Meet Ursula Seeba-Hannan – the design, technical & architectural guru of Berlin

It’s early on a November morning in Berlin, and it feels very wintry: the air is especially freezing today and I feel it as I cross over the famous Kufürstenstrasse and make my way towards Budapester Strasse. Today I’m meeting Ursula Seeba-Hannan, the technical, design and architectural guru of the construction scene here. Ursula founded LenzWerk Holding in 2015, evolving it from her previous company White Cube Design after experiencing a sudden spike in the amount of projects they were receiving. It coincided with the great boom in Berlin (that is still happening), which has seen the city grow in popularity with startups, creatives and the tech and e-commerce industry – but also as a place to live. In short, there’s a lot of money coming into the city, and everywhere you look there’s something new popping up. So Ursula’s vision for LenzWerk was simple: they formulate the concept, construction, manufacture and technicals of a space. This space could be a dilapidated theatre or a worn-down house desperate for renovation, or just a bare piece of land. But the space always has a uniqueness and sense of history – and that’s what LenzWerk tries to preserve. ‘Every building has a soul’, Ursula tells me, ‘You just have to restore it. When a building is forgotten about for years – that could be over 80 years, it can’t breathe anymore, but after we have finished our work it is breathing again’.

I arrive at the LenzWerk office on Budapester Strasse. Ursula welcomes me in, offering me a coffee and apologising that she needs to quickly reply to some important emails. She is a woman in high demand. I knew prior to my arrival that business is going well for the company, but it’s clear from the beautiful interior of the office. Later on in the car she tells me, ‘from the moment LenzWerk was created, the company has been flying. It was as if people were waiting for it.’ While I wait I admire the huge shop window front, which looks a combination of modernist and art deco. A couple of minutes later Ursula is ready and we begin the interview at the table over our Lattes.

A: Why did you decide to go into design and architecture?

U: ‘My brain sees everything like a Hollywood film. I see a room and I think of a set and how I can create that. I wanted to make flats, houses, or any room like a glove for their owner – it must fit and it must be a good fit. I enjoy making every aspect of the room comfortable’.

A:When did you first connect with and fall in love with interior design and architecture?

U: (smiles) ‘When I was studying I lived in an architect’s office. I was also working closely with the theatre and I started to see the connection between set design and architecture. I learnt how to do everything from the practical side. During my theatre days I worked closely with the back stage team and helped with the heating and electricity, and the rest of what I now know I taught myself. My first project was my flat. I redesigned it completely with a new heating system…my husband trusted me to do everything’ (laughs).

A: What would you say is your job title / profession?

U: ‘I would call myself a designer, planner and organiser.’

A: Do you come from a creative family?

U: ‘My parents weren’t creative… (pauses)… or maybe they just didn’t know they were. My sister is a web designer and also paints. I went to an alternative school where you learn how to build a life. It was important for my parents that their children were creative, and that life isn’t about money, it’s about liking what you do.’

A: Are there any designers and architects who you look up to?

U: ‘Ahh…Zaha Hadid definitely. And Kahlfeldt – he knows how to create the perfect home for the users and builds houses in an old manner. He is not so obsessed with being modern. But I like a mix of modern and traditional, which is why I like the Weisse Villa project.

A:  Where did the name ‘LenzWerk ’ come from?

U: ‘Lenz is my maiden name, and after my brother died there was no more ‘Lenz’, so I wanted to carry it on. It was a bit like coming home for me. In German, ‘Werk’ is something you do with your hands, for example a painter looks at his Werk. I like to see what I have created.’

A: What is a typical LenzWerk  client?

U: ‘Someone who likes to create something and doesn’t have the time for it. We often just get a key. Clients are from all over the world, but most of them like to live in their projects’.

A: What is the process of one of your projects?

U: ‘When buying the house the owner asks if it is possible to renovate, then I look at the walls and the wood. If the owner buys it, they decide what they want to change. Then we need to speak to the government about getting planning permission etc.’

Top left: the grand ceiling of the Art Deco theatre. Top right : Ursula talks to one of the light engineers on site.

I’m about to ask my next question when the driver appears at the glass window front and Ursula tells me that we need to get going to see one of her projects. When I ask her where we are going she tells me it is a renovation project in Mitte called the Secret Garden, but that’s all I’m told. It’s lovely and warm in the car and we chat on the way there as we drive through the city. ‘I have a driver because I spend up to two hours in the car every day…and I never had enough time to find a parking space so I ended up getting so many tickets!’ she smiles.

We pull up on a greyish street on a side road in the centre of Mitte. It’s quiet – in fact we’re almost the only people there. Through a hollowed door entrance we make our way into what looks like a construction site in a Hof. The structure of an enormous building is still standing there, and I follow Ursula inside. On the second floor there was a huge room (originally a theatre that was popular during the golden twenties) with a beautiful auditorium and stage, and much of its original decorative features were still intact.

The whole building will become multipurpose, as it is being converted into an event space, co-working space, a penthouse apartment on the top two floors, and there are further ideas for a bar and restaurant. Construction workers, project managers, architects and designers are milling around trying to talk to Ursula. One thing that becomes clear is how everyone is waiting for Ursula’s expertise – her advice is invaluable.

After we spent the following hour or so exploring the building, we stop in a cafe on the same street which was a butchers during the DDR. The walls are covered in the original tiles too and the place is decidedly twee. It seems like everything in this city is converted from something old – Berliners aren’t anxious about keeping up with the modern glass cages and palaces you see in other European cities. We sit on a long creaky wooden table as we wait for our bagels.

original DDR decor and low lighting in the cafe in Mitte, East Berlin.

A: What has been one of your favourite or the most interesting project you have worked on and why?

U: ‘The Haus Buchthal.’ (one of LenzWerk’s current projects in Westend). ‘It has a secret, and it’s not very often that you find such a house. In this case it was important and we didn’t know it.’

The secret that Ursula is talking about is that the Haus Buchthal was one of the few villas built in the expressionist style in Berlin. It was designed in 1922 by the brothers Hans and Wassili Luckhardt together with the architect Franz Hoffmann. The villa was extraordinarily avant-garde for its time, with angular features, crystalline shaped spaces, strong contrasting colours, and an interior furnished by the expressionist artists Oswald Herzog and Moriz Melzer. It is beautifully imposing in its position on the corner of two residential streets in West Berlin. Right next to the Haus Buchthal is another project that Ursula is working on: the Weisse Villa Westend.  It is a brand new villa that will be built in a unique style; also taking inspiration from the Art Deco Era. So how does the design differ from the Haus Buchthal?

The Haus Buchthal in 1922. The original exterior features have now been restored. 

U: In the Haus Buchthal everything is sharp: it’s all about sharp edges, whereas the Weisse Villa is all about curves – curved edges and soft edges. Inside, all of the materials – everything – is modern. Do you know the white city in Tel Aviv? It’s like that.

As I look at the plans for the project know exactly what Ursula means. The White City and the Weisse Villa have a lot in common. Both of them certainly celebrate the architectural style of the Bauhaus in full glory, but they also have a distinct flow of space. And in the Weisse Villa, it is the roundness and fluidity of the rooms, walls and balconies that create this flow.

On the U-Bahn back to my office I think about all the the inspiring work that’s going on across Berlin at the moment. It’s an exciting time for the city because a lot of the changes are only just beginning, and I’m grateful to have met one of the experts who is paving the way for others who are yet to come. It has been a pleasure getting to know Ursula and her world, and I’ll be catching up with her again when the Weisse Villa Westend is finished – hopefully to get a peek inside!

By Amy Brandhorst

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