Although Munich-based architects Isabella Leber and Martin Pool had collaborated on residential projects for seven years, it was only in 2011 that they decided to open an office together. The venture soon paid off, and in 2013 they won an open competition for a museum in the northern German city of Vreden. Completed in 2017 to much acclaim, their scheme combines new and existing buildings along a Medieval city wall to recall a townscape on the exterior and form a unified interior functioning as a cultural complex.
Looking back, they feel that starting an office in Germany was fairly uncomplicated, even when the market in 2011 was quite competitive. Making such a move in midcareer had advantages too. Both partners, who were in their early 40s at the time, had accumulated a wealth of professional and personal experience, and easily gained the support of private and public-sector clients.
After studying in Karlsruhe and London, Leber, 52, a mother of three, soon opted for self-employment, with a focus on residential work, continuing in this capacity when her husband’s career required moves first to Denmark and then to Munich. Pool, 49, who is British, was raised in Belgium and educated at the universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, but meager job prospects in the UK in the early 1990s drove him to Berlin and then Darmstadt, where he concentrated on housing and infrastructure. Self-employed starting in the late 1990s, he relocated to Munich in 2000 to join his French wife, who works there (they have two children), and met Leber through mutual friends.
Their office eschews a signature style, preferring individual solutions for both new buildings and adaptive-reuse projects. “Our architecture is quite varied,” says Pool. “We take our cues from the situation, what the client wants, and what is in the program. We don’t start out with a particular idea about what a building should look like.” The architects note, however, that their projects—including private residences, multifamily housing, museums, or bicycle and transportation infrastructure—strive to make connections between new structures and their contexts, and allow space for collective interaction, like a communal rooftop terrace on a housing block in Munich for residents who contract not to own a car (completed 2017) or a public courtyard in a former post office complex being repurposed as a museum in Mittenwald (completion expected in 2021).
Finally, Pool Leber’s example highlights the shifting attitudes regarding work, family, and architecture taking place in Germany. Leber notes that in previous generations, many German women architects worked almost exclusively with their husbands. Referencing other European nations he knows well—France, the UK, and Belgium—Pool emphasizes the “open work culture” he encounters in Germany, noting that, once clients feels the architect is competent, they are supportive regardless of age, experience, or background.
In the end, Pool and Leber’s partnership, forged in midcareer, shows how a long-term commitment to architecture by both of them led to a rewarding collaboration: “It is like writing a book together,” says Leber. “You have to work on an interpersonal and a professional level, and have the same spirit and share trust.”
DESIGN STAFF: 5
PRINCIPALS: Isabella Leber, Martin Pool
EDUCATION: Leber: M.A., architecture & urban design, U. of Karlsruhe, 1998; M.A. architecture, U. of North London, 1996; B.A., architecture, U. of Karlsruhe, 1990. Pool: M.A., architecture, U. of Sheffield, 1993; B.A., U. of Cardiff, 1990
WORK HISTORY: Leber: private practice, 2001–10; Stölken Schmidt, 1998; Behnisch, 1994. Pool: private practice, 2000–10; Fritsch Ruby Pool, 1998–2000; Topos, 1997–98
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Mixed-use building, Rottmanstraße, 2018; three-sided brick villa, 2018; Kult Museum and
Cultural Center, Vreden, 2017; Wohnen Ohne Auto, 2017; Hillside House, Salem, 2015; conversion of a listed building, Munich, 2011 (all in Munich, except as noted, and all in Germany)
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: art museum in former post office, Mittenwald; school conversion into housing, Hochstetten-Dhaun; mobility center Oertelplatz, Munich; Villa in Insulating Concrete, Munich (all in Germany)