Erik Spiekermann, master typographer, is responsible for everything from the German National Railways’ iconic “DB” insignia to the typefaces used by Volkswagen, Nokia, and Audi; the entire 2001 redesign of the Economist; and a generation of designers’ ideas about type. One of his latest projects, however, involved creating something else altogether: a brand-new, environmentally conscious town house on an empty lot in Berlin.
When asked, the German-born “Father of Fonts” insists that there is nothing similar about designing a typeface and designing a house. “They’re totally different,” he says, in excellent English peppered with correctly implemented expletives. “With a typeface, you design a space. A letter is defined by the inside space, more than it is by the outside. You design for shape, but also for function.”
Sitting at the table in the San Francisco house he and his wife, Susanna Dulkinys, creative director of their firm Edenspiekermann, share when they aren’t in Berlin or London, the globe-trotting Spiekermann pauses: Perhaps the two projects do not sound entirely different after all. “In either case,” he concedes, “the design is as much about function as it is about aesthetics.”
On his iPhone, Spiekermann pulls up a photo of their seven-story Berlin house, which was completed in 2007 with Christa Fischer of C. Fischer Innenarchitekten. Faced with a bevy of traditional choices, the home’s opaque glass facade (which lets in light and, in the winter, ample heat) has a flat, rectangular face. Sectioned off by a grid of lines that indicate the height of each level, as well as the location of the staircase, and punctuated by windows, the facade has a highly graphic quality. Particularly when seen in this two-dimensional format, it looks—well, it looks like a piece of paper.
I wonder aloud, Could Spiekermann read this facade like a page? He gives me a doleful look. “Well,” he says, “I suppose I could.” Yes, he admits, he did apply the same “rational grid” principle to building the house that he does to building a page, identifying a smallest unit (here, 45 by 45 centimeters) as the basic building block for everything else. (In the house, it applies to room size and wall heights; on a page, line spacing and caption placements.) Then he gets into the analogy, even if it wasn’t his explicit design approach, declaring that on the right-hand side of the building, where the stairwell is, “the marginal column is the staircase—for captions.” He points to the street-level entryway: “The headline, in this case, is the entrance. Because you enter a home from the bottom, that’s where you enter the ‘page.’”
And what does this page say? “You can deduce some stuff,” Spiekermann says. “You can deduce the message ‘Don’t read me. I am translucent, but licht ist nicht sicht—light is not sight. I don’t want you to look into me, and I don’t want to look out at you.’”
The reasoning behind this message is practical, aesthetic, and cultural. The lot is deep and narrow—something Spiekermann compares to having to work within the constraints of a certain page size. (“I hate A4 pages,” he says. “But you can’t just say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to work in [that] size.’”) But he still wanted to allow plenty of light into the building, hence the glass facade.
Directly across the street is an East German high-rise complex—a plattenbau, or prefabricated concrete apartment house. Now universally pooh-poohed, the plattenbauten were originally built for relatively privileged East Germans. “It’s not a nice view,” says Spiekermann, perhaps not entirely facetiously adding that in his opinion his neighbors are former members of the East German secret police. “They’re all these old Stasi guys who are still pissed off that we came and took their republic away,” he says, noting that his home has the added benefit of filtering out some of the local style as well as the summertime heat. “They all have these lacy curtains, really German. I say hello, and they don’t say hello back.”
In Berlin, as we prepare to go inside the building, Christa Fischer—a longtime collaborator who befriended Spiekermann in West Berlin in the 1980s—describes the neighbors as “the East German bourgeoisie.” But, she adds, “they’re not so bad.”
Inside, the house has a strikingly modern look. “There’s no lace in our house,” says Dulkinys. “Except in my underwear drawer.” Throughout, materials are left in their raw form, starting with the panels of spaghetti insulation on the walls and ceiling of the ground-floor lobby. Just outside the lobby is a drive-through for Spiekermann’s Audi: The garage space is just beyond the lobby’s back wall, which turns out, James Bond–style, to actually be a door.
