Günter Behnisch: The architect behind Munich's groundbreaking Olympic Stadium

David Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:29

Günter Behnisch was a former U-boat commander who designed the Munich Olympic Stadium.

His other renowned buildings include the chamber of the former German parliament in Bonn and the Museum for Communication in Frankfurt am Main.

Günter Behnisch was born in the village of Lockwitz, south of Dresden. He was the second of three children, born to free-thinking parents. His father, a veteran of the First World War, was an elementary school teacher and strong social democrat. Behnisch was influenced by his parents' views and by the economic, social and political crisis of the time. Money was short, as public-sector employees had been forced to take a pay cut. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, his father was arrested and dismissed from his post. In 1935 he was re-employed, but sent to the industrial town of Chemnitz, often called "the Saxon Manchester", noted for its textile industry and technical colleges. By this time, Behnisch had attended a variety of schools. His final school was Nazi-orientated and he went on camping expeditions with the Hitler Youth. Things seemed to be getting better. Re-armament appeared as a normal restoration of the German armed forces rather than as a preparation for war.

In December 1939, aged 17, Behnisch volunteered for the navy. By so doing, he avoided the one-year compulsory labour service, and the tougher conditions facing conscripted soldiers. As an officer cadet, he faced lengthy training to become a U-boat officer, which included voyages from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. On 1 May 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant (Leutnant zur See). Finally, on 1 December 1943, he was promoted to senior lieutenant (Oberleutnant zur See) and on 4 October 1944 became one of the youngest U-boat commanders in the German navy. By that time, he had been awarded the Iron Cross (2nd class) after serving in Toulon. His boat, U2337, saw no action.

When the War ended in Europe, in May 1945, he surrendered his vessel to the British at Kristiansand Sud, Norway. They ordered him to sail it to Scotland. He remained a POW from May 1945 until 1947, quartered in Featherstone Camp in Northumberland, together with 4,000 to 5,000 other officers, many of them older, many university educated. They underwent a "re-education" programme and could also study sciences, languages, architecture and much more.

After training and working as a bricklayer, Behnisch studied, from 1947 to 1951, at the Technical University in Stuttgart. He then worked for Rolf Gutbrod, who was to become known for his Liederhalle in Stuttgart. This apprenticeship lasted for one year, after which Behnisch started his own practice; his partner in this venture was Bruno Lambart. It was the period of the massive reconstruction programme known as the "economic miracle", and more often than not, simple, easy-to-construct designs were called for. Belonging to this period is the Hohenstaufen-Gymnasium, Göppingen (1956–1959). In 1967, Behnisch formed Günter Behnisch and Partner. Initially, they concentrated on prefabricated school buildings. That year he was also appointed professor of design and industrial architecture and director of the Institute of Construction Standardisation at Darmstadt University of Technology. He held this position until 1987.

Behnisch's most famous work was for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Olympic Park represented the Federal Republic to the rest of the world at a time of optimism and prosperity. It was a time of political change led by the Social Democrat Chancellor, Willy Brandt, whom Behnisch admired. His idea was that the Park was to be a total contrast to the previous bombastic architecture of the 1936 Nazi Olympics, with modern buildings helping to create an atmosphere of egalitarianism and freedom. The spectacular tent-roof covering the stadium, sports hall, and swimming pool was designed with Frei Otto on a site to the north of Munich, where huge hills of wartime rubble had been dumped, which, along with the natural gravel layer beneath, was moulded into a new landscape. Axial arrangements were avoided, a central lake was created around an existing stream, and the seating of the large arenas was absorbed into the hillsides like classical theatres. The arenas needed roofs, but box-like buildings would have threatened the concept, so Behnisch proposed the largest cable-net structures ever erected. Much innovative technology had to be developed, but the huge roofs were completed on time and stole the show.

Other schools and public buildings followed, including the Secondary School, Lorch (1973), the Study Centre for the Lutheran Church in Stuttgart-Birkach (1977–80) and the Technical School, Bruchsal (1983). The Catholic University Library, Eichstätt (1987), German Postal Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main (1990), Central Bank of Bavaria, Munich (1992), and office-buildings in Nuremberg and Salzburg also enhanced his firm's reputation. Other works include the Central Administration Offices, Stuttgart (1992–97), the Geschwister-Scholl School, Frankfurt-am-Main (1993–94), the St Benno RC School, Dresden (1992–96), and the Hysolar Institute, Stuttgart Technical University (1987), which is a "purposefully chaotic, improvisational, anti-orthogonal arrangement".

Glass conveying light and transparency, both literally and metaphorically, was always a key feature of his work. His Federal Parliament building in Bonn (1992), used until the move to Berlin in 1999, was designed as a communicative workroom, not as a room of representation – shaped by optical transparency and opening to the outside. The control tower of Nuremberg's airport (1999) is regarded as the most modern in Germany; the Genzyme Center (2003) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the corporate headquarters for a biotechnology company, was chosen as an American Institute of Architects Top Ten Green Project for 2004.

Behnisch's last spectacular project (1999–2005), with Werner Durth, was the glass-fronted Berlin Academy of the Arts on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate. However, it came in for criticism; its detractors claimed that it was out of place amid the classical buildings around it.

Behnisch was the recipient of many honours, including the main architecture prize of the Federation of German Architects (1972), and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic (1997). He had suffered from a number of falls in recent years and was looked after by his wife. He died at his home in Stuttgart. He is survived by his wife, Johanna, son Stefan, who is also an accomplished architect, and two daughters, Sabine and Charlotte.

Günter Behnisch, architect: born Lockwitz, Germany 12 June 1922; married (one son, two daughters); died Stuttgart 12 July 2010.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments