Stefan Behnisch on architecture

September 2011

Stefan Behnisch, architect of
WIPO’s new building (Photo:
Christoph Soeder)

In March 2000, the German firm, Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart, won the international architectural competition to extend WIPO’s premises1. In its final report, the international jury which oversaw the contest said that the winning design was “a project for a new generation,” noting that the building “plays with the existing landscape and brings the outside in.” WIPO Magazine recently interviewed Stefan Behnisch, who led the project, to find out more about the man behind the design of WIPO's new building which was inaugurated in September 2011.

(Photos: David Matthiesen)

When and why did you decide to become an architect?

My father was a well-known architect in Germany. You could say architecture was in the family – my sister and two cousins are also architects, so everybody expected me to follow suit. I resisted this at first and studied philosophy and economics instead, but I soon came to realize that not studying architecture was as illogical as doing so, so I went on to study it in Karlsruhe, Germany.

What inspires you when you set about designing a new building?

When we embark on a project, we first try to understand what the purpose of the building will be and its geographical, environmental and cultural contexts. The client and the project context are, I would say, our greatest inspiration. By understanding these key elements we can find the best possible solution. The actual process of designing a new building is a collaborative effort involving one or several partners and the young architects that work with us in our office.

What does architecture mean to you and what is its role in society?

Architecture makes a key contribution to human heritage. It identifies culture, space and time and creates the environment in which we spend a good part of our lives. In addition to its technical aspects, architecture can reveal many things about a culture, its sensitivities and social and political structures. Architecture provides a record of the technical state-of-the-art and of our cultural history – showing where we came from, and to some extent, where we want to go.

For me, architecture is a tool, a cultural asset and an art, but it is also a very functional element of our daily lives.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by many things – by people, the developments we see in our societies, music, a beautiful building. Nature is a great inspiration. I like to look at the architecture of our ancestors, from the early Greek and Roman periods through to the last century. I also like looking at what my contemporaries are doing. This can sometimes be an inspiration or even a useful warning about what not to do, helping me avoid mistakes in my own work.

Which projects appeal to you most?

While I find all new projects interesting, I am particularly drawn to those where people live, work or gather, such as a concert hall, a conference center or a place of learning. I like creating spaces where people can work and live together; where they can communicate, interact and work in an interdisciplinary way. Such buildings have a great impact on our society, and designing them is a great honor.

What are the major factors that influence a building’s design?

Many factors influence architecture. While we have mastered some of the techniques that challenged our ancestors, such as structure and the physics of building, new challenges emerge every day. Today we cope with those associated with the excessive energy use of buildings. These new factors greatly influence the design of new buildings.

Whenever a new factor emerges, such as the structural change that characterizes the Eiffel tower, it tends to dominate the visual appearance of a structure until the technique has been mastered. At that point it becomes just another instrument in the symphony of architecture.

What are the main challenges an architect faces?

The challenges we face change with each new project and its geographical and cultural context. Sometimes they are of a legal nature, such as when building legislation leaves us very little wriggle room. Some are of a technical nature, for example creating a sustainably built environment. But, perhaps the greatest challenges are associated with communication. If you want to create the best possible building for a client, you have to understand the users, what is going to happen in the building, how people will live and work there and how the building will be managed. Obtaining this information is not always easy, but only when we have it can we effectively translate the client’s wishes, ideas, ideals, and needs into a satisfactory architectural work.

Why is intellectual property important to you as an architect?

Architecture – along with theatre, sculpture and painting – has long been considered one of the master arts. An architectural work is an interdisciplinary and highly communicative process brought about by architects together with engineers and clients. Architects, like writers, software engineers, artists, musicians and inventors, want to be recognized for their ideas and their creativity. As creativity is a risky business that often requires high upfront investment, we can only do it if we are sure our work is protected.

Architecture is a highly creative and innovative process, and the recognition that copyright protection offers us is very important. As the copyright owner of an architectural blueprint, we are able to grant a license to clients for our buildings to be constructed, and are sure to be recognized as the author of those works.

How have computer and digital technologies modified the design process?

