The future of life in urban areas lies in unconventional living spaces.
For Kolja Stegemann and his girlfriend, Diana Brix, ones that exist on water. What do the two of them need from a modern houseboat? That’s clear: functionality.
Kolja commutes to his second home by bike. It takes 15 minutes to get from his apartment in an old building in Prenzlauer Berg to the place where he’s able to find calm and relaxation in the middle of the metropolis: a houseboat in Rummelsburg Bay.
The last stretch of the ride takes the entrepreneur through an old industrial harbor and across a simple wooden bridge. To the left are cutter vessels and motorboats. Three plain boxes are bobbing close to each other on the right, covered in black. “You can’t tell from the outside what these boats are about,” says Kolja, and smiles. The entrepreneur is familiar with the surprise effect the so-called FLODD boats have on visitors. (FLODD stands for “Floating Dutch Design” and is a concept conceived by the Dutch architect Bertjan Diphoorn.)
Kolja’s FLODD is in the center. When he visited for the first time a little over a year ago, he didn’t plan on using it for himself. The marketing consultant wanted to use the unique residence for his company, Suite.030, a placement portal for luxury apartments. When he came on board for the first time, his plans changed.
Kolja opens the door and the room opens up, revealing the view: an expanse of smooth Spree river water, with the television tower on the horizon to the left and thick reeds on the right. In between a few boats, there are stand-up paddlers in the distance. Herons, grebes and swans are resting right next to the bridge, which also serves as a patio to the swimming house.
In order to enjoy the unique view in peace, Kolja brings the cushions from the couch out to the wooden planks with a few simple hand movements. Just like many elements of the houseboat, the living area can be functionally rearranged, based on what Kolja, Diana or their guests need at any given time. If somebody wants to spend the night, Kolja cranks a second bed down from the wall. It’s practical, and it looks good – just like everything else on the FLODD.
What do you seek to create in a space in order to make it feel like a home?
Coherence and harmony. I have seen apartments that had 1,000 feet but not a single corner that felt comfortable. And I have seen spaces that were smaller than 50 square feet and that radiated a cozy atmosphere. I think the space always transmits the feeling. Putting a great piece of furniture in it or having a great view is not enough. What matters is the whole – just like on this boat. The design is a statement, for the sole reason of being completely black inside. But the dark color adds a particular feeling of containment to the space – and it brings a more significant meaning to the outside. It invites a look through the window. I sit in here and
automatically feel as if I am inside a television and the world takes place in front of it. This is my theater. I can really let myself drop into the scenery. The space contains me. It’s non-intrusive. It leaves me alone and yet it holds me. That’s why this space is almost perfect for me.
What was the most beautiful thing you have seen out there in your theater so far?
Oh, there are so many beautiful moments! I especially like the swan couple we have been observing since the spring – how they build their nest and take care of it, how the male keeps bringing new construction elements and the female looks at everything and picks out what will fit and what, for whatever reason, won’t. You can even relate it to your own personal life (laughs). It really is nice to watch. By now, the baby has hatched but it’s still gray. And all three are part of the setting here now.
In which situations do you especially enjoy the view of this setting?
When I’m idle. You can sit here for a long time and just watch. And when I cook – the view is simply amazing then. Of course, the kitchen here is great anyway. Open kitchens are certainly a sign of the times. They make sense. They make things incredibly communicative, especially when you have guests, like we did recently for Diana’s birthday. The people were in the living room and on the patio and they were chatting, and I was cooking and still part of the conversation. Even in the kitchen you are always part of the whole here.
Aside from that, what do you find fascinating about your FLODD boat?
I appreciate how intelligently and flexibly everything is combined and connected here. All is one, but with small changes, each room can have its own space. We have a living room, an open kitchen, a sleeping area that can be private or totally open thanks to two swinging doors. One of them is also the door to the shower. I can close it, or leave it open and look directly into the reeds while the water is running.
Have you ever missed anything here?
No. On the contrary. Everything is here. A lot is multi-functional; everything is very practical. And I have even more here than in our other apartment in Prenzlauer Berg: the water right outside, the sun, the patio, and a fireplace. All the luxuries you could ask for are combined in a tiny space here.
