The "Rote Scheune" - a conversation with architect Thomas Kröger

Germany’s rural north-eastern Uckermark has seven buildings by award-winning Berlin architect Thomas Kröger. One of them is the Rote Scheune, once a cow byre and now a stylish holiday home which recently hosted a selection of our latest pieces and classic models.

INTERVIEW

“Portholes looking out onto the waves” 

At first sight, the village of Fergitz on the Oberuckersee, a lake around 60 miles north of Berlin, might not look like the kind of place where domestic design dreams come true. Then there is the Rote Scheune – “Red Barn” – itself, which, from the outside, looks like… well, a barn. Red bricks, small windows, and large wooden doors: there’s not a lot more to see. So it seems somewhat difficult to believe that it took four years to remodel – until you step inside, that is. Built in 1900 for a herd of cattle, the byre today has the power to enchant visitors as soon as they walk through the door. Everyday concerns? Urban ennui? Stress? Immediately forgotten in the bright, spacious central room, a kind of high-ceillinged hall with wooden beams and living spaces almost floating up above; then there’s the view through the three portals out into a veritable garden of Eden. 

Here, in Germany’s north-eastern Uckermark province, Berlin architect Thomas Kröger has created a place which is simply perfect for Freifrau. Just like our armchairs, seats, and sofas, the Red Barn is the kind of place you can just sink into – a place to feel comfortable, relaxed, and disposed to light conversation. So we’re delighted to be showing our latest models in these very special surroundings, divided into a residential space in one half and a holiday home in the other. We spend a day discovering this unique building and shooting pieces such as Ona Curved, Leyasol, and Stella, and by the time we get home, we are markedly more relaxed than when we left – and absolutely determined to go back to Fergitz at some point soon. What is more, we find ourselves wanting to speak to the man behind the transformation, architect Thomas Kröger, whose career to date has seen him working for Norman Foster in London and Max Dudler in Berlin, where he has now been running his own bureau since 2001. 

What attracted you to the project? Don’t architects usually prefer starting from scratch rather than converting existing buildings?

You’re right: when you design something yourself, you have a lot more control over it, whereas remodelling an existing structure is far more time-consuming – and far more expensive. There are always plenty of surprises, and in the case of the Red Barn, a lot of it was derelict. Spaces which have been used to house animals are always infested with pests, and the wooden beams had been eaten away down to little more than a couple of inches. In fact, so much of it was falling down that I told the owners not to proceed with the project; but – quite fortunately, as it turns out – they weren’t having any of it and decided to go ahead.

In the interior of the barn, you had almost everything removed and reorganised the space entirely, yet outside, almost nothing has been changed. Why is that?

The Red Barn is close to the centre of the village, not far from the church. Fergitz is not a big place – it’s a modest settlement positioned idyllically next to a lake – and I didn’t want the newcomers from the Big City to be all too noticeable. Once we had completed the conversion, one of the neighbours came over to me and, shaking her head disapprovingly, asked what we’d been doing all the time: “Four years! And nothing has changed! It looks just like it always has.” That was the greatest compliment she could have paid us. 

The Red Barn is just one of six buildings you have worked on in the Uckermark region. What is it about the countryside that keeps you coming back?

I discovered the Uckermark early, in my student days, and thought it was great back then, too. I’d drive about in my car and sleep in my boot! Part of the attraction is certainly that it reminds me of where I grew up, the uplands between Göttingen and Kassel. My work out here started when one of our carpenters decided that he’d had enough of paying high rents in Berlin and commissioned me to turn an old locksmith’s shop into a home; then, just two months later, a friend of mine bought a plot of land in the next village and asked me to build him a house there. After that, a friend of mine for whom we had already built an apartment in Berlin said that she wanted to buy the Red Barn and turn it into a family holiday home. As time went on, we made ourselves a name with these niche country residences – and I’m pleased we have, because the projects are something people are enthusiastic about and we tend to be on friendly terms with our clients.  

The Red Barn is just one of six buildings you have worked on in the Uckermark region. What is it about the countryside that keeps you coming back?

I discovered the Uckermark early, in my student days, and thought it was great back then, too. I’d drive about in my car and sleep in my boot! Part of the attraction is certainly that it reminds me of where I grew up, the uplands between Göttingen and Kassel. My work out here started when one of our carpenters decided that he’d had enough of paying high rents in Berlin and commissioned me to turn an old locksmith’s shop into a home; then, just two months later, a friend of mine bought a plot of land in the next village and asked me to build him a house there. After that, a friend of mine for whom we had already built an apartment in Berlin said that she wanted to buy the Red Barn and turn it into a family holiday home. As time went on, we made ourselves a name with these niche country residences – and I’m pleased we have, because the projects are something people are enthusiastic about and we tend to be on friendly terms with our clients.  

