless, flairless, no individuality… So why have we earned this reputation? It cannot be for those famous London residents such as Holbein, Händel, Marx, Bonhoeffer, or Jürgen Klinsmann.

So far, I have worked in six offices of various sizes in Germany: The atmosphere there was always concentrated -“heads down”. Talk between colleagues mostly concerned work, small talk being reserved for lunch breaks. At meetings, there would be some chat at the start and beginnings to ease the mood, but it would never consume as much time as British concerns about the weather present, past, and future; or the particularities of travelling to that meeting place.

Problems are addressed more directly in Germany, while the British have a way to talk more diplomatically – which sometimes leads us to not understanding the urgency of a task. There is actually the complete opposite to this “not wanting to make a fuss”: every German is more than happy to point out a mistake you have made, or present you with a better solution – without being asked, of course. So after returning from London, I sometimes felt like an idiot. Haven’t I learned anything?

Generally, the job was taken more lightly in Britain I found: after work drinks twice a week – plus a Friday pub lunch – are rather unheard of in Germany. Yes, there is the odd office night out, but it has to be planned some weeks in advance, so everyone is mentally prepared for such a frivolity. Despite spending more time at the office in London (British “long hours culture”, as this report confirms:, Germans seem to be more concerned with their work – in whatever profession – and never get tired of moaning about their jobs. Just ask a teacher, nurse, vet, scientist, etc.: they can give an in-depth explanation why their jobs suck.

When doing long hours, there prevails a grim sense of duty in German offices: the job has to be done, so let’s not waste time on fun distractions. In London, long hours were celebrated with lavish take-away meals, alcoholic beverages, and extended periods of procrastination. Also, when talking about long hours, a German would moan and complain about the bosses’ inaptitude to organise the workflow efficiently, yet also pointing out the own importance and secretely being proud of it. In Britain, the long hour pride was less secret, it seemed to me. Long hours were mentioned more casually, a bit like talking about a skiing holiday in Switzerland: fun, but dangerous and expensive, and quintessentially against human nature, but also something to assert your status, your class.

There is more appreciation from seniors for your work in Britain: be it just good manners, management seminars, or a real cultural trait – that most bosses know when to say “Thank You” (either verbally or with a splash out on some drinks).

In Germany, it seems to me, it is taken for granted that you give everything for the office. It is the implied part of the employment contract. There is a strange sense of entitlement for the German architectural employer: they assume that their employees work for them more to learn rather than to apply their skills. And they like to let you know that they have something to teach you.

My theory is, that this self-perception harkens back to ancient academic traditions: when students visited the classes of a master-painter, -sculptor, -architect, and started their career working in the master’s studio. The British system, actually, seems to be still modelled on this: the Year Out after Part I! In Germany, you do internships, too – and not few offices have built their business model on exploiting interns – but curricula only ask for a 3 to 6 month term.

As an architect in Germany, you are not only responsible for educating your own colleagues, but also a whole different profession: architectural draughtswomen and -men have to spend one half of their three year period of training at college, while the other half is spent on the job, as a paid employee with an architect. I found it quite a weighty responsibility to teach someone who just has left highschool – en passant, while doing the usual project work. So maybe it is inevitable that we all become like teachers. Ultimately, our job is telling others what to do – by drawings, tender documents, or mark-ups of m+e plans.

Which side of the North Sea is a better place for architects? The hands-on approach, the more polite office climate, the long hours or the smart asses? One thing is sure – for the cheesy finale: whatever the office, wherever the country, there are always some great people sitting at the next desk!

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