Supporter's Column: Jason Whiteley

A conversation between London and Basel; reflecting on building techniques, the value in the historic and stories about Otto Sengel.

Nobilitator: A Conversation with Mitch Baer


Mitch Baer is an architect in Basel.

Jason Whiteley is a director of London-based architecture studio MATHESON WHITELEY.


Jason: When we worked together in Basel I always found excuses to walk past your desk. You had the best projects and the best stories... 

Mitch: ... (laughs) always telling stories ...

J: ... I was thinking about this recently. You are from the Basel region. Do you feel part of a Basel building tradition? 

M: I was born on the German side of the river Rhine, twenty-five kilometres away from Basel in a little town with a very old tradition. It was founded by an Irish monk who made the first wave of Christianity in the South German area in the seventh century. There was set up a convent of noble women who were mostly sisters or daughters of the South German and Burgundy elites of that time. So they were wealthy and they would be sent to the monastery. They acquired a lot of land in Switzerland and even up in the North of Germany. So there was always a tradition of something urban, but surrounded by the Black Forest. The Black Forest has a very rural tradition with very big, stand-alone houses. These Black Forest houses are pretty much like sports halls, with big, very mighty roofs. 

J: Those great Basel overhangs! They were always in the projects that you were working on ...

M: ...  yeah. These are the images you keep with yourself.

J: I remember one time I came by and asked you how you were going to install these big diagonal timber supports that prop the roof overhang from the wall. I was asking about flashings and the penetration and sequencing and you said “we get a really long screw and we screw it all together”. It was so direct and that left a big impression on me.

M: Well, this is the thing, I have read a lot about this tradition in Germany. It’s the timber manner, the work of the carpenter or zimmermann. These guys, they were able for a long time to connect wooden stuff almost without a screw. If you look at buildings in the 15th or 16th Century, almost nobody would use a nail and screws had not been invented. And of course, this is the European tradition of carpentry. They were able to connect stuff according to needs. Like columns and these diagonals. They had a lot of quite refined techniques.

These zimmermann, especially the ones I know in Germany, have a very high ethos for their work. It may be different elsewhere. But here they want to deliver a good work. They would never leave a site untidy at the end of the day. They keep this standard quite high. But on the other hand they are not yesterday’s people. They say, “if we have a new solution, which gives us the possibility to do something in a more simple way, why shouldn’t we?” This is a sort of pragmatism I like.

J: It’s almost a type of minimalism. It’s very direct and there’s an architectural quality in that directness.

M: If you look at the history and tradition of this area, people always had to act this way because in former times the regular people didn’t have much money. They didn’t have much resources. And from the pure need of “how do I solve this problem?”, can come a very healthy pragmatism. If I look at the situation at the moment, and if I think about sustainability, and about the goals we have to tackle in the future, maybe this sort of pragmatism could be helpful. To have the direct approach.

J: If you want to have confidence that a building will last a few hundred years, then building it like one that has already lasted a few hundred years is a good direction.

M: Yeah, these buildings proved to be quite reliable. In a way they are very sustainable, because they stayed around the longest. Also we can then think about structure or grids, which makes it possible to change buildings and use them for different purposes.

J: Old buildings are legible. You can see how they are put together. And you can imagine how to take them apart. Contemporary buildings work because of many continuous layers. Maybe in 50 or 100 years it’s less obvious how you should make a hole in them.

M: I did a small internship in an architect’s office when I finished school, next to my hometown. There was one of these farmhouses I was talking about in the Black Forest, from about 1600. And it was to be demolished because the owner of the land wanted to take it away. Some people formed a community which was interested in this building. And they were able to buy it. But they had to take it away and relocate it. This house is made out of wood, and rendered with clay plaster over small sticks woven together. The roof is made from reeds. The carpenters had a big puzzle about how to take it apart. So they numbered every beam. They numbered every column. And then they rebuilt it 30 kilometres away. It became the Freilichtmuseum Klausenhof, which is still running today. And this was very much interesting for me. That you don’t have to demolish a house. You don’t have to end up with a huge pile of rubble. Instead you find it’s pretty much like a big store of materials. You can reuse it. You maybe plane the old beams a bit. And then you can use them again for another 500 years.

J: I guess watching how it comes apart tells you a lot about how you can make a new thing?

