Ester Bruzkus Architekten was set up in 2002 in Berlin and quickly established a reputation for its skillful handling of materials, textures and colours. The studio brings formal experimentation and strong contrasts into every project, through an intensive planning process that ensures each design has longevity, sustainability and an innate creative spark.
Ester Bruzkus: I grew up in Berlin and studied architecture here and in Paris – that was very influential. I did my internships in Tel Aviv and Paris and when I finished university in 2002, it seemed like there were more architects than taxi drivers in Berlin. There weren’t started doing small projects for friends, like stores and restaurants, and before I knew it, I had an office and employees. In the early 2000s, Berlin changed and became much more international. As a result, we had the chance to do four of five projects in Mitte. We were able to introduce high quality interior design, very different from the image of the city at the time, with bold contrasts in texture and materials. I met Peter when we were teaching together in Berlin. We had a lot of fun and started working together in 2016. Over the last six years we’ve been lucky to create lots of great projects.
Peter Greenberg: I’m originally from New York City and studied architecture at Yale and Harvard. I realised that my passion was for materials and how they come together, how material intersections and details could express ideas. I taught an international programme in Berlin with Ester, which is when we discovered that we have a similar approach. The firm has stayed very international, with staff from Italy, Korea, Croatia, Russia and Spain. It gives us a bigger view of the world – we believe very strongly in the importance of travel, research, teaching and practice.
PG: One of the things that characterises what we do is the fact that we’re inspired by all sorts of things around us. We try to keep our eyes open. It’s not just other architects and interior designers, but ideas from art and fashion and music, or even auto racing and dance. Things that might not seem like they’d be relevant.
EB: Being open to the world allows you to find inspiration everywhere, from art to street signs. It all comes together in our projects.
EB: When we visited the Salone del Mobile in Milan we were asking ourselves who we wanted to be in this world of design. Are we storytellers, or are we very strict, minimal designers? Our realisation was that we follow our vision, listening to the building as well as the client. Out of this comes a unique space - it’s why all our projects look different. But perhaps we also follow some of the ‘rules’ of modernism. When we travel, we visit great modernist buildings, like the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn in India. At the same time, there’s also a big love for baroque churches.
PG: As an early twenty first century architecture firm, we realise what makes our generation different is that we have instant access to every project that has ever been designed. It makes our generation unique, and it is why research is so important. We’re very proud of our broad understanding of the world’s best projects. We’re not shy about building on those lessons, or even taking specific solutions that work for our particular problems. That’s how culture works. You build on what’s gone before.
PG: I wouldn’t say that we have a culture that prizes newness – most projects that get built are very safe and don’t take too many risks.
EB: That’s the nice thing about our clients – they’re not scared of colour and contrasts. They’re open to creating something different. Having a vision and getting something built is incredibly difficult. If it’s good, that’s even harder. The simpler things appear, the harder it is to do. It’s why VOLA is so special – the minimalist approach takes the most precise planning.
EB: Colour comes quite late in the design process for us. We start off by creating volumes that communicate with each other, and as a result we end up with surfaces and forms that can be defined by bold colours. The Green Box apartment, for example, only became green at the end of the project. In our own home, the colour is mostly contained within the cabinets. Externally, it’s grey – but open the doors and the hidden kitchen is green and the wardrobe is yellow, for example.
PG: We see colour as one of the factors that helps us to express the architectural idea. That’s what we’re looking for, not the colour itself. It can help us fuse things together or express certain elements. Colour is not an independent variable. Architecture is a rational, logical, puzzle-solving thing. Each project is a very specific problem. The important thing for us is not to shock someone with a colour but to use colour to fulfil the logic embedded in the space.
EB: Absolutely. The Green Box has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media. It certainly inspires a lot of different emotions in people.
PG: It takes me back to your question about modernism. The history of modernism tends to be told in black and white, but a lot of those buildings were very colourful – the work of Bruno and Max Taut, or Mies van der Rohe. Until 1986, the Barcelona Pavilion was just known as a black and white photograp. When it was rebuilt, you saw that it was about the colour of the marble, the silver, the water, all elements that enhance the architecture. For us, this revelation is somewhat analogous to how we work – we figure stuff out in black and white and then see how colour can make something even more intense.
PG: We’re currently working on a project for a funeral home and have been discussing the associations that colour might have with grief and mourning. There’s no right answer. I think colour probably has stronger cultural resonances than scientifically proven associations. After all, we’re living in such a diverse world.
PG: Absolutely. Certain colours are integral to a material, for example. For the REMI restaurant we did in Berlin-Mitte for Lode van Zuylen and Stijn Remi, there’s a lot of bright maroon, as well as silver and reddish stone. We used no surface colour at all – every colour is the result of cutting through a material and revealing stained fibres running through it, like a stick of butter. It’s like with gastronomy - if you cut into a carrot, you get a carrot.
EB: At the same time, we also did the Villa Kellermann restaurant for Tim Kaue in Potsdam. They had a different approach to cooking, which was more traditional, just like the space, which feels like a well-travelled aunt’s country house. REMI is more about local cuisine and a simple, pared back approach.
PG: Yes. I believe that architecture accommodates the concept of the raw and the cooked - Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theory of abstract binary notions. In architectural terms, ‘raw’ means implicit beauty - revealing the beauty of a natural material, while the ‘cooked’ is something like alchemy, putting things together and stewing them to create something never seen before. We’re interested in presenting both extremes - we can pair very expensive materials with affordable surfaces, or carefully worked surfaces next to unfinished areas.
EB: We just ran a big workshop for a new hotel and our team collected all kinds of materials – sustainable, recycled, local stone and wood. At the beginning, we always have too much. As the design progresses, we reduce the material boards to get to the essence of the project. At the very end, it’s like putting the sparkles on – the mirrors, or art. At the L.A. Poke restaurant in Berlin, we had this idea of a watery horizon, with a ‘big splash’ inspired by David Hockney’s famous painting. The blue hallways were inspired by our visit to Mexico and seeing Luis Barragán’s work and Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul – it is a very intense colour that fitted with the Californian/Central American atmosphere. You have to listen to the building – these ideas grow out of the space.
PG: We are curators. We curate the things around us. We don’t make materials, we choose them. We pick ideas from history, from trade shows, Instagram, all sorts of stuff. A very important part of the process is editing and whittling stuff down.
EB: When we get to the essence, that’s when we feel the butterflies in our stomachs.
PG: It’s back to cooking – we boil things down to a rich broth.
PG: It’s a difficult question because it depends on the kind of problem we’re tackling. Urban planners need solutions that last for hundreds of years, and architects for decades. When you design a hotel, as we often do, as soon as construction is finished they’re practically starting to renovate it. It’s sad that some of the work we do has a short lifespan, but that’s about economic realities.
EB: Longevity can also come from precise planning - the details are timeless. It’s like VOLA taps – they’re so easy to maintain and change.
PG: Our work isn’t wilful, it’s about well thought through solutions to a well-phrased problem. Colour is one part of that solution. Listening is so important. It’s one of the basic skills for good design. You have to listen to what everyone needs – the project, the building, the client, society. Eventually you hope there’s a conversation going on that you started but is carried on in your work without you being there.
EB: David Lynch summarised it when he said creativity is like a puzzle, and you have to get all the puzzle parts sufficiently together in order to say that the puzzle is complete. It’s also about passion, listening, opening up and then never losing the goal of the initial idea. Our legacy isn’t very egoistic – we want to motivate people to open up to creativity and beauty.