Architectural Prostheses




A photograph. Black-and-white. Berlin, Charlottenburg, spring 1945. A bomb-damaged house. About half of it is still standing. One side wall has fallen in, turning one of the upstairs rooms into an unexpectedly open, airy space. The roof has been temporarily propped up with a wooden beam about five metres long. A row of plant pots provides a more or less symbolic barrier in front of the abyss. Don’t go too close to the edge, you might fall! The loft also benefits from plenty of light, now that it has been opened up to the skies by the bombs. More plant pots are arranged up there. Down below, on the “terrace” behind the row of plants, stand a clothes horse, a table and two chairs. On one of the chairs is a wicker washing basket. On the other sits a woman, enjoying the pleasing warmth of the first rays of sunshine.


Prostheses can sometimes do more than normal body parts. My friend Klaus enjoys surprising and shocking people who are introduced to him with the strength of his artificial hand when he shakes hands.

I often find architecture unsatisfying. I suppose it’s to do with the totalitarian way in which it defines the purpose of a space. Walter Benjamin’s remarks about the “reception of architecture in a state of distraction” are illuminating. But for me it seems to be a kind of obsession: I can’t help but examine spaces, measure them up, experiment… and ask myself how things could be changed. Buildings, by definition, do not move. Unfortunately, built monstrosities cannot be shifted around like pieces of furniture. Tagging and graffiti on their exterior walls don’t constitute any real change but can be compared more with an occasional change of wallpaper. In Milan, a number of owners of bars and shops have started commissioning graffiti, so that they can decide for themselves what appears on their facades.

Architectural prostheses, on the other hand, are extensions to existing architectural features. Prostheses for buildings. Limbs that are temporarily connected to existing structures. Suggested corrections to put right a deficiency or extend the range of functionality. They can be designed flexibly for any conceivable type of building or architectural feature. Two examples:

Russell prosthesis 2002

The building for the Gwangju Biennale in Korea consists of two exhibition halls connected by a footbridge. The architect responsible for designing the exhibition space, Young-Joon Kim, describes their appearance as “unsightly”. Two rectangular shapes protrude from the main facade. The flat roofs of these cuboids can be regarded as lost or forgotten spaces. For the 2002 Biennale, they were reclaimed and redefined. The two structural features were filled with tropical vegetation, a covering of sand and big, wide benches. Some of the plants were real and had to be looked after, others were artificial.

A scaffold tower made the roof over the main entrance accessible to the public. This new “terrace” allowed visitors to take a break before or during their tour of the exhibition. The technical staff working at the Biennale used it for the Korean version of the siesta. Visitors to the park could use it without paying for admission to the exhibition. If you turned your back on the Biennale building, you had an unaccustomed view of people arriving at the exhibition, the surrounding parkland, the Folk Museum, a highway and the newly built tenement blocks in a nearby part of the city.

The second, higher terrace with its banana plants was only accessible to birds. The rope ladder that hung down from it was beyond people’s reach. Bertrand Russell once pointed out that, in cold climates, lazing around is only achieved by making a huge effort.

Stirner prosthesis 2000

This work was commissioned for the grounds of the Evangelical Academy by Lake Starnberg near Munich but was never produced. Did people object to the honouring of the atheistic student of Hegel, the philosopher of solipsism? The Evangelical Academy is a private university that constitutes a kind of Protestant enclave in Catholic Bavaria. It tries hard to present itself as being liberal-minded and welcoming debate. If you walk past the Academy’s neoclassical villa in Tutzing down to the lake, on the left-hand side you will see a gilded Madonna. She stands not on a pedestal or an altar but on a pillar, like a stylite. The Academy offers plenty of opportunity for social contact and pleasant get-togethers; there is little provision for mavericks or loners. Social control is omnipresent. The area around the Academy is full of decorative features and sculptures.

In the grounds stand two isolated Corinthian columns, with nothing atop them. The proposed project envisaged returning one of them to its original function of supporting something. A delicate metal prosthesis would be mounted on one of the columns – an alien body from the functional world of shipbuilding, railways and industry, introduced into the neoclassical idyll of the parkland. The idea was that it would only be possible for one visitor at a time to climb up the column, someone who felt the need to be alone.

The concept of the Stirner prosthesis encompassed the rejection of a one-dimensional way of using and looking at things, just as Stirner’s individualism included anarchic behaviour and a refusal to submit to any control: the “solitary one” can retreat to the pillar with a book, sit on the platform and prevent anyone else from coming up. However, it must always be accepted that the prosthesis will be misused: a pastor can use it for preaching, a heretic can fulminate from here against the wealth of the church, a professor can use it as a lectern for a lecture, children can use it for basketball practice when the Academy welcomes holidaymakers in the summer, and for sports fans it can serve as a referee’s seat…


Architectural prostheses are a modest way of raising the question of what people can do with architecture. Their main aim is to be “audience-specific”. Their “site specificity” is more of a by-product. Isn’t it perhaps now time to extend the concept and start thinking about possible city prostheses?


Bert Theis  (2002)