Have you always had an affinity for intelligent design?
Yes. My interest in beautiful things has pretty much always been there.
Who shaped that in your case?
Good question (laughs). I think many different people. Definitely my father. He and I share a passion for good design. And my grandfather, who was a professor of static engineering and architecture in Berlin. He engaged a lot with modern, organic and tecological building methods. In collaboration with him, I implemented the tree house project in Zehlendorf, which was another fascinating new form of living near nature.
How important is proximity to nature to you?
I think especially in big cities everyone eventually reaches a point where they notice, I need a break, or, I need to leave the bustle for a while. And as a couple with a dog, this was especially important to us. Diana has been proclaiming for a long time that we need to leave once in a while, to have a place of refuge. A place of refuge from which you can still see the television tower in the distance.
Has your view of the city changed since you got here?
Definitely. People always say that Berlin is such a green city full of water. But in everyday life, as opposed to Venice for example, you don’t really notice it. Life doesn’t actually happen on water – not yet. And I hope this changes.
FLODD boats created functional living spaces where there were none before. Is this an important aspect for you?
Absolutely. Every big city eventually reaches its limits. In Berlin, we are luckily still far away from this currently. But that this place would become inhabitable was unthinkable even just a few years ago. Rummelsburg Bay was, to quote the lovely people from Cologne, simply de schael Siek – or “the wrong side.” It was industrial here. There were heavy metal plants and a lot of pollution was channeled into the Spree river unfiltered. And here comes this Dutch architect, who of course is used to living on water in Amsterdam, and completely rediscovers this area and its potential.
Do you admire Bertjan Diphoorn for his courage to make use of this potential with his boats?
Definitely. I consider him a pioneer in Berlin. There were always ideas for sport boats that you can live in. But this is really something new. He didn’t merely focus on functionality. He also wanted to create an attitude towards life through his boats and their design. He succeeded.
Do you also feel a little like a pioneer, living here?
Well, maybe a little. We definitely discovered something new for ourselves. And I notice even in my circle of friends that the boat is receiving a lot of approval and that it’s inspiring amazement. The consistency with which the design was implemented is unparalleled. That’s a great feeling for us.
Do you still feel like a city person when you are here on the boat?
I think I’ll always be a city person. I definitely enjoy it. I live in a big city because I like it and want to enjoy its variety. And yes, I also feel like a city person when I’m here – but here, I notice that edge. The edge to coming down. By bike, it takes me 15 minutes to get here from Alexanderplatz. And after I arrive, it takes another 15 minutes before I’m in vacation mode.
For you, is “vacation mode” mostly related to being near water?
I think so, definitely. We often discuss that in my circle of friends. Water has this quality that can ground you immediately when you’re feeling high-strung. You get the feeling that you’re away from everyday life and away from stress. Vacation mode doesn’t just come from the water, but also from the overall environment: the view, the sun, the light and nature.
A truly extraordinary place. How did you end up coming to your boat?
The boat actually came to us. A friend acquired the FLODD next door and told us about a second available boat. He asked me if I was interested in renting out the FLODDs through Suite.030. And later, I fell a little bit in love with this place and thought, maybe it’s possible to combine the good with the useful, the professional with the personal. And now, Diana and I are using the boat as a steady place of refuge.
Do you discuss life, home and purchase decisions beforehand or do you make those decisions on your own?
No, I always discuss things like that. In this case, I discuss with Diana, of course, because we need to ensure that we both feel comfortable here.
Is it your intention to express yourself personally through your lifestyle?
I don’t know if lifestyle is really something that defines me. But among all the luxury objects at Suite.030, something like FLODD has become particularly important to me. It’s a fun object – and something that probably makes us more approachable, too. Everybody has an opinion about the boat and everybody can relate to it. And that’s what makes it fun for me – to encourage people to think about their living spaces. What do we need anyway? Here, we have everything we need. Less luxury than comfort, which is important to us personally.
