Before founding his own business Munkenbeck + Partners, Alfred Munkenbeck gained experience with some of the most distinguished architectural offices worldwide. This great working experience and Harvard University as educational background add a multi-facetted perspective to all of his work.

Modernity without austerity

Amongst other awards, his office won the prestigious RIBA award several times and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the following interview, Alfred Munkenbeck, jury member of the 2016 Brick Award, explains the special façade solution of his award winning project Gee Street, the energy-efficient approach that leads to the special solution as well as his preference for brick.

A preference for brick

The project in Gee Street, for which you won the „Brick Award“ in 2013, looks like a very light construction in the middle of the surrounding buildings. Thinking about the conceptualisation of the façade, it turned out it has a flair for the surrounding buildings, which are more or less factory buildings from the last century.
The style is called “light industrial”. They are really multi-storey-lofts. It’s a fascinating building type. I first became acquainted with those in New York, in SOHO, South of Houston Street, Manhattan. I later found out that my great grandfather had a business there, so there was something like a direct connection with that period of history. My great grandfather invented the bathing suit about 1900 in Brooklyn. Before, everybody had to wear clumsy Victorian-style bathing costumes to go into the water. When he came over from Ireland, he started renting bathing suits, and he started to make them much smaller. He had quite a big business. My father told me when he was a little kid he used to walk there, and he was taken by these buildings where inside there would be lines and lines of women with sewing machines making the bathing suits. It was like it is now in Pakistan. And you still have these beautiful cast-iron buildings. First artists moved in, now, of course, more and more hedge-funders who want spacious apartments.
 
The height is certainly very nice for living, and also the vast space...
... and the glass of course. Because at the turn of the century electric  light was barely existent, everybody had gas light. So people who had factories tried to put as much natural light as possible. So these places have huge areas of glazing and the very thin ornate cast-iron façades.
 
So these beautiful factory buildings became one major inspiration for your London Clerkenwell project.
Yes, the buildings in this part of London are from the same time, around 1910 again, they are a kind of factory building. Now firms like Google are renting these spaces. These old buildings have become kind of interesting offices.
 
So the whole quarter now is a mixture of living spaces and offices, like in your house in Gee Street.
Exactly. Gee Street is right in the middle of that area. What I find fascinating about these buildings is that they are generic buildings. I am interested in buildings that don’t have obvious uses, that could be used for different things over time. For the building we did in Gee Street, the council, in it‘s wisdom, wanted it to be one quarter residential and three quarters offices. First we had planned offices, because the client wanted to rent offices. So after we were forced to make one quarter residential, we were going to make the building exactly look the same. When you go to Gee Street you can’t tell which are the apartments and which are the offices.
 
And the choice of the material came quite naturally, so to speak, when you looked at the surroundings.
One thing is obvious: while in Manhattan there’s more cast-iron, in London it is more brick. Fairly thin brick columns with large glazed areas between. So brick was a kind of natural thing to look at. And then, I hate opening windows. Every time you have an opening window, you have big fat frames, you have to put your hardware somewhere, you have to see the hinges which are quite ugly. In architecture I try to avoid that. So, for instance, when we have glass, I would like to have a sheet of glass with no frame. With that particular building, we made the bricks permeable. They should have been in their normal position upright, but we put them sideways so the air can get through the holes. You got a panel behind the holes and you never see it. Like this, the building now has an experimental air mixing ventilation system.
 
So it was a choice of your taste and also a practical one.
It’s practical. And I just very much like the look. It’s either glass or these very light bricks. And you never see hardware, doors, handles, all of these are hidden. It’s a very clean façade that nevertheless works and looks quite sophisticated.
 
So you have a beautiful and functional permeable facade. But what about the heating?
This is an interesting thing. Particularly in office buildings, the people, the light, and the computers produce a huge amount of heat. There is a computer on everybody’s desk. And a computer produces a kilowatt
 

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