Baukultur /// Urbanism concepts from Germany

151209 - BaukulturIn a lot of urban planning circles here in Germany, there is a new concept called Baukultur, which translates loosely to ‘a culture of building.’ The term is also linked with a state-funded foundation called the Bundesstiftung Baukultur (The Federal Foundation of Building Culture, founded in 2006). In their annual report (pdfs in Eng/Deu), the Foundation gives the following as a definition for Baukultur:

Baukultur aims at good planning and building. It combines a high design standard with a holistic view of social, economic, and environmental aspects, and thus has an emotional and aesthetic dimension. Baukultur is essential to produce an environment that is perceived as liveable. It serves to secure and develop the social and economic values thus created. Producing Baukultur is a social process based on a broad understanding of qualitative values and goals and their implementation with high levels of interdisciplinary expertise. Baukultur is the positive result of a good process culture.

What I gather so far is that Baukultur is a concept, which scholars and the foundation are trying to apply to the process of building construction. They give a few examples of where Baukultur could operate on the German page:

…Private Bauherren können für sich eine Basis für den lang­fristigen Werterhalt oder Wertzuwachs ihrer Investitionen schaffen. Die öffentliche Hand kann mit ihren Projekten zur Unverwechselbarkeit unserer Städte beitragen und damit lokal und national Identität stiften. Politiker können durch Initiativen Unzufriedenheitspotenzial aufnehmen und in produktive Bahnen lenken und auf diese Weise breite Zustimmung für Entwicklungen und Veränderungen erzielen…

(sketchy translation: Private building owners can create for themselves a foundation for the long-term preservation or increase of the worth of their investment. The public sector can contribute to the uniqueness of our cities with their projects and thus help create local and national identities. Politicians can make use of the potential power in people’s discontent, steer them in productive ways and in so doing, achieve broad approval for developments and changes.)

Baukultur and the Foundation seem to be tools to connect architecture with planning, civil engineering, development and other fields to create an interdisciplinary network promoting sustainable, good construction. The Foundation works largely from the public sector (being a federal foundation), connecting with outside actors in the building sectors.

There are some things however, that I found hard to understand, which I think says something about my perspective on planning and urbanism as a Canadian/North American.

First of all, I am not used to (a certain type of) aesthetics being such an important part of planning over and above other more function-based considerations. In the case of this Baukultur report, a survey was conducted asking city planning departments what were the most important criteria to the concept of Baukultur. Most said that aesthetics (94.7%), local identity (93.0%), maintenance of worthy building stock (91.7%), and craftsmanship (84.7%) were most important, while fewer said sustainability (77.7%) stakeholder consensus (56.9%), consideration of social issues (50.0%) and adaptability (44.8%) were important. This is shocking to me, as city planning departments (from my limited experience) in Canada would likely focus more on the latter goals.

What I also found strange was that there is no ‘public’ in these definitions. The concept seems generally to be geared towards those in power and those who may be in charge of the construction of the city rather than the people who are to live in the city. As I read through the pages and report, I see that there is a general theme: that good buildings and structures will be the cause of better, more satisfied lives. I think this is somehow a dangerous path to tread if it is not in combination with stakeholder agreement and attention to wider social problems that may actually be solved with less construction.

Still, there is some mention of the importance of giving the public a say in the building process. In Germany I have heard of the so-called Phase-Zero, a term that refers to the first part of a building’s construction. It is a time when stakeholders have the most power to impact the design of a structure. Conversely, Phase-Ten is a phase where stakeholders can provide recommendations and judgement on the quality of a finished work. Both of these concepts are given space in the Report.

Beyond this, there were many other things that I found really wonderful that are often missing from the Canadian planning discourse. For example, there is a whole section on the importance of energy-saving, renewables and building construction. The nice thing is that the report and the Institute are making a case for interdisciplinary cooperation between planners, designers, city officials and the building trades. They mention many examples of where urban energy policies affect the built form of a city and, in turn, colour public opinion. This is particularly true in the choice of building materials and the construction of the facade.

The mention of conflict is also a refreshing turn (instead of the celebration of planning/architectural successes). With surveys and percentages, the report provides many examples of where planning and building policy is leading to possible conflict. Densification of urban centers was one conflict area, as well as gentrification, increasing public engagement efforts, aging populations, increasing privatization and the growth of shopping malls throughout Germany. Although they do not provide solutions, it was nice to see a somewhat frank discussion of these problems, especially since the audience of this work is so broad.

Finally the mention of the internet’s role in altering a city’s built form was definitely interesting to read. There is a section talking about the possible conflicts arising from increasing use of the internet for commerce and communication. Questions arising from lower interest in ‘brick-and-mortar’ style shopping and the increasing communication about the city through the internet were concepts that the report deemed important for their multidisciplinary audience. This was also refreshing to read as I think many Canadian planning publications and thought have shied away from wading into those waters.

As I read more and more, I am finding situations where the European planning world is simultaneously far behind and way ahead of the Canadian or North American planning world. The idea of Baukultur is something that I feel is definitely a step forward for planning theory, but I will want to keep a skeptical eye on it towards the future.


  1. There is also a good example of an established Baukultur in North America, Santa Fe, New Mexico. A large part of their Baukultur revolves around aesthetics of a building, so mainly Spanish Pueblo Revival. The second focus is water efficiency, so how to cut down on water consumption and use rain water for watering / grey water systems. Third focus is energy efficiency. A lot of Santa Fe’s Baukultur has been and is regulated by the city, the city also has incentive programs to support change and a large part is comes from planers, developers, public and home owners with their awareness of which direction they want to go.

    • Sheraz said:

      Good tip, I’ll make sure to seek it out!

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