Raw concrete balconies face the inner courtyard at each level. The second and third floors are rented out as office space; here, as elsewhere, raw particleboard softens some of the concrete walls and floors. The stairwell, too, is concrete—though, to Spiekermann’s chagrin, it had to be painted in places because of substandard onsite pouring work. A small Niki de Saint Phalle statue in the bright, airy stairwell signals the start of the private living space on the fourth floor, which houses the laundry–computer server–printing press room.
On the fifth floor, Spiekermann and Dulkinys have their home office, while the sixth floor is devoted to the kitchen and living area. Only the seventh-floor bedroom, with a small front terrace hidden from the street by the opaque glass exterior, has a black slate floor. All painted surfaces are a single shade of light gray.
Which is not to say that there are no luxurious touches: A chic Bulthaup kitchen “cost as much as a house in America,” jokes Spiekermann, adding that the couple cooks often. Other extras include an ingenious, if terrifying, remote-controlled mountaineer’s harness that lifts browsers to the books on the two-story-high bookshelf (though they have to be careful not to run into the Ingo Maurer Zettel’z light). To avoid clutter, almost everything is built in, with cleverly designed zippered fabric panels on the walls working to hide plugs and cords. “It’s like creating white space,” says Dulkinys, “so you can free your mind and be creative.”
All the townhouses in the development must meet the strict energy regulations imposed on new buildings. But Spiekermann, Dulkinys, and Fischer took going green to the next level, implementing state-of-the-art technologies throughout the building. The facade itself serves a dual function as one of the building’s heating and cooling elements: Made by a Swiss start-up company called GlassX, the glass incorporates a prismatic element that allows warmth from the sun to pass through only when the sun hits at a low angle (as it does in the winter). In the summer, the prism inside the glass blocks the sun’s radiation, keeping the space cool.
Solar panels on the roof collect the sun’s warmth, while borehole heat exchangers—four steel pipes—reach 105 feet into the ground, where they collect heat stored in the earth’s relatively temperature-stable deep layers. Warmth from both the solar thermal and geothermal systems feeds into a heat pump, which keeps the fresh water in an 800-liter container ready for use. The water is used to keep the floors toasty, while the tank stores what’s not in use.
In the summer, when a glass house could get too hot (even in Berlin), the concrete walls and floor retain nighttime coolness. A natural ventilation system uses the stairwell as a chimney, and a series of hand-operated bottom-hung windows ensures that plenty of cool air will circulate at night. “They use no gas to heat,” Fischer says, though they still buy electricity to run the pumps, but even some of that comes from the solar panels on the roof.
The interior is bright and charming, cool but not cold. Each floor is open, with an unencumbered view from the glass facade in front to the glass doors in back, which makes the rooms feel much larger than they are. Standing on the top back terrace provides a wide-angle peek at Berlin’s history, with glimpses of the Fernsehturm (television tower); a Schinkel church destroyed in World War II then rebuilt by the German Democratic Republic; and the Federal Foreign Office, a section of which occupies the former Reichsbank, a massive structure constructed under the National Socialists. (As Spiekermann puts it, “We live behind that big Nazi building.”)
Reflecting on how their facade compares with the surrounding town houses built in a variety of styles in the new development, Spiekermann and Dulkinys agree that their house—the first they’ve built from the ground up—is definitely different.
“It’s very modern,” says Dulkinys.
“The other houses are prettier,” Spiekermann counters.
“Ours is a table of contents.”
“All the others are covers.”
“Ours is an overview.”
“Where you know where everything is.”
“The table of contents is my favorite page.”
“Me too, actually. A good one is functional, but also appetizing.”
Writer Sally McGrane flew to Copenhagen from her home in Berlin to visit the Mountain Dwellings. She was particularly impressed by the Victor Ash murals in the garage of wolves and moose atop wreaked cars. What she found hard to believe, however, was that David Zahle, a resident and one of the architects who helped design the building, has never had any dreams about the "car cathedral" under his home.