Of course, with your own home you were free to experiment and indulge yourself without considering clients.
Yes, for example, for the walls we used this material which is 100% clay. It’s almost like an English version of Japanese Arakabe clay; you render it on the wall and you just allow it to dry. We used a lovely palette of materials that are quite pastel-y in their hues—for me this clay is quite a calming material.
Trends exist in architecture (and elsewhere). In recent years there’s obviously been a move to open spaces—less walls, kitchens and living rooms that merge into one space. Is that something that resonates with you?
We just try and make people’s lives better. Simple as that. If a family comes to me and expresses their functional needs for the space then that makes sense to us and I’ll pitch to them, no problem. If you want to make a big, open space with a sheer glass wall in just because you think it looks cool though, then we won’t do that.
Open space can be about height as well as surface area of course, going back to the double-height bathing area in your own home.
We talk a lot with our clients about cutting holes in spaces to allow them just to look up. Especially in central London, the pound per sq. ft value is going through the roof in lots of areas, which means the more area you’ve got the more you can sell it for. So if you start knocking voids inside properties in one sense you’re going against this. But then what value do you put on a triple height space? Technically, we’ve decreased the value of our property with the bathing area, but I think the architectural merit of it hugely outweighs that.
It sounds like you don’t march in with a ‘this is what I want to do with the space’ approach—it’s almost the opposite to that. The opposite to what Louis Khan once said of Frank Lloyd Wright, about how Lloyd Wright knew what the shape was going to be before he even knew what it was going to be used for.
Pretty much yes, you’re right. I’m the opposite of that. I think architecture needs function first and then beauty. Some architects are obsessed with having a beautiful shape first, or form. Some call it peacock architecture: ‘hey, look at me’. I mean, everyone can name the architects who do that, and I visit their spaces and I feel like I’m just getting shouted at so much. We design spaces for people and their actions and the things they want do in that space.
At the same time, as you allude to, there obviously is a formal consideration. When it comes to the aesthetic considerations, are you conscious of timelessness or future-proofing, or are you very much about doing what feels right at that time?
Wow, imagine! That would be a hell of a responsibility if you sat down and you were trying to design artwork that has got to be timeless. I think it just has to feel right. If it answers the brief and someone can have the most amazing bathing experience or an amazing sleep then I’m happy. That’s our job. Architects talk a lot about silence, but not necessarily the absence of sound. It’s the silence you get in an amazing space. Sometimes I walk into spaces that are designed thousands of years ago and just get like a moment, a sort of silence happens. That’s the dream, but you don’t know if you’re doing that or not, I don’t think you could ever aim for that.
A lot of what you’re talking about is experience, right? Verbs relate to the experience of doing things. Do you think people are beginning to place more emphasis on experiences in the way they understand the concept of ‘luxury’ in living and elsewhere?
That’s a really good question. I read a lot—not as much as I’d like—but whenever I go away I always do. I read Heidegger, all the ‘experiential being’ texts, and in architecture they talk about phenomenology. There’s lots of Finnish architects and philosophers that I admire and they talk about that. I think slowly society is moving towards that direction. The white box, the clean white box in the
perfect world, I don’t think it’s relevant anymore. Look at London at the moment: craft breweries, craft gins, vinyl records are all back in. It’s about bringing experience back into our thinking.
How important is it in general for architects (or even non-architects) to engage on that slightly more abstract level?
I think we live in a world that’s being bombarded by images. Like, you’ll leave this apartment and go to the next space and there’ll be adverts everywhere; on your phone you have social media, emails and text messages, and adverts on buses and shops. We live in the information age, right? 15-20 years ago it wasn’t like this and I think what’s important is to cut out that white noise sometimes and just
focus on the truth. What is the reality? What is the authentic idea? There’s a Finnish architect called Juhani Pallasmaa who talks about how architects need to look at the radical ordinariness. We need to be radically ordinary and I think that’s what we are trying to do as architects.
Interview: Anna Schnuck
For more about Kolja’s work, his company Suite.030 and the FLODD boats see koljastegemann.de, www.suite030.com and ww.flodd.de