The Architect: Jesko Fezer

Jesko Fezer is not just an architect, discovers Florian Heilmeyer. He is a transporter of expertise. A portrait of an architect who works collectively, on principle.

Jesko Fezer has never been much interested in the limits of his trade. If at all, then only insofar as he has preferred to operate at the edges of disciplines, to wander from one to the next, setting sweeping knowledge in motion along the way. One could almost say that Fezer isn’t an architect, but a transporter; he runs an import and export business for expertise.

He began this disciplinary interplay back as a student, founding Schleifschnecke Stuttgart with friends in 1989, an artist collective that exhibited in varying constellations. He nonetheless opted to study architecture – first at the Technischen Universität (Technical University) in Kaiserslautern, then at the Hochschule der Künste (School of Art) in Berlin. There, he co-founded the next collaboration, the urban political architecture collective Freies Fach. The group created its own curricula, seeking to not just construct buildings as flawlessly as possible, but also take part, through discussion papers and direct actions, in the discourse on designing a reunited Berlin. The group especially positioned itself against Berlin Senate’s then-building director Hans Stimmann’s “critical reconstruction” of the historic city and founded an independent architecture magazine filled with articles and theory, An Architektur—Produktion und Gebrauch gebauter Umwelt (An Architektur—Production and Use of the Built Environment).

© Photography by Noshe

These self-initiated projects and collaborations led the way for Fezer, who rather than taking a job in an architectural firm after completing his studies, instead opened a bookstore in Berlin-Mitte with Axel John Wieder and Katja Reichard. Still going strong, it’s called Pro qm—thematische Buchhandlung zu Stadt, Politik, Pop, Ökonomiekritik, Architektur, Design, Kunst und Theorie (Pro qm—a themed bookshop on the city, politics, pop, economic criticism, architecture, design, art, and theory). The name’s long list of topics at most partially reflects the three partners’ interests. An active and dynamic ancillary program has long offered a good mix of all these fields of knowledge and more. Readings, discussions, lectures, and film nights bring together all different kinds of people. The thematic focuses range from “Episteme” to “Practical Problems of Self-Organization” to “Speculative Realism.” In Berlin, the founders find a receptive audience that shares their passion for constant interdisciplinary overlap. It’s a place that suits Fezer: a store for importing and exporting knowledge.

But Fezer’s penchant for operating at the boundaries is not an end in and of itself. Anyone interested in the social, economic, political, and cultural conditions out of which architecture emerges and can be understood must by necessity establish a space between the disciplines. In addition to the bookstore, Fezer also launched an academic career, working primarily in those places where architecture and urban issues are understood and researched as cross-disciplinary topics. He taught architectural theory at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Nuremberg, then exhibition design at the Züricher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich University of the Arts). There, starting in 2009, he developed the Civic City graduate program at the Institut für Designforschung (Institute for Design Research) with Swiss communications designer Ruedi Bauer, Mexican urban planner Miguel Robles-Duran, and German graphic designer Matthias Görlich. It’s meant to bring together anyone that has something to do with urban planning: designers, architects, politicians, sociologists, geographers, city planners, lawyers, economists. Here, too, it’s about uniting the disciplines, exchanging existing knowledge, and generating new knowledge.

© Photography by Noshe

Even when it comes to “classical” architecture, Fezer has always been part of collaborations. Since 2004, he has been regularly working with another collective, the Institut für angewandte Urbanistik (Institute for Applied Urbanistics, or ifau) in Berlin. The collective’s projects are characterized by a political and experimental approach and privilege a reductionist architecture that carries out pragmatic minimal interventions in existing buildings, preferably using cheap materials. The simple design and provocative, unfinished appearance are a statement. The spaces’ users are encouraged to engage with the usage and possibilities of the building and its amenities—to understand the architects’ work not as a finished project but as a yet to be completed beginning. The collective’s best known projects include the modification of the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, the Wyoming Building in New York, and the Palais Thinnfeld in Graz as well as the residential building R50 in Berlin, which they co-developed with the future residents as a building cooperative—as a kind of test arrangement for a grassroots design process.

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Exhibition architecture, A performance project, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2010.
Exhibition view, Design Collection, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, 2012.
Exhibition view, The Whole Earth, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2013.
Exhibition view, Salzburg Unbuilt, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, 2015.

 

Since 2011, Fezer has been a regular professor at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, though to keep things from getting too regular, he teaches experimental design. One of his most charming projects there is the “Public Design Support,” which offers “free design assistance for everyday problems” out of a small shop in the city’s St. Pauli neighborhood. In the alternative leftist style characteristic of many of Fezer’s projects, the website announces: “We think design should be available to everyone because it means much more than just designing fancy high-end furniture.” As boundless as possible a democratization of planning and design is perhaps one of the central political motives of Fezer’s projects—design as a form of collective self-empowerment.

“Everything I do, I do in collaboration,” Fezer has said of his approach. That’s likely the best way to sum up his many different fields of activity. For him, it’s not just about transmitting knowledge, but about—and this is where the transporter comparison ends—an attitude, a selection, and the production of new knowledge. That, and the question of how this accumulation of diverse information and connections can be communicated beyond the university.

Everything I do, I do in collaboration.
Jesko Fezer

Fezer of course didn’t work alone on the Autostadt Design Display, but with urban researcher Anita Kaspar and professor of exhibition design Andreas Müller. The three go back to the editorial offices of An Architektur and since 2008 have constituted the Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik (cooperative for display policy). Their thematic focus is research “on the representation of political and cultural concerns in the public sphere.” They’ve designed exhibitions like Geniale Dilletanten for the Goethe Institut and The Whole Earth at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. They’ve also designed the interiors of art spaces like Casco in Utrecht, Index in Stockholm, and the lobby of the Arsenal cinema in Berlin. At Kunsthaus Bregenz, they installed a modifiable spatial structure for performance art. All these cultural-sector projects have been executed with a certain conviction, and it will be interesting to see how the cooperative expresses this conviction in the Autostadt.

 

Florian Heilmeyer, born in 1974, works as a journalist, author, and curator in his hometown of Berlin. He explores architecture, city, and design in texts, books, lectures, and exhibitions. Since 2007, he’s worked as a freelance editor for BauNetz and MARK – Another Architecture and as a correspondent for Werk, Bauen + Wohnen.