Kippenberger Psychobuildings

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Martin Kippenberger, Psychobuildings, 1988. © 2019 Estate Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Psychobuildings is a 1988 artist's book by German artist Martin Kippenberger, published in an edition of 1,000 by Walther König, Cologne.

The book consists of 114 black and white photographs of buildings, architectural details, public sculpture, street furniture, ad-hoc arrangements of objects, and the artist's own sculptural work—all reproduced without any textual accompaniment. Each of the postcard-sized images takes up one page of the book, including the inside front and back covers.[1]



Martin Kippenberger, Psychobuildings, 1988. Page spread.

Psychobuildings amounts to an architectural travelogue of sorts, most of the photographs in the book having been taken during the artist's extended stays in Brazil in 1986, and Spain in 1988.[2]

Unbalanced, hastily arranged, or precariously supported design constructions recur throughout the book: in one image, the supporting columns of an arcade appear to have been cut off, shorn of their supporting function, while in another, a scaffold is alarmingly cantilevered from a roof. Isolated facades loom against the sky, half finished or abandoned; lumpen cast concrete objects of uncertain function repeatedly catch the artist's eye.

Examples of imperfectly realized urban planning abound, including eccentrically executed municipal street repairs, confounded directional signage, and wonky street furniture. Dated looking abstract public sculptures are often difficult to distinguish from what may simply be a pile of construction materials randomly stacked in a field.

The idealism of architectural photography is everywhere undermined: small details in the foreground of an image snag the eye away from the ostensible architectural subject matter; ‘interesting architecture’ is documented in blurred photography, clearly taken from a passing car. The impulse to build is shown reduced to basics in a series of improvised barriers and furniture constructed from discarded materials.

Martin Kippenberger, Psychobuildings, 1988. Page spread.

If there is a relationship to modernism articulated in the preponderance of cast concrete structures in the book, it is an expedient rather than programmatic modernism, where simple construction in concrete becomes the default for those with small budgets and unfussy attitudes toward design.[3]

Throughout, the sequence of images is interpolated with images of Kippenberger's own sculptural work, which often echoes the content seen in the photographs. In one image, the artist's Laufstall für Prospekte, a wooden assemblage that formed part of his 1987 exhibition at Max Hetzler Gallery in Cologne, is photographed in the street, returning it to the kind of construction-barrier context which it already alluded to. Versions of Kippenberger's iconic Streetlamp for Drunks series of sculptures are shown alongside what may have been their inspiration: a tilting lamppost. And the semi-derelict gas station in Salvador, Brazil that the artist 'purchased'[4] and rechristened Martin Bormann Gas Station is also represented.

Further disruptions to any straight-forward sense of thematic unity appear throughout the book in the form of a photographs of a distended belly in a hotel room, the artist posing semi-naked on the roof of a car, and, in the final photograph, reproduced inside the back cover, a trio of ‘African’ head sculptures, one wearing a pair of eyeglasses.


The book's cover references the design of German philosophy publisher Merve Verlag, who were known in the 1980's for being first to publish German translations of some of the leading post-structuralist writers of the time.[5] Kippenberger's cover reverses the iconic right-leaning color parallelogram of the Merve books, replacing it with a left-leaning one. The rest of the design, including fonts and colors, is intended to underline the reference to Merve, which Manfred Hermes has noted was a joke and a provocation, given the anti-theoretical intent of Psychobuildings.[6]


Most of the photographs in the book were taken by Kippenberger during travels in Brazil in 1986, and Spain in 1988, where he had taken up residence alongside fellow artist Albert Oehlen. Suzanne Kippenberger has noted that the house that her brother and Oehlen shared on the outskirts of Carmona was surrounded by rubbish dumps, and on their walks into the town to eat and make phonecalls, Kippenberger was impressed by the shabbiness of the surroundings, and the locals' willingness to just throw away things at the side of the road.[7]

Critical Interpretations

The book has been related to Kippenberger's interest in dysfunction and failure, which he had been exploring in multiple media throughout his ten-year career up until 1988.

Neville Wakefield has written of the images in Psychobuildings: "Here handicap, defect and truth to bad materials and the fucked-up nature of things become their own heroic form of counter-purity.”[8] Nicolas Guagnini has noted how this dysfunction manifests itself in the architectural domain as unbalance,[9] and Nicholas Ohrt has reiterated this point, speaking of how Kippenberger is "drawn to architectural situations which stand out because, from some aspect of their design, they are burdened with too much striving for form and have become unbalanced. Then there are the beautiful corrections, the unintentional encounters, and the many small comedies-of-sculpture in public space."[10]

The question as to what the 'Psycho' of the work's title means has been raised by Ralph Rugoff; are the book's collection of eccentric and ad hoc arrangements manifestations of the psychotic, "in its clinical definition as a mental state involving a rupture with reality"? Or does the psychotic reveal itself instead in the opposite: the "overly regulated fabric of the modern cityscape", as imposed from above, which Psychobuildings' myriad small anomalies thus represent a resistance to?[11]

Martin Kippenberger, Three Buildings with Slits (Betty Ford Clinic, Stammheim, Jewish Elementary School), 1985.

