Germany (Technical University of Darmstadt) Starting Point: the Kitchen Table

TU Darmstadt alumni Klaus Bollinger and Manfred Grohmann have built an international engineering company with 400 employees worldwide

2022/10/21 by Astrid Ludwig

Not only did they study Civil Engineering at TU Darmstadt together and share an apartment, but 40 years ago, they also founded what has grown into one of the most renowned international engineering companies, with 17 local offices worldwide: Klaus Bollinger and Manfred Grohmann. This October 50 years ago, the two engineers started their course of studies at what was then “Technische Hochschule Darmstadt”. Today – shortly before their retirement – they can look back on a professional career encompassing famous buildings like the European Central Bank, the Louvre in Lens, and the subterranean Garden Halls of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main; complemented by a rich vita as university professors.

A vista to give wings to your ideas: When Klaus Bollinger and Manfred Grohmann look out from their office on the 4th floor at Frankfurt Westhafen, they enjoy a clear and unimpeded view across the river Main and the Friedensbrücke bridge all the way to the southern river bank and the Sachsenhausen quarter. The building is nicknamed “Das Gerippte” (the ribbed one), since the geometrical façade elements of this fully glass-clad, circular office tower remind one of the diamond-shaped pattern on the typical Frankfurt apple wine glasses. A spectacular place, and an office view like a photographic wallpaper. Somehow that’s fitting for two engineers who helped develop angular, sculptural glass buildings like the UFA Crystal Palace in Dresden, the interlocking towers of the European Central Bank, or the bubble-shaped “Kunsthaus Graz” in Austria by constructing their supporting frameworks and their façades. Together with an international team consisting of 400 employees worldwide. In Frankfurt alone, there are more than 120 engineers in open space offices on two and a half floors of the round-shaped Westhafen Tower, working on current projects for “Bollinger+Grohmann”.

The two company founders share an office that’s shaped like a slice of cake. “We’ve been sitting in the same room all our lives, our desks adjoining,” says Klaus Bollinger, laughing. Bollinger+Grohmann, a truly exceptional office partnership. The one, dark-haired and calm, the other, more extrovert with flowing white hair. Similar to an old couple, but one that never quarrels. “We’ve never argued, especially not about money. We share the same fundamental trust in each other, and we have the same views,” says Manfred Grohmann. And it has been like this since their third semester, when the two Civil Engineering students met at was then still called “Technische Hochschule Darmstadt” and became friends.

To Darmstadt for studies

Bollinger was born in the Stuttgart region, Grohmann in the Taunus hills north of Frankfurt. in 1972, they started their studies, exactly half a century ago. “I couldn’t wait to get out of Swabia,” Klaus Bollinger remembers. He had the choice between enrolling in Civil Engineering in Darmstadt or in Architecture in Berlin. In school, he had excelled in mathematics and art, but for his study major he decided to follow his mathematical-technical penchant. “Darmstadt had a good reputation,” he says. Both agree that their course of studies followed a theoretical, classic direction. There was a strict separation between engineering and architecture, although both would even then have wished for a more fluid transition between the two disciplines. A collaboration they have been promoting ever since the start of their engineering company. The discussions and involvement with their architectural colleagues sharpens one’s consciousness and serves as further education, as Grohmann underlines. Such cooperation has improved their understanding of architecture, he says. “And we’ve become ever more familiar with the language of architecture,” Bollinger adds. This no doubt is one of the reasons why their engineering company has been so successful in its focus areas of supporting framework construction, façade planning, structural physics, sustainability, and rebuilding existing structures – always in close coordination with the respective architects. They understand the outer shape and the underlying construction as one entity. Their philosophy when planning: Being part of project development at the earliest possible stage. In this way, an architectural design may be made even stronger or be developed still further.

Their course of study with a particular emphasis on constructive engineering had posed no problems for the two young students. “We had quickly learned what was required to pass the exams,” Grohmann remembers. “I loved studying. We had a lot of leeway,” says the alumnus. At the time, students still calculated with the aid of slide rulers and punch cards used for entering data into the computer models of the time. Klaus Bollinger and Manfred Grohmann soon moved to a shared apartment in Darmstadt. After 13 semesters, both graduated with a Diploma, and then started their first business jobs. Bollinger worked for “Krebs+Kiefer”, Grohmann joined the technical office of the “Wayss & Freytag” construction company. “There, I could apply right away what I had learned in my studies. I liked that,” he says. But both felt early on that they wanted to continue their academic path. Imparting their knowledge by teaching was important to them, especially interdisciplinary teaching.

Academic careers and an office

In 1981, Klaus Bollinger became a doctoral student and academic assistant at Dortmund University where they had developed the “Dortmund model”, promoting an interdisciplinary approach. There, students of Civil Engineering and Architecture were not separated but went to the same lectures and classes. He continued to promote this interdisciplinary approach in his later career. One instance of this was architect Peter Cook calling him to the Department of Architecture at Städelschule Frankfurt where he continued to lecture and teach repeatedly until 2021. In 1994, Bollinger became professor for supporting framework construction at the University of Applied Arts Vienna where he lectured and taught for 27 years. “Thanks to that position, I’ve become an Austrian citizen,” he relates with a smile. His student friend followed a similar academic career. In 1996, Manfred Grohmann became professor for Supporting Framework Planning at the Department of Architecture of Kassel University. Moreover, he held lectureships at TU Darmstadt, Städelschule Frankfurt, and the École Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA) in Paris. Since 2010, he is a member of the Executive Council of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures (IASS) and holds honorary professorships at the University of Nottingham and the University of Melbourne.

One might think that these tasks would suffice for a well-filled career. Still, in 1983, the two of them founded their own office, “Bollinger+Grohmann”. “We always wanted to be independent,” says Grohmann. This is a story smacking of the Apple garage. “Our starting point was the kitchen table,” Klaus Bollinger remembers. Next steps included a small office in a 3-room apartment in Darmstadt, and later the move to Frankfurt am Main. They received their first commissions, among them also for public buildings. The two TU Darmstadt alumni have always shown great variety and openness. They planned school annexes, realised children daycare centres and apartments in Frankfurt am Main, but they have also become famous thanks to some truly spectacular commissions like the European Central Bank, the MOMA in New York, the BMW World in Munich, the “Kunsthaus Graz”, the new Munk museum in Oslo, and the subterranean Garden Halls of the Städel. They realised numerous projects together with architecture star studios like Coop Himmelb(l)au, SANAA oder Zaha Hadid.

Internationally successful

“Our company has continued to grow along with the projects, and it has become increasingly international,” says Klaus Bollinger. Today, they employ about 400 staff in 17 local offices worldwide. A number that the two alumni still seem to marvel at. “It has been a gradual development. We never aimed at becoming that big,” both point out. “Most of the time, the people just came to us.” Often, it was project team members who proposed to join Bollinger+Grohmann and set up a local office abroad. Maybe that’s because of their corporate philosophy: “We treat each other with consideration, we’re all on familiar terms, we have a flat hierarchy.” And they have the claim to realise interesting, novel, sustainable projects together with architects who strive for “buildings that empower people,” says Bollinger.