Niklas Fanelsa studied architecture at RWTH Aachen University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. After graduating, he worked at De Vylder Vinck Taillieu in Ghent and Thomas Baecker Bettina Kraus Architekten in Berlin. In 2016, Niklas Fanelsa founded the architecture firm Atelier Fanelsa located in Berlin and Gerswalde. He was research associate at RWTH Aachen University, BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg, and Bauhaus University Weimar. From 2019-20, he worked as emerging curator at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, Canada. Niklas Fanelsa is a laureate of the German Academy Rome Casa Baldi.
Prof. Fanelsa advocates an extended architectural practice based on the design of systems across the field of built environment. Thus, architecture and design become applied processes for exploring challenges of our contemporary society. Central methods are real laboratories, 1:1 prototypes and workshops. Major subjects of his work are circular building systems, holistic design and collaborative project formats. Niklas Fanelsa is committed to establishing transdisciplinary structures for the implementation of research projects and start-ups at TUM.
Interview: Sophia Pritscher
Professor Fanelsa, how did you become who you are?
Niklas Fanelsa: My career probably consists of positive coincidences. A well-planned and structured curriculum vitae never worked out for me. I have always been on the move and new constellations have developed from each new step. I often started projects without knowing directly what results to expect, rather because they felt right and meaningful to me.
For instance, I spent some time in the countryside during my architecture studies in Japan. It was only years later back in Germany that these experiences came back into my focus and I developed an interest in rural areas in my professional practice. It was an intuitive decision to thematically pursue this direction. Decision making based on gut instincts has nothing spontaneous to me. All impressions, experiences and implicit knowledge are subconsciously processed in such decisions. For this reason, it is important for me to always remain open to new developments. By the way, this also applies to my new position as professor of architecture at TUM: I do not only want to pass on my knowledge, I also want to continue learning myself, together with my students, my colleagues and partners in teaching and research. For me, it is a like a continuous journey.
Where will the journey take you at TUM?
In teaching, I will also venture outside the university and specifically investigate current challenges encountered in practice together with the students. That means exploring the potential of regional value chains on site, or developing new building materials together with companies. Once we are on a site, many other topics will arise that we had not considered at the beginning: How do the employees get to work in the morning? In what ways do they work there and how are the workplaces designed? In which rooms do the communal meals or exchanges take place? Where do the materials and energies for manufacturing processes come from? In this manner, companies become a small ecosystem, a real-time laboratory in which all aspects of the system can play a role. In my opinion, we should not limit to the original questions even in our educational programs, instead we should openly accept unexpected topics and broaden our professional practice accordingly. We will frame these systems and processes in transdisciplinary teams. Potentially, everyone can be part of the team and thus make a relevant contribution. At the professorship, we want to specifically establish cooperative project types and exchange ideas with experts, residents, and politicians. Only by doing so will we be able to find holistic and resilient solutions.
What role does this integrated approach play in your research?
I generally think it is very inspiring to engage with other disciplines which might not have anything to do with architecture and design at first glance. Therefore, it is obvious to me that the TUM School of Engineering and Design has set the ambition to unite a wide range of different expertise. Such trans-disciplinary alliances fortunately also occur in other fields: At the European level, the New European Bauhaus Initiative was launched to stimulate change in the building sector. After all, designing the built environment is very complex.
Specifically, the topic is also reflected in the value chains mentioned above. We currently live in a globalized world that has externalized competencies and commodity supply chains internationally. We must consider how we can return to more regional value chains. Locally networked structures can help us recapture what has been lost in globalization. Here, for example, we can enter into direct, personal contact with the people involved in processing and manufacturing of building materials. This can create a communication platform that goes beyond the "product building." In my future research, I would like to start with this method of active "architecting"; an approach that holistically thinks about and shapes the entire environment.
As architect and founder of the office Atelier Fanelsa, you assign major significance to rural and regional aspects. Once you stated in an interview, "Countryside is narrated by the city."  What do you mean by that? How do you understand the interaction between city and countryside?
For me, rural areas and urban centers cannot be separated. These are two sides of the same coin. However, I get the impression that rural areas are described and, of course, governed by urban centers. Laws are made in the city that have very significant impacts on rural areas. The countryside must start again to recognize its own qualities and to name them clearly - because for me it is a great space of potential. Economic and social structures are built on personal relationships that support experimenting with innovative formats and their positive outcomes. In the long term, a regional community for wood supply benefits forest owners and carpentry businesses alike. This is reflected for me in the notion of "cultural landscape": farmers are working on what is at hand, they are caring for the landscape. This nurturing creates more richness and diversity. In turn, this principle can also be applied to architecture: We have to take more care again and continue to build on what already exists.
What changes do you hope to see in the future?
In recent years, our current way of living and working has been questioned for me. It has become clear how fragile and vulnerable our present system is. Construction materials that were cost-effective and in great demand at one point are suddenly subject to strong price developments or no longer ecologically justifiable at all. Architecture is very strongly linked to economics, to investments that are usually geared to profit. Once other aspects become more important again, such as the ecological footprint, new possibilities for production and planning methods can emerge. We as architects have a great responsibility to give new impulses and to promote innovations. That is why we – as an entire professional group – are called upon to promote more holistic transformations, starting already in education. Overall, there are still too few architects who work politically, who found their own start-ups or who genuinely influence the production of the built environment. We must not wait for others to commission us to get involved; but rather work in transdisciplinary teams to proactively redefine the systems for designing our built environment.