Kunsthalle / Journal #3 / The brains behind the construction site

The brains behind the construction site // Peeking in from the outside, it almost looks as though very little is happening on the building site at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. However, on the other side of the fence, many hands are hard at work. Around sixty people are constantly bustling away, often all at once. Before the building is completed, one hundred tradespeople will have worked hand-in-hand on the project—from masons, window installers, and interior architects to structural and civil engineers and technical weavers. In total, several hundred construction workers and managers, planners and engineers, statisticians and architects will have contributed to the opening of the biggest new museum building in Germany on December 15, 2017. Liselotte Knall, Peter Bremer, and Simon Deffaa are among those working on the project.
Simon Deffaa
“If everyone’s happy at the end, then I’m happy”

Simon Deffaa doesn’t have a written CV. “I’ve never needed to write one!” he laughs. Deffaa is a project manager at the Mannheim construction company Streib, and is responsible for constructing the skeleton of Kunsthalle Mannheim. He plans and oversees the building process, procures materials such as steel and concrete, casings, and specialized parts like floor drains and steel components. Hang on—the building’s skeleton? Wasn’t that finished back in 2016? “The main body of work on the skeleton is complete,” the fifty-four year old confirms, “but there are still a few things to be done.” When the technicians have laid the cables, for instance, shafts will need to be walled shut. “We’re filling in all the holes that are still open—after the opening party, too,” he says with a mischievous grin.
Deffaa was born in Ludwigshafen and now lives in the village of Weisenheim am Berg, in the wine-making region of Rhineland-Palatinate. He started out back in 1978 at the age of 15, first as an apprentice builder, then training as a structural engineer in Kaiserslautern at the same time as working towards his degree. “My family has been in construction going back four generations,” he explains. “You could say it’s in my blood.”
Deffaa had already planned the building’s skeleton as early as February 2015. Even at that early stage, he could already work out the number of workers required. “There’s a time frame and a plan that lets us work out how many people we need.” He patiently demonstrates how this is done. It sounds wonderful—mathematic and logical. Do things always go so smoothly? Deffaa smiles: “not always.”
Deffaa was involved on the structural construction side of other complex projects—though none as large as Kunsthalle Mannheim—including the Kunsthalle in Heilbronn and Bademaxx in Speyer. “But building in trapezoid beams 21.5 meters high or cementing in floating stairs is another thing altogether.”
He’s convinced that a building site only works if the team works well and constructively together. It’s the workers themselves that he respects the most: “At the end of the day, they’re the ones working away, come rain or shine, even if it’s dark and they have to use lights mounted on cranes.”
He’ll be happy if everything goes to plan, accident-free, and everyone involved is pleased with the end result. It’s now time for him to return to Kaiserslautern. “Student halls, five million. Things never stop!”

Peter Bremer
“Things only work if they work together”
Peter Bremer sets one thing straight at the start: “My job doesn’t actually exist—there isn’t even a name for it.” The closest description would be something like a “technical equipment planner” for the building. “Technical equipment” includes all types of electrical engineering: supplying, planning, and installing high- and low-voltage power. Bremer studied electrical engineering in Düsseldorf. Before that, he spent four years in the German navy, starting off as an officer cadet, then as a diver, before training up officers in the submarine group. “Even as a young boy, I had a knack for technology, and I thought the Navy was brilliant,” he remembers, eyes gleaming. Always being “good at sport” helped him too, he says. But then there came a point when he began to question his orders. “I just couldn’t see the point in cleaning the ship’s railings out on stormy seas.”
That’s why he went freelance in 1977, joined by two friends of his. They successfully ran their office for thirty years, until Bremer suddenly jumped ship in 2007. “There’s just nothing more to say to each other after such a long time.” He was sixty years old when he founded his own engineering company along with his son.
A museum is no small challenge for a technical equipment planner: There are rooms to be air-conditioned, security measures to be put in place, and lighting systems for the exhibits to be installed. “With Kunsthalle Mannheim’s new building, the fact that the main body has an open structure is a whole new challenge,” adds the seventy-year-old Bremer. “The individual cubes are only linked by bridges, which are the only place I can lay all the cables and wires.”
Peter Bremer doesn’t give up easily. He needs this stamina to see the construction process through over two and a half years. It also comes in handy for the marathons he runs: eight 100 kilometer-long “Mammoth Runs” and counting, even though he only took up running at the age of forty. “I wanted to do something for my health.” Jogging was never an option: “I’m an all or nothing kind of guy.”
Building a whole museum is no walk in the park, either. For all his ambition, Düsseldorf-born Bremer knows how to pace himself. His ability to keep his cool has served him well when working abroad, for example on the Mecca Road, on an airport in Saudi Arabia, or a museum in Tbilisi, Georgia. “German standards are prized all over the world, even if the actual building work tends to be done differently,” he chuckles. His advice is to stay flexible. “There’s a plan you’ve got to work through, inch by inch, until the project is complete. But things are never straightforward—not on any construction site.”

Liselotte Knall
“I love it when a plan comes together”
How did you end up as an architect?
I actually wanted to study music—I learned classical guitar and even took part in the German Young Musician of the Year contest. But just before I graduated from high school, it all seemed rather unrealistic to me. I had a think about what else I could do. Art and math—that led to architecture! (laughs)
But you didn’t begin studying architecture right away: You did internships and trained as an architectural draftsperson.
That’s true. I worked as a draftsperson to pay for my studies. Having the real-world practical element was important to me. Many students of architecture get to the end of their degree and then realize that the work actually doesn’t suit them. The job has a lot to do with being technical and coordinated; the artistic part is smaller than you think.
What does your work as a construction manager for gmp involve?
I’m responsible for a team, coordinate the timing, and set a structure for the workload. On site, I make sure that the overall appearance of the building stays true to the original vision. I have to keep an eye on the whole process, even down to the finishing touches.
How can such a complex process come together?
You have to build in time buffers. And you can’t expect everyone else to jump the minute you want something. You often end up playing the mediator between the different people involved.
What’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated field?
When I first trained, this type of work was even more male-dominated. Things have changed since then. I’ve never had any problems: It’s about your skills, not your gender.
What’s unique about building Kunsthalle Mannheim?
The technical requirements—especially in terms of the air-conditioning—are much more demanding than, for instance, a commercial building. I went through gmp’s plans for the new Kunsthalle Mannheim to check they were feasible; the open spaces of the design certainly pose a lot of challenges, which is very exciting!
What makes you happiest about your job?
I love it when a plan comes together! The planning process and construction work itself can stir up a lot of emotions, expectations, and uncertainty. But if everyone’s happy with the end result, I know I’ve done a good job..

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