Do you see houses out in the country as something of a counterweight to the buildings that your bureau generally works on – office developments, galleries, museums…?

If I’m being honest, I’d have to say that, at the beginning, all we did were houses for private individuals. It was through these small-scale projects out in the countryside that we got the attention which then led to larger commissions. Now, of course, we tend to work on a much bigger scale: in Hamburg, we’re currently building an entire school. 

Is there something which connects all seven houses in the Uckermark on which you’ve worked?

As individual buildings, they are all very different from one another – each is of a distinct type, and each enters into dialogue with its surroundings, with neighbouring buildings and with the landscape, in its own way. Then there are the various additions and inspirations which I have brought from my travels or found in our archive. To give you an example: with the Schwarze Haus – “Black House” – which we built around three miles south of the Red Barn, we generally orientated ourselves towards the simple, gable-topped homes with pitched rooves in the immediate surroundings; the chimney, however, and the dormers, are inspired by stables in Texas. 

To what extent have the rolling hills of the Uckermark influenced your designs in the area? 

Greatly. The houses I’ve worked on are really little more than portholes looking out onto the waves of the countryside. All of them are open to the landscape. 

When you create a design, are interior furnishings such as chairs, carpets, and tables part of your thought-process?

Yes, to a certain extent. Essentially, when I design a building, I am writing a script: I have to imagine how my clients will use the house, and in that film, furniture obviously has a part to play. We don’t flesh out the roles too much, though. You could think of our design like a set of shelves: it is something with a specific form and function, but the owner is the person who actually fills each shelf. 

Both in the Red Barn and in the other houses on which you’ve worked, there are large central fireplaces. What is it that fascinates you about them?

Perhaps their importance comes from my first encounters with them back when winters in the Uckermark were really, really cold – ten degrees below zero or more. A real fireplace has something wonderfully archaic about it, and in the Red Barn, given that the large central space is not heated, they have a purpose, too; there two alcoves in which you can sit down and feel the heat on your back. That’s a lovely feature.

Your designs have won several Callwey ‘House of the Year’ awards. What do prizes mean to you?

I’m always delighted to win. The houses which get the awards are always very special places, and I would love to think that, when I win a prize, that gets a few more people to think a little more about what you really need to live somewhere – and what you don’t need. There should be an awareness for just how simple a space can be, yet how special excellent craftsmanship can make it. 

In 2014, you won with Werkhaus, the converted locksmith’s with which everything began for you in the Uckermark. The jury wrote that you took a “confident, yet critical approach to regionalism”. Do you feel that says something about your work?

Partly, yes. “Regionalism” is nothing new in architecture and it is definitely a concept with which it is worth engaging critically. If you interpret regionalism as a cautious and respectful approach to developing structures and spaces, then I can get behind it. 

Another thing the jury said was that you received the prize  for Werkhaus because they wanted to say that it was “time to say goodbye to self-righteous luxury bungalows and take a closer look at other types of building which are both more interesting and closer to hand.” Do you agree? 

Yes, to the extent it affects my own work. Obviously, you can’t tell other people that they have to agree, and there are all sorts of other ways of living which have deep roots in our culture and are of course wholly legitimate. Personally, however, I see standard detached houses as a problem because they eat their way into the landscape and dissipate settlements. It doesn’t really make sense to keep on building new houses without looking at existing buildings and thinking about what alternative forms of living they might be suitable for. 

Both the Red Barn and the Black House are popular as holiday homes. What role does this kind of use play in the way you approach design?

In my view, holiday homes are somewhat less demanding than residential buildings: they don’t have to do everything. If you’re building a new home for full-time use, you tend to try and take account of all the various eventualities which could occur over the next 50 years; holiday homes are more about what you want now. ‘Now’ in this context means something closer to 10 years – and I like that.

Have you ever taken a holiday in any of the houses you have worked on?

I have indeed, as I still go out to the Uckermark regularly. In fact, if you’re looking for me on a weekend, you’re quite likely to find me in one of the houses. I’m currently building my own, though, so that I don’t have to keep ringing up my clients and asking if their house is free… 

Thomas Kröger

Thomas Kröger founded his office in Berlin in 2001 after working for Norman Foster, London and Max Dudler, Berlin.
Since then, he and his team have been working with clients at home and abroad. The projects include private houses, art galleries, museum buildings, as well as office / residential and school buildings. He is a member of the BDA.
From 2011 to 2013 Thomas Kröger taught as a visiting professor at the Department of Architecture at Northeastern University of Boston as part of the Berlin study program. He then held a visiting professorship at the Stuttgart University of Technology. Since 2019 he has been Professor of Architecture at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.