The materiality of light: AAS Gonzalez Haase

The spaces of Berlin-based architectural practice AAS Gonzalez Haase are renowned for their reduced material aesthetic and sublime attention to detail. Often overlooked yet indispensable to their overall architectural approach, however, is an element of an altogether immaterial quality: light.

Thanks to their unique approach which puts light on an even par with space and material, AAS succeed in awarding light with a definite material quality. In this article, we talk to Pierre Jorge Gonzalez (one half of AAS) about the role – and materiality – of light within their designs.

When I meet Pierre Jorge (or PJ as he is colloquially known in the office) at the AAS studio on Berlin’s Potsdamer Strasse, it’s a few weeks before the studio’s 20th birthday party. By all accounts, it’s been an illustrious 20 years. What began largely as an exercise in scenography working with Robert Wilson in New York has developed into a full scale architectural practice, dictating the terms of space for all manner of clients from Balenciaga to Adidas. 

Balenciaga, Flagship, Paris, 2018. Lighting calculations by Licht Kunst Licht

Upon entering the AAS office, I’m immediately confronted with a huge neon ‘AAS’ sign buzzing away in the corner, strategically positioned next to an extensive archive of materials aligned in parallel rows. Crucially, both of these elements – material and light – constitute the two core elements of their practice, which lies somewhere between the realms of architecture and scenography. 

Light as core architectural element

Rather than providing task illumination or accent lighting, the incorporation of lighting within the spaces of AAS serves a purely architectonic function. That is, the exposition, unveiling and accentuation of the main structural elements and materials within the architectural space. 

Fischerappelt Office Berlin, 2017

The work of AAS involves a consistent exposition – or deconstruction – of the constituent architectural elements of the spaces. In this respect, AAS could be described as an architectural practice which finds itself primarily in the business of stripping things away, reducing spaces to their core material elements.

Artifact, Milano, 2019

In an echo of the sentiments first outlined by Adolf Loos in the 1920s, all elements of superfluity and ornament are absent in the work of AAS. Colour exists only as a natural byproduct of the core materials chosen. The incorporation of light begins with the initial conceptualisation of the project, and as such is treated as an indispensable element.

Formative works of AAS

Galerie Nordenhake Berlin, 2001

“When we came to Berlin in 1999, there was no money in the city. Galleries were opening – but there was no design budget to speak of,” commented PJ. “Those first projects in Berlin relied heavily on light to create space with little material. It was a question of maximising the use of space through light – which in itself took on a certain material element.” 

For fashion pioneer Andreas Murkudis, the reduced approach of AAS was an attractive prospect for his new concept store in Berlin. The resulting Murkudis store design is a poignant example of how light fits into the AAS philosophy.

Murkudis concept store, Berlin, 2011

To respect the architectural characteristics of the space – a former newspaper printing hall – unobtrusive roof-mounted linear luminaires were positioned between large supporting beams. Here, the impression of the lighting is that it is part of the architecture itself.

This example is particularly representative of AAS’ work for another reason: the categorical rejection of spot lighting – even within the retail environment. 

Assembling exhibition

Custom luminaries

“For me the spot light gives an old image of the world. I feel more comfortable when I can see everything. I want to decide what I want to look at without being forced to look at something through spots.

“This often means we get accused by clients of having ‘flat’ lighting. Often we find ourselves having to justify this.”

Berlin Metropolitan School

Perhaps it comes as little surprise to learn that AAS has increasingly come to rely on custom luminaries in order to avoid the limitations and compromises associated with off-the-shelf solutions.

In addition to working with components to consciously divert from their original function, AAS’ custom lighting devices serve to uphold a simple and functional purpose, whilst avoiding any kind of temptation to create a beautiful or decorative element. 

In recent years, this train of thought has also led the studio to increasingly work with custom neon light sources. One such example is the Beets and Roots delicatessen in Berlin Mitte. 

Beets & Roots in Berlin Mitte

The contrasting purple and white circular neon fittings are the only light sources to inhabit the space. As a result, their presence takes on a certain material aspect, complementing the concrete surroundings within the store. This now hugely copycatted installation is a perfect example of the materiality of light present within the work of AAS.

Mixing Colour Temperatures

Until recently, the studio incorporated almost exclusively 4.000K for its galleries and stores. Recently, however, we’ve seen the studio introduce a mixture of 3,000 and 4,000K colour temperatures. A prime example of this can be seen with the MCM fashion store in Munich. Pierre Jorge’s keen interest in film provides another reference point.

“In the past, famous actresses had their own lighting designer to take care of how they appeared under the camera. Warmer lights from the front and sides complimented the cooler back lighting to accentuate hair and facial characteristics.  

“The combination of colour temperatures within MCM tries to tap into these kind of layers which form part of a collective memory.”

The new MCM Store, Munich

Similarly, deviations in colour temperature can be seen with the example of Ernst in Berlin. The space is characterised by a mixture of light and material, which work together to create three distinguished experiences of the space.

Outside the building, the cold aluminium door and concrete facade reflects the city and surroundings.

When entering the entrance corridor, the textures and materials take on a more welcoming note. Warmer lighting emphases the transitional nature of the space.

Upon finally entering the main dining room, guests are embraced by warm and welcoming lighting. The resulting warmth within the space is perceived by the resulting combination of material and lighting. 

Ernst restaurant, Berlin, 2018

Light and material as Gesamtkunstwerk

In 2019, AAS competed TEM-PLATE, an 800 square-metre retail space which occupies a disused warehouse in Lisbon. The final design is based around the exchange of simple form and authentic surfaces.

TEM-PLATE concept store in Lisbon

Partition walls with brushed metal and crinkled, foil-like surface cladding are dotted throughout, serving as backdrops to styled mannequins.

“These pieces deliberately reveal their innards, which are often composed of simple chipboard that stands in contrast to the high-quality materials of the surface,” comments PJ.

The main room is a reduced and minimal affair. White walls, concrete floors and lines of strip lights positioned strategically from the industrial ceiling create a cool, homogenous illumination. Crucially, all the material elements – including lighting – serve to create an all encompassing visual sensation nothing short of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Towards a materiality of light

What can lighting designers learn from the work of AAS? In short, an awful lot. The spaces of AAS might not always have perfect task illumination in accordance with regulated levels. And yes, there might be some glare here and there. But do you know what? That doesn’t matter in the slightest. Lighting design is ultimately much more than results on DIALux.

AAS demonstrate the wonderful aesthetic possibilities of light, especially when strategically and harmoniously combined with material. In fact, in the approach of AAS, the materiality of light is absolutely irrefragable – a mindset which is, in our humble opinion, both necessary and refreshing. W

Photos: Thomas Meyer, Ostkreuz

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