Werner Sobek’s voice drops to a low, rhythmic pitch as he articulates each word, slightly exaggerating the alliteration. “His soul swooned slowly,” intones the 55-year-old architect, “as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe.” He pauses, glancing at the ceiling of the classroom in the basement of S. R. Crown Hall, Mies van der Rohe’s glass-and-steel masterpiece that houses the Illinois Institute of Technology’s architecture college, where Sobek currently holds the Mies teaching chair. He blinks. Then, eyes bright, hands flitting back and forth like an orchestra conductor’s, Sobek concludes his on-the-spot recitation of James Joyce’s last line in “The Dead.” “And fain-tly fall-ing, like the descent of their last end...upon all the living and the dead.”
Never mind that Sobek, who is German, can spontaneously quote any number of literary classics in other languages. (“Do you want more?” he asks, helpfully, when he finishes his favorite line of Dubliners. “I can recite plenty of others.”) This architect-engineer, perhaps best known for the entirely recyclable house he built for his family near Stuttgart, is a true polymath. Equally at home in the cutting rooms of Milanese fashion houses (“If you ever want some advice on clothes, I can give it to you,” he says, conversationally) and the production line at Mercedes-Benz, he also learned how to hike glaciers in Austria after being thwarted by the ice on an ascent in the Himalayas. He could read Turgenev forever, has a solid understanding of textile weaving, knows all about the use of titanium aluminum in superlight airplane construction, and spends two to three weeks a year motorcycling alone through Patagonia to clear his head.
“Why use more energy or materials when you could use less? This is a self-understanding thing. It’s as important as that the building does not fall down and that it is built on time.”
It is precisely this omnivorous approach that has made his 200-person firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Khartoum, so good at sustainable design—though, he insists, environmental efficiency is not a goal in itself but simply a by-product of good building. “I do not want to talk about green, green, green, and so on,” says Sobek, who nonetheless includes the information that SUVs are not welcome right beneath the RSVP line on invitations to his dinner parties. “Why use more energy or materials when you could use less? This is a self-understanding thing. It’s as important as that the building does not fall down and that it is built on time.”
Citing Buckminster Fuller’s question of architects he met (“How much does your building weigh?”), Sobek calls for “radical engineering” to slim down today’s structures. He defines it as leveraging the know-how of a wide range of specialists, from civil, structural, industrial, and machine engineers to chemists and couturiers in the building design process. The positive consequences of such an approach, he says, could be enormous. Modern advances in materials technology and manufacturing processes have opened up possibilities for entirely new kinds of buildings where, for example, a textile roof soaks up energy during the day and releases it at night; a glass house embedded with electrified liquid crystals grows opaque on demand; or a facade “breathes” without the need for windows. In the future, buildings will assume any shape you want; exert complete control over things like light, air flow, heating, and humidity; and do it all so efficiently that you might never have to pay a heating bill again. “Reduction equals refinement,” he says. “Look at Porsche.”
But Sobek is quick to add that all this is possible only if architects start working differently. “We have to establish a way of planning buildings that’s integral,” he says. “A lot of architects talk about new possibilities, but they can’t apply them. For many architects, the world is still limited to concrete, masonry, wood, and steel.”
The solution? “You must understand the materials, and that has to be interdisciplinary,” Sobek says, adding that in order to explore what he calls the “terra incognita” that exists between highly specialized fields of knowledge, the old model of the architect as generalist and engineers and contractors as order-taking specialists must give way to a more equitable exchange between parties.
To help his employees develop a common language, Sobek sends his engineers to Paris fashion shows and his architects to tour the Airbus factory. “It’s so boring I don’t even want to bring it up,” he says, shrugging. “But it’s the idea of a team.”
Working alone and with star architects like Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, Sobek’s firm has designed bridges, high-rises, offices, airports, a tent for the Pope, automobile exposition structures, industrial design products, and, in the last decade, six private residences that take energy efficiency as seriously as aesthetics. The first of these, finished in 2000, was Sobek’s own family home. The now-famous four-story glass house, dubbed, not unlike an Audi or BMW, the R128, operates according to what he calls the “triple-zero approach: zero energy consumption, zero emissions, and zero waste.” One source of inspiration for both the house and the rest of Sobek’s work was the German auto industry: Under German law, automakers must produce cars whose component parts are recyclable. “I thought, Why don’t we have this in the building industry?”
With the German auto manufacturers’ recycling mandate in mind, Sobek designed so as to render the building’s high-quality materials reusable in the event the structure is ever torn down. Like German cars, the entire house is constructed using only two kinds of bolts and thus can be disassembled with just two kinds of wrenches. Drawing on an as-yet-unrealized proposition for Ford Motor Company that cars be put together with a special glue that dissolves when you dump the car in a vat of chemicals at the end of its life, he stuck his bathroom ceiling’s wooden laminate to a sheet of aluminum with a very similar sort of adhesive.
Next, inspired by the load-bearing capacity of sports shoes, he Velcroed this paneling to the ceiling’s steel rafters. “I call it ephemeral architecture,” he says, acknowledging that growing up in postwar Germany, where many places still show the damage inflicted by the Second World War, shaped some of his ideas about architectural permanence. But accepting impermanence is not the same as embracing the “throw-away society” that, Sobek says, is antithetical to his basic philosophy. “Ephemeral architecture can go today or it can stand for 1,000 years. But if it goes, it can go with honor, even the day after the opening ceremony.”
The five other triple-zero residences he has designed are all in Germany. A seventh is planned in France (only two have been published, due to the owners’ reluctance to join the sustainable architecture tourism circuit). In these delicate, understated domiciles, whose spare, modern lines stand out against their natural surroundings without overwhelming or being overwhelmed by them, he has included innovations he would like to see implemented across the board in new construction.
“Why are all the electrical elements still buried in the walls?” he wonders. “There are five layers of materials, and nobody will ever take that apart. The copper embedded there is gone forever.” Energy-saving measures he has implemented include sensors that respond, when someone opens a window, by automatically turning off the heat.
Sobek thinks for a moment and traces his belief that “it is unethical to throw things away” to growing up in Aalen, a small town in southwestern Germany where he earned pocket money in high school by painting Jimi Hendrix in his death throes on the walls of local nightclubs, then read Nietzsche into the wee hours. “You are influenced by the spirit of the place where you grow up,” he says. “The area is very, very poor in natural resources. Growing up in these surroundings, you treat everything carefully.” Carefully, indeed, though as any good architect will note, care must be tempered with trial and error. At R128, for example, the magnets that held the bathroom mirrors to the wall so that, if the building is dismantled, they can be removed with a simple suction device, didn’t work perfectly at first. “Of course there was a crash at three in the morning,” Sobek says ruefully. Then he smiles. “But we fixed it.”