Digital technologies can enable us to create forms that we could not previously have designed but, generally speaking, they are just another set of tools. When a building is completed, it matters little whether the creative ideas were drawn by hand, or digitally. What really matters is the result. That said, digital technology does facilitate and enhance the process of communication and interaction within the design team.

How do you ensure that your architecture keeps pace with a rapidly changing world?

Perhaps the best we can do is to continue working with young architects, and those who have a vision for the future and are open to new developments in this rapidly changing world. The hardest part is judging which developments make sense, which ones enhance our well-being, our architecture and the way we work and live together, and which ones make no sense at all.

What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability is not only about energy saving or minimizing the energy footprint of buildings. It is also about well-being. The most sustainable building is not necessarily the one that uses the least energy. It is the one that makes the best use of energy. Since every building we construct interferes with our environment, it must have been worth the effort. It must enhance the well-being of the people who work and live in it, and it must enrich our culture. To create a truly sustainable building, you have to consider the project’s context (cultural, geopolitical, geographical, climatic, topographical, etc.). In the last century, we believed every building in every corner of the world could be built in the same way. This resulted in huge energy inefficiencies. We cannot afford this anymore. We have to develop and adapt architecture to specific situations.

How do you think the buildings of the future will be designed?

A major task for architects in the future will be to enhance existing buildings. If we want to reach our goals in terms of sustainability and energy use, we have to redo most of the buildings constructed in the second half of the 20th century.

Generally, in the future we will be guided by the need to achieve sustainability and responsible use of materials. The number of different materials and trades used in buildings will become ever smaller. In the past 30 years, for example, suspended ceilings and many plastic materials were used. Today, we avoid these to achieve improved climate in buildings and to promote more responsible use of materials.

Façades will become increasingly complex and will include shading devices, light enhancement systems and decentralized air-conditioning systems. More importantly, they will become an energy source for the building, acting as photovoltaic and thermal solar collectors.

As concrete used in buildings is responsible for a significant amount of CO2 emissions, I feel sure that building materials will change and that greater emphasis will be placed on the use of wooden structures which are far more benign ecologically. This is one of the reasons we decided, together with WIPO, on a wooden structure using wood from sustainably managed forests for its new conference center. This is a far-sighted move and a big step towards a sustainably built environment.

What is the next big thing in architecture?

If I only knew. The goal to create a more sustainably built environment will influence architecture greatly in the coming years. This is changing architecture from a purely “form”-driven exercise, to a more “content”-driven endeavor.

Which architect has most influenced your work and which is your favorite building?

My architecture has been influenced, naturally, by my father. We shared the same humanistic ideals. Our architecture is aligned with that of Scharoun and has an expressionistic nature, but American architects like Lautner, Eames and Schindler have also influenced our work.

How would you describe WIPO’s new building and what, in your view, are its most important features?

From the outset, our aim was to ensure that the WIPO office building is a communicative structure, where people can meet, communicate and interact. It is designed to be a friendly and open building that gives emphasis to natural lighting, easy visibility and openness. While it has many small offices, we have created interesting corridors that open, on the left and the right, on to winter gardens, meeting areas and spacious atria.

An important feature of the building is its heating system. It is cooled and heated using water from Geneva’s Lake Léman. Energy-wise, it has been responsibly built, and we hope that it will create a new, interesting and highly communicative home for the community of people working at WIPO. 

WIPO’s new building – basic facts

(Photos: WIPO/Stephen Mettler)

  • Architect: Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart, Germany
  • General contractor – Implenia Entreprise Générale, S.A., Geneva, Switzerland
  • Pilot – Burckhardt & Partner, S.A., Geneva, Switzerland
  • Total of ten floors:  six above ground and four below ground
  • Total surface area: 47,000 square meters
  • Total volume: 190,000 cubic meters
  • Ground floor lobby area with 3 meeting rooms
  • A cafeteria seating 320
  • An international intellectual property library – open to the public
  • Some 500 work places on 5 floors
  • Four basement levels (including delivery area, storage area and underground car parking for 280 vehicles and 230 parking spaces for delegates)
  • Service areas
  • Tunnel linking the new building with the WIPO tower


1  See “Jury chooses winning design for new WIPO building” PDF, WIPO Magazine, 3/2000

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