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Interview with Markus Heinsdorff

Markus Heinsdorff during the construction of the pavilions at the Indo-German Urban Mela | © Manoj Patil

The work of architect and installation artist Markus Heinsdorff is characterized by his artistic exploration of spaces and nature.

During his travels around the world, he continually seeks ways to incorporate the potential and possibilities of nature into his design.

Trained as a goldsmith and sculptor in Southern Germany, Markus Heinsdorff has become an internationally acclaimed artist, winning several awards for his works that link design, art and architecture, together with technical innovations.

Since 1997, he has focused much of his work on bamboo. For the three-year event series ‘Germany and China – Moving ahead together’, Markus Heinsdorff designed numerous bamboo pavillions that were showcased in several major cities around China, culminating in the German-Chinese House for the Expo Shanghai 2010.

Now the designer of the multifaceted pavilions for the Indo-German Urban Mela, part of the event series "Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities", he speaks about the methods defining his work for the project -- the combination of fragile membranes, sturdy steel and Indian motifs.


What would you say is the central theme of your work? Has being in India and observing architectural design here affected your approach in any way?

The focus of my creations is working with urban spaces.  The unique approach lies in identifying the architectural element in nature and enhancing it. While I’ve used membranes in my work before, this will be the first time that Indian fabric will be a prominent feature in the construction.

The “Indo-German Urban Mela” is the highlight of the year of Germany in India and it is interesting that the tour is also about mobile architecture in a sense. We will be moving with the tour from city to city and setting up a space in the heart of each one. It will be a space wherein we would like visitors to experience these structures. It will be like a little city-space that plays with the existing skyline of the urban landscape and challenges them to change their perspective on it. It will be like a mirror to reflect on Indian architecture as it exists.

The objective of my design for these pavilions has been to retain the traditional aspects of Indian design and mould them into sustainable architectural solutions. Steel and membrane are the physical components of my work, while the sculptural motifs are part of the guiding principles. Technology is not limited to machines. The intricacy and rigour that go into weaving fabric, as I see it in India is also in that sense – high technology and this is part of my architectural construct as well.

While India’s art and architectural history is rich in its use of colourful and precious stones – a striking element of nature, the hand-crafted nature of most of the motifs are also phenomenal! Bringing it all together to be a part of German architectural techniques was an intense process of research and selection.

Interesting, indeed, is how you talk of mobile architecture in the Indian context. Is there anything that caught your fancy in particular about this aspect?

I had been fascinated with how Indians use tent structures for a lot of ceremonies in India. It is a legacy that has inspired my design. The project “Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities” has “StadtRäume – CitySpaces” as a central theme. One of the chief concerns of this theme is envisioning how our cities will appear in the near future. We think of making our cities better and in this light, it is wonderful that two countries are coming together to experiment in architectural design that is sustainable and environment-friendly.

Things have changed over the centuries, but there’s a lot we can retain from traditional methods and materials of construction, and my endeavour has been to use these in sustainable ways. I have tried to reflect this synthesis of ideas in my design for the pavilions.

Speaking of experimentation, you combine different methods and materials in your creations. What ideas do you draw from?

Both Indian and German cultures have a focal point and strengths. Colour and shapes from Indian architectural design could meet the planning-oriented German architecture. The construction for this project is mobile, it uses traditional fabric and of course, elements from both the cultures.

When I approached a design plan for the Urban Mela pavilions, something amusing caught my attention. This project is about temporary architecture, it is about creating an environment of experimentation and bridging the different elements.  

An interesting element I observed is that the elephant has a very strong presence in Indian ceremonies. It is a symbol of mobility. To me, the saddle of on an elephant’s back appears to be a house that’s on the move. In that sense, it’s a space that’s moving from place to another. It’s nomadic in nature. It’s mobile. It’s a simple design element but stands for so much. Coaches too, in a way are a mobile and liveable space. They are already part of the culture, they are lightweight too.

Drawing from what already exists; the materials used range from jute, rice-straw, concrete and a varying, flexible membrane. Some of these materials are quite cost-effective and environment –friendly. I also see this as a potential for universities and corporations to test and experiment with traditional architecture and explore the construction as a sustainable option.

As the appearance of cities is changing, I have approached my design with three considerations – utilizing space, the structure of real buildings in the city and of course, all the research I’ve undertaken on Indian materials. Hopefully, the look and feel of these pavilions will get the visitors thinking about innovations in traditional architectural designs.

In the construction of the pavilions, how do the materials you select combine to form a single structure?

What we’re attempting is not so much a fusion, but simply bringing elements from both cultures into the same space. The idea is to engage dialogue between the two countries in the context of design and architecture. The pavilions in the Urban Mela will hopefully confront local visitors to reflect on their own design culture and be reminded of the richness that already prevails.

In one type of the pavilions, I’ve used a wire frame for the roof, supported by lightweight columns. The façade is translucent, with no windows and natural light streaming in. The walls are double-layered, so as to allow cooling and also to protect from rains. Overall, the design of the pavilions allows for the light to be dimensional and the construction to appear somewhat structural.

The idea is to share the knowledge on architecture and space between the two countries. India has many megacities, but there is a sizeable difference in population when the two countries are compared. In theory, Germany has many solutions in urbanization and city-planning and India is an ideal ground to try out some of these solutions because it has a number of metropolitan cities with a growing population. This is also an opportunity for innovators from Germany to apply and experiment with some of the solutions and learnings in the context of City Planning. Thus, there can be more of a discourse between the two cultures, than a mixture. It is a mutually beneficial platform for both the countries, learning from each other.

On a lighter note, you began as a goldsmith quite early on. Now, you’re also trying to experiment with membranes. It must be quite an experience using these mediums in different ways.

I used to work as a goldsmith when I was very young and even started a school to impart the technique, but my grandmother being a fabric producer, my affinity for membranes became evident quite early on. Two of my aunts worked as weavers too and I had a wonderful time watching them work on chairs, carpets and other things.

When I arrived in India, it was delightful to see that fabric was so crucial to the culture. The gemstone shapes for the pavilions are a reminder and celebration of the colour and vibrancy of Indian art and design. It has been an experiment from the very start and that is the driving force.

The Events, the Pavilions and the Square
Textile Structures of the Future by Markus Heinsdorff