Kippenberger had explored top-down models of architectural instrumentality in earlier works, including the sculptural Designs for Rest Homes for Mothers and the painted triptych Three Houses with Slits (Betty Ford clinic, Stammheim, Jewish elementary school), both works 1985. In the latter, three buildings with varying 'programs'—a rehabilitation clinic, a school and a prison—make a mockery of the modernist imperative that form follow function, each of the bunker-like buildings appearing interchangeable with the other. Diedrich Diederichsen has described the comic inability of the forms of the Three Houses to coincide with their functions as a "psychological refusal", pointing to an obsessive subjectivity that Kippenberger's paintings uncover at the heart of the buildings' ostensibly objective programs. "Psychology argues that every objective form is rooted in the subjectivity of an individual, that it is formulated by individuals—usually powerful ones—with concrete psychological motivations, and that it only becomes concrete by being filtered through an obsessive subjectivity." Against the purported objectivity of modernist architecture, Kippenberger thus seeks to emphasize an obsessive subjectivity, and to assign it psychological motivations.[12]

Where this subjectivity may have appeared powerful or pathological in the case of the Three Houses (aggressively designed buildings with specific programs to heal, reform and educate), in Psychobuildings, the architectural subjectivity is of an entirely different order, if no less obsessive.[13] In the book, Wakefield has noted, the originating impulse of modernism has devolved into a backyard vernacular, where "tragi-comedy rules and the utopian dream slowly unravels from the drawing board outward into the hands of local and private contractors [and] do-it-youreselfers...".[14] Here architectural instrumentality is weakened, and subjectivity inheres instead in the botched, the failed, and the haphazard. The architect becomes "One of You"—to reference an earlier Kippenberger work[15]—and the architectural impulse stripped to the fundamental basics of stacking one thing on top of another.

Ralph Rugoff is able to conclude: “A psychobuilding, then, is not a symptom of disorder but a welcome deviation from the rationalisation and abstraction of space that, historically, was one of the great projects of modernist architecture and urban planning.”[16]

Manfred Hermes has commented on Kippenberger's use of photography in the book, and compared it to that of the contemporaneous 'Düsseldorf school' of artists, in which architecture often "played a role as form, material and metaphor for social conditions, utopian visions or power." The mutually reinforcing "auratization" between architecture and photography in the work of Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, or Thomas Ruff, was something Kippenberger found ridiculous, and the amateur nature of the snapshots in Psychobuildings, in tandem with their ramshackle subjects, can be read as a conscious "rebuttal" of the pomposity of the work of his fellow countrymen.[17]

Links to Kippenberger’s Other Work

Peter Sculpture

Martin Kippenberger, Peter. The Russian Position, 1987. Installation view, Max Hetzler Gallery, Cologne.

Ann Goldstein has written on Psychobuildings' relationship to the artist's "Peter" body of sculpture, which had been conceived with, and built by, Kippenberger's assistant Michael Krebber between 1986 and 1987.[18]

The Peter works are composed of a disparate range of found and constructed materials—wooden packing crates, tables, cabinets and other modified functional objects, including recycled elements of Kippenberger's and other artist's works. The artist first exhibited the sculpture in the exhibition Peter: The Russian Position, with forty-five of the works packed densely together at Max Hetzler Gallery, Cologne, in 1987.

"Peter", the collective title of the works, refers to a German linguistic joke, a “gimmick that can be attached to other words, like ‘wotsit’ and can be anything from a simple thingummyjig to a mega-embarassing way of making a fool of yourself", as artist Jutta Koether explained it.[19] And indeed, the sculptures reflect Kippenberger's interest in errors and misunderstandings, supposedly originating from a Spanish carpenter's misunderstanding of Krebber's instructions for the fabrication of a piece: "both artists were so excited by the results that they started building in errors themselves."[20]

Several of the Peter sculptures are reproduced in Psychobuildings, including Fernfahrersitz (a work incorporating a portable toilet), Barbie-Tisch (an enlarged and modified model of a plastic Barbie toy bath), and Hinten ist noch ein Loch frei (a modified metal cabinet mounted with an image of one of the artist's Painter Paint for Me works). Ann Goldstein has proposed that the architectural images in the book can be thought of as an "inventory and point of reference" for the artist's ongoing sculptural work, the side-by-side images of psychobuildings and Peter sculptures linked in their shared manifestation of "ideas of utopia, function, dysfunction, and failure."[21]

Other Work

MOMAS, Syro. Photo by Lukas-Baumewerd.

Additional sculptural works appear in the book, including the thinly supported triangular wedge of Ramp, and Chicken Disco (photographed on a scrubby patch of ground that may well have been home to said chickens). These pieces were developed by the artist while in residence in Spain in 1988, so can be considered contemporary with much of the photographic work in Psychobuildings.[22]

Although not reproduced in the book (and a later project by the artist), some of the semi-ruined structures in Psychobuildings echo the half-completed abattoir building on the Greek island of Syros that Kippenberger 'claimed' for his Museum of Modern Art Syros project between 1992 and 1996. Katerina Gregos has written of the relationship between Psychobuildings and the MOMAS project, both finding productive artistic energies in "anomalous architecture and bungled development". As the remote MOMAS building remained half-finished, mired for years in planning bureaucracy, Kippenberger invited artist colleagues including Christopher Wool, Stephen Prina, and Cosima von Bonin to create projects for the skeletal structure—entirely unofficially.[23]

Psychobuildings as a Photo Work

Martin Kippenberger, Psychobuildings, installation view, Museum of Modern Art New York, 2008. Photograph by Thomas Griesel.

