10 questions for building researcher Dr. Margrit Christensen

by | Mar 4, 2021 | A look at the Kolk construction site, Interviews

Dr. Margrit Christensen has been a building researcher in Lübeck for over 40 years. She shares her unique knowledge of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lübeck’s Old Town Island as a non-fiction author in her book “Small Houses in Lübeck” and “Monument Topography, Hanseatic City of Lübeck” (both published by Wachholtz Verlag).

With methods of investigation and precise observation, she reveals the historical substance of the buildings in the Kolk layer by layer. This not only brings new insights into the history of the Kolk to light but above all lays the foundations for the restoration of the over 400-year-old houses. For example, by retracing stone by stone, what the historic façades once looked like. This work is literally the foundation stone for the Kolk to reclaim its original appearance in large part through the renovation works.

Museum for Theatre Puppets Lübeck: Ms Christensen, you are an architect and work as a building researcher in Lübeck. What does the term “building research” actually mean?

Margrit Christensen: As building researchers, we go into houses and look at their structure and building history. One has to imagine a house like an onion: You see the most recent structural changes on the façades and the interiors. Then the building research begins with a thorough examination of the house and, if possible, uncover it layer by layer to reveal its history.

MFTP: What fascinates you the most about your profession?

Margrit Christensen: The fact that I can look into the houses of the city like a detective and thus discover the connections and the history of the buildings.

MFTP: The renovation of the Kolk began almost three years ago. Do you remember what went through your mind when you first began to study the historic buildings in the Kolk?

Margrit Christensen: Of course it is very exciting to see the gables of these four houses from the churchyard of St. Peter’s: Three stepped gables and an early 20th century house on the corner of Kleine Petersgrube (street). To be allowed to take these houses in hand, to go inside and begin investigating piece by piece – initially in very small areas – was a daunting undertaking. Some things were already known from the 1990s, when the buildings of the Museum of Puppet Theatre and the Puppet Theatre were rebuilt. However, very little was known about the Kolk 18 building. The house on the corner of the Kleine Petersgrube was developed in 1936. In this case, developed means that something was erected on the foundation walls of the older building. The first major task was to find out how far the original house had been demolished and where historical masonry could still be found.

In addition, together with the Conservation officer, we uncovered and examined small areas on the walls of Kolk 14 and 16 in order to place what we had found in a larger context. Those were our first steps.

MOTP: Was there one question in particular that interested you?

Margrit Christensen: In addition to researching the buildings, we were primarily interested in the questions the architects and the clients had about the building. Where are listed areas? Which areas can be cleared? Which areas do not have such great historical significance? That was the primary task, with the aim of drawing up a building age plan of all the houses and thus achieving greater planning certainty. These are actually always the first steps in the renovation of historic buildings. Seen in this light, there are two motivators: on the one hand, the urge to research and, on the other, the preparation for the renovation.

MOTP: The aim is to preserve everything worth preserving. Is that correct?

Margrit Christensen: Of course. The first rule is to make as little intrusion as possible into the historical substance.

MOTP: What exactly does your work on the Kolk construction site look like?

Margrit Christensen: We were very fortunate to have a very good working relationship with the company that did the initial demolition work. Together with the Conservation officer and the demolition company, we were able to uncover the building piece by piece.

The house Kolk 16 – a very narrow building – is in itself a special case in Lübeck. The small house was built in the 16th century on the site of the courtyard between the two other buildings. Although it had been known for 30 years that there were valuable paintings on the walls, the overall context had not been known until then. These paintings were further uncovered by the Conservation officer and the overall context revealed.

In addition to floral motifs, the wall paintings show Diana, Fortuna and The Wild Man in medallions, among others:

Overview of the south wall of the Kolk 16 building

Virtual retouching of the portrait of the “Wild Man” in a medallion on the south wall

MOTP: The Kolk has surprised us a few times so far. The poor condition of the walls, for example became a challenge, but exciting building elements also appeared. Was there anything that surprised you here?

Margrit Christensen: I have been working in Lübeck for 40 years. That’s why I know that surprises can appear in all places in Lübeck. One of the two biggest surprises was certainly the large and valuable paintings in Kolk 16.

In addition, Renaissance paintings turned up during the examination of the walls in Kolk 22. Although incomplete, they were still visible.

Otherwise, one must pore over the individual elements of construction: Where is historical masonry? Where are historical timbers? What are the connections like? What was the building process like?

Incidentally, this process did not end with the survey a year and a half ago. The work developed along with the progress of construction and the cautious demolition of the masons, so that one could actually stand next to it during all the work and make discoveries. This especially true in the area of the lower masonry, as the archaeologists make their way deeper. After all, a wall is not only significant in the upper area, but must be linked to the archaeology at the end. This is definitely one of the works that will keep us busy for a while.

MOTP: What interesting moments has this construction site held for you so far?

Margrit Christensen: Certainly the painting of the walls in Kolk 16. But then also the fact that – when the scaffolding was later erected, the façades could be uncovered down to the bare stone beneath. You could see exactly where the historic masonry had been interrupted. This was mainly the case in the ground floor areas of Kolk 14 and 16, but also on the eaves side of Kolk 14. The historic mortar used and where it still exists was also investigated. Where was the mortar repaired? And: in which places have the façades been altered? This extremely meticulous work will ultimately serve as the basis for the renovation of the façades.

MOTP: What would you say we have learned about the Kolk through the construction site?

Margrit Christensen: What is special about the buildings in the Kolk is, for one thing, the structure. The building Kolk 14, for example, is a very short one. Normally in Lübeck we have gabled houses that reach very deep into the alloted section of land.

In addition, what the archaeologists have found out about the connection of the buildings at Pagönnienstraße 1 is very interesting. This is something that needs to be investigated further.

The source material on the use of the buildings is not particularly forthcoming, so that apart from a few owners I cannot say much about the buildings.

However, the question of the former use of the narrow building Kolk 16 remains unresolved. What was special about this house with its painted walls? Here we have something very interesting that needs to be explored more deeply.

Another interesting building is Kolk 20-22, which is a special case as a type of building. Due to the slope of Kleine Petersgrube, there were several flats in the basement (or ground floor) until the reconstruction in 1978. This is also documented by sources. The actual ground floor was accessible from the Kolk via many steps. I found a photo in which the rococo portal of the time can be seen very clearly. This is a type of building which I have never seen before in Lübeck. It is a special case that has not yet been investigated in this way.

The rococo portal could be reached from the Kolk via ten steps. It must be remembered that the level of the streets was significantly lower at that time.

MOTP: How will your work continue? // What tasks do you have in store for the future?

Margrit Christensen: With every activity on the construction site, one continues to observe whether something new will be uncovered. The relationship with the builders and the bricklayers is very good in this respect.

Now it’s mainly the archaeologists who are at work. Our work is more or less finished, but there are still questions from the builders, the architects and the conservation authorities when the planning changes or when openings are redesigned. Then we investigate whether what is proposed is feasible or not.

In the end, thoughtful cooperation between the conservation authorities, building research and the architects is most important.

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