M: Yeah, you know, you learn from disassembling and how the pieces were done. And you can, if you think about it, maybe find a better way. In the last 100 years we have made some inventions. But also you can learn about how they did it in the past and how to make things very simple. You can do this without being too much of a traditionalist, because I don’t want to have again these forms of old houses. But you can learn and maybe find another kind of perception.

J: Obviously you are a modern person, but I always had a feeling talking to you — how can I say this? — that you are conscious of older time. Somehow in your work there is not such a break because of modernism or whatever. For me, this quality is really fascinating.

M: Yeah, this also fascinates me. Of course, I’m a big lover of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. But even if you look at Mies’s work, there’s a lot of knowledge about tradition. You can see he has come from an old stone cutter family. I don’t want to live like somebody in 1700. I like the times we are living in.

In the Bauhaus, when they suddenly said we want to disrupt this line of tradition, maybe at that time it was the right decision to make. They said “we don’t teach building history anymore.” Because in this part of the world, architecture in the 19th and late-18th Century maybe got a bit lost in decoration. So for the Bauhaus movement or the modernism movement, I can understand why they said “we have to chop this off and start from scratch, make a new point.” Of course, modernism gained a lot. There was the idea of a modern city where everybody would have a flat, which at least would protect you from cold and rain and disease.

J: You told me this amazing story of Otto Sengel, who was a house painter and a nobilitator of wood.

M: So actually he was a painter. He was a sort of old, really, really old-time painter. He was a one-man show, with a workshop and he would also paint your house. If you had furniture to paint or even unlacquer, he would come to your house with a sort of wooden hand cart with two big wheels. And he would load your furniture onto that, and then carry it through the streets and bring it to his workshop. And he would also deliver it back to you the same way. He had pretty much fallen out of the past, even back then. But you know, a lot of people admired him because of the quality of his work.

For me as a kid he was a very impressive man because he had very long white hair. He looked like a genius from the 19th century. And he could be a bit harsh. Once in my youth I brought an old sanded guitar body to his workshop and asked for a treatment so that it appeared as old natural wood. He says “okay, okay, young guy, I will do it for you cheap. But leave my workshop!” And I said “why?” So he replied “I will have to pee on that guitar and leave it for a while and it’s not necessary that you attend the whole process!” I don’t know what he really did, but it came out wonderfully. I think everybody has this experience of meeting people who leave an impression on you, even if they are maybe only an anecdote in your life. Sometimes they leave a trace, you know?

Later on, I would meet up with him from time to time. Once he showed me a locker. It’s made from the cheapest spruce you ever could find because it was for poor people in the 18th century. But then, in later times, when people gained a bit of wealth, they would upgrade this locker. But they would not order a new one. They would use this old one. And the painters then, the traditional painters who would also paint houses, were able to upgrade this locker so it looked like a cherry tree locker. He said, “listen, I open it from the inside, it’s spruce. But from the outside, maybe 90% of people will not recognize that this is not cherry wood.”

J: There’s something so radical about this ...

M: ... Yeah, to me, also. You know, you could call it fake ...

J: ... But it’s more complicated and more beautiful than this ...

M: ... Yes, yes. It’s applying an image without irony. I think this kind of architecture in its long, long tradition has a lot of amazing systems where truth is flexible. Like a stone has no truth, you know?

J: It’s a stone? But this is incredibly sophisticated. Not just because of the technical command of materials and chemistry, but also this radical way to think about the past. Today, we either preserve the past or we destroy it. Both are a modern way of thinking about time. We are continuously becoming distinct from the past. But the approach of the locker is to take something valuable from the past and ennoble it. It feels very alive and continuous as an approach.

M: I heard that he was also restoring maritime oil paintings. Very often English ones. He said “there are not many people left who are able to repaint or draw a sky, a cloudy sky, or waves”. He learned how to put a bit more roughness in, you know? So he became a sort of restorer. Of course, he was never certified. But he was able to do that stuff and refine his own skills.

For me this is an interesting point. You know, this guy was a bit rough. But in behind that surface, there’s a lot of refinement and a way of looking at things. He could analyse things and say “this green is not enough” or whatever. He developed a sensitivity. And I think this could be a goal for many of us. We all start as beginners from scratch. And we are maybe not very secure, we’re a bit unsure about things. But then we get into our topics and gain a bit of refinement. I think this is a nice image for the profession.



Jason Whiteley is the director of MATHESON WHITELEY.