In Dialogue: Regine Leibinger on Curiosity, Positivity, and Wir-Gefühl
By Julia Gamolina
Regine Leibinger founded her architectural practice Barkow Leibinger together with Frank Barkow in 1993 in Berlin. Barkow Leibinger’s work is realized over a wide range of scales and building types - important milestones include the Biosphere in Potsdam, the Campus Restaurant in Ditzingen and the Tour Total office high-rise in Berlin. Their work was included in the Serpentine Summer House program 2016 in London and was shown in the 2nd Chicago Architecture Biennial 2017.
Regine is also a member of the Visiting Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Architecture, Trustee at the American Academy and member of the Akademie der Künste Berlin. Along with Frank Barkow, she often teaches at Princeton University as a visiting professor. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Regine talks about staying positive and encouraging others in her role as a role model and leader, advising young architects to work together and to have no fears.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
RL: The seed is always a matter of the context you grow up in. I’m not from an architectural background; my father was an inventor and entrepreneur and my mother focused on languages, but my grandfather was an art dealer and specialized in Eastern Japanese Art. We were always surrounded by picturesque environments and beautiful furniture. And since my parents had friends who were architects, I was surrounded by a lot of people who opened my eyes to the world, so to speak, and eventually architecture became an easy choice.
Architecture isn’t just designing, it’s also running a business. Entrepreneurship is a vital part of architecture. The ability to be able to run a business and engage with people is something I learned early on by watching my father, and has come in handy in my experience.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
I studied in two countries, first for five years in Berlin at the Technical University (TU) and then at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard. The schools embraced two completely different approaches. The TU felt much more like traditional schooling, with a prescriptive pedagogy, and as I went through the program, I had the feeling, in a way, that I needed a different, broader education.
The GSD was very different and very open. You were encouraged to be a master student, to go to different colleges and listen to other courses. The teachers there understand they can learn from their students as well. The seminars are small and the debates are lively. They encourage your innate talent. As an educator now myself, teaching is not only inspiring but also a source of finding talent for the office, and we have a lot of former students here. Not only do they learn a lot from us, but we learn a great deal from them.
What did you do before starting your own practice?
When I was studying in Berlin, I worked with Josef Paul Kleihues who was director of the International Building Exhibition in Berlin in 1987. He was the one that taught me about the American schools and I was even more encouraged to study abroad, adding to my studies in Germany.
After I graduated from the GSD, Frank and I went to Rome, where he was a visiting professor for Cornell. I worked for almost a year in Rome for an Italian architect and we renovated the American Academy (AA), which was immensely enjoyable. The work was important but the people we met were even more important. Architectural historian Colin Rowe was still active and was there giving lectures. We had the opportunity to meet fantastic students from Cornell and travel abroad together. We got to be sponges and learn from them. The cities and the people we met, rather than the work, made the biggest impressions on us before we started our office. I graduated in ‘91 and we started our own office in ’93.
Why did you two want your own firm? And what did you do to get it started?
When we were at the GSD, Rafael Moneo was the head of the school and really encouraged students who wanted to start their own firm to do so as soon as possible. Like a lot of other young firms coming out in that time, we were really affected by the wall coming down in Berlin in ‘89. The city center had to be revitalized and reintegrated and huge competitions took place. We wanted to be a part of all that activity.
When our time in Rome came to an end and we had to make a decision on where to go next. In Berlin, there was so much to do and we were ambitious. We quickly found success taking on different types of work in addition to competitions. They weren’t as restrictive as the competitions today. If you apply today, you have to already have so much expertise. That wasn’t a requirement at that time for us. Our success was a combination of luck, talent, and good timing. We started from one little project for a friend who needed supervision building a house as well as renovating a power plant and housing blocks in the former east part of the city, so called “Plattenbauten”.
Barkow Leibinger is now 26 years old - in that time what have been the most significant moments?
All the “firsts” are always quite significant - winning the first competition for a day care and a youth center, winning the first big competition for the Biosphere in Potsdam, being published in Architectural Record for the first time, being invited by the AA and the GSD to teach.
How does motherhood play into all of this?
I love being a mother. I am privileged that I never had to decide between children and career. Fortunately, I had an office running and a portion of my career behind me by the time I had my children, and I had help. Most of all it’s great to have a partner both in business and life who can trade-off with you; if I need to hold down the fort at the office, Frank goes to take care of the kids, and vice versa. Our kids were often at the office after school.
Our schedule hasn’t always been easy for my boys but they are used to the structure of having architects as parents and they are used to the work we do. It’s fantastic to have kids. It opens your mind and changes your perspective of the world. You can become so obsessed with your profession, but your kids bring you back around and ground you.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
I’m very happy. I’m really proud of the work we’ve achieved and it’s been such a wonderful place to invest my energy. I like architecture - no, I love architecture! In the office and at the university I enjoy being surrounded by all these young people. We have so many talented and loyal employees and the firm we’ve built is a fantastic and inspiring place. In German I would describe it as a “Wir-Gefühl”, literally a ‘we’ feeling, one of being part of a close community.
I don’t have a goal to earn the Pritzker and retire - for me, the goal is to enjoy the everyday work. I like getting feedback from clients, when everyone is pleased with spaces we’ve made. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of difficult times - we lose competitions and we always have setbacks in this career. But, you take a very long breath and then you realize that it just really couldn't be better.
You are so positive.
Yes! You win some, lose some. You get some perspective as you get some distance. You realize you are a role model to people and they look at you, so you learn keep others’ spirits up. It’s important to show students that you can do all of this as a woman. It’s not handed to you, but it’s possible. You have to be positive. At least you have to try.
I of course have my own moments of doubt, but I know now how to deal with setbacks. It’s important to stay curious and open minded. Death in architecture is when you develop a repetitive “style”. Our projects try to be diverse; we do a lot of research and keep our curiosity going.
Speaking of setbacks, what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you manage?
The biggest challenge we had was in 2008 and 2009 with the financial crisis. At that time we had 40-50 employees. Projects stopped from one day to the next with single phone calls. The office completely collapsed, but we survived it quite well. We did a lot of competitions. We had never done so many competitions, and in the end a lot of new work came out of our toughest challenge.
What have been some of the biggest highlights?
I have favorite moments, like the competitions I mentioned before. Having a former colleague from the GSD ask us to teach at Princeton was a highlight. Winning Harvard’s ArtLab was a such a privilege - to build at our Alma Mater - as it was to build the Trumpf Smart Factory in Chicago. People coming back to the office is like a reunion. Publications have a different value now than they did at the beginning, but the first publication of our work in architecture magazines left us breathless. To get compliments on the quality of your firm and to have happy clients, that’s a highlight.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Don’t have a style, have an approach. Stay open. Stay curious. Doing the same thing over and over has never been of interest to us. Developing new programs with new groups can be really challenging, but it’s those challenges that keep you alert.
Personally I have no time or right to feel sorry for myself. I am responsible for a lot of people, so I always think of ways to motivate myself and keep going.
Finally, what advice do you have for those starting their own firms, and in general, for those starting their careers?
I would go back to what Moneo said: if you want to do it, do it. Having a partner is also helpful when running a practice. That’s how architecture works – it’s people working together. One of the reasons I studied architecture was because I wanted to study something where I would be able to develop ideas through dialogue. With architecture, you are always in dialogue with your team and with your client and that’s when the idea awakens. It’s about collaboration and communication.
For those just starting, architecture is like a drug. If you have the passion for architecture, like I do, go for it! Don’t be afraid. You have huge possibilities. Honestly, if somebody is enthusiastic about architecture and cultivates their own talent, they don’t need that much advice. They will figure out what they want to do.