Psychobuildings was conceived by Martin Kippenberger as an artist's book, however selected photographs from the book have also been exhibited as unique photo works in varying configurations.

The exhibition Psychoarchitecture, curated by Neville Wakefield at Anton Kern Gallery, New York in 1998, featured a selection of the original images from Psychobuildings alongside photographs from Richard Prince's Upstate series. This appears to be the first time that the work was exhibited as photography, a year after the artist's death.[24]

A large group of the original images were subsequently sold by Anton Kern in 1999, entering the photography collection of the Swiss firm Zellweger Luwa AG, and have since been exhibited as a constellation of eighty-five unique individually framed prints, including as part of the Kippenberger retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and MoMA, New York, in 2008.[25]

The eighty-five image selection largely incorporates the more architectural photographs in the book, leaving out most of the images of the artist's sculpture and the more anarchic images of Kippenberger's travels in Brazil and Spain. Martin Hermes has noted that this photo work iteration of Psychobuildings is an exception in Kippenberger's oeuvre, photographs more typically being used by the artist as material for collages and posters.[26] Indeed, it is unclear whether the work was ever intended to exist in this form by the artist, never having been shown as a photographic work during Kippenberger's lifetime.[27]

The photo work was subsequently sold by Zellweger Luwa AG (along with a number of other contemporary photo works from their collection), at Christies, London in 2013, achieving a sale price of GBP 110,500, slightly below its estimate.[28] The work continues to be shown in this eighty-five image form, including as part of the exhibition Blind Architecture, curated by Douglas Fogle, at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, in 2015-16.[29]

Influence / Afterlife

Kippenberger's book provided the title and acted as something of a talisman for the exhibition Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture, curated by Ralph Rugoff, at the Hayward Gallery, London in 2008. Conceived as part of events marking the 40th Anniversary of the Hayward's celebrated Brutalist building, the exhibition featured ten international artists and artist groups "working against the grain of established architectural practices, [to create] architecturally-inflected installations that invite us to consider how built spaces function as social, psychological and perceptual environments.”[30] The exhibition included installations by Atelier Bow-Wow, Los Carpinteros, Mike Nelson, Ernesto Neto and Rachel Whiteread, amongst others. The Austrian artists' collective Gelitin flooded one of the Hayward building's flat roofs to create a precipitous boating lake for their installation normally, proceeding and unrestricted with without title, 2008; while Korean artist Do Ho Suh's Fallen Star 1/5, 2008 consisted of a 1:5 scale model of the artist’s childhood home crash-landed into the New England apartment where he lived as an art student.

Canadian artist Derek Sullivan, who works frequently with artists' books, has created his own tribute to Psychobuildings in his 2008 edition Persistent Huts. Something of a dual tribute to Kippenberger and another artist celebrated for his books, Ed Rusha, Persistent Huts is in the same foldout accordion format of Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip; inside are a series of photos of rudimentary stacked structures that the artist has created from multiple copies of Kippenberger's Psychobuildings book.[31]


  1. Martin Kippenberger, Psychobuildings, (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 1988).
  2. Manfred Hermes, "Psychobuildings", in Eva Meyer-Hermann and Susanne Neuberger, eds., Nach Kippenberger = After Kippenberger (Vienna: Schlebrügge.Editor, 2003), 123
  3. On the relationship of the architecture in Psychobuildings to modernism, see also Neville Wakefield, press release, “Psychoarchitecture” exhibition, Anton Kern Gallery New York, October 29 – November 28, 1998, retrieved May 14, 2019.
  4. Apparently, the story that Kippenberger bought the station and had a telephone line installed and staffed, with the instruction that any incoming calls should be answered "Martin Bormann Gas Station", is a myth of the artist's own making. See: Eva Meyer-Hermann, "Martin Bormann Gas Station", in Nach Kippenberger, 99. The artist's 'claim' on the station is nevertheless documented in a memorable series of images taken by his photography assistant on their 1986 Brazil trip, Ursula Böckler.
  5. Merve had published an earlier artist's book by Kippenberger, Frauen, in 1980, and Uwe Koch, writing in the catalogue raissonné of Kippenberger's books, notes that Psychobuildings was also meant to have been published by Merve, but that “the project was abandoned due to a misunderstanding”. See Uwe Koch, ed., Annotated catalogue raisonné of the books by Martin Kippenberger, 1977-1997 (New York: D.A.P., 2003), 166-167. Like Psychobuildings, Frauen presented a series of uncaptioned black and white images: of women—strangers, girlfriends, family and colleagues, "...and our mother, too, laughing in Martin's arms," the artist's sister Suzanne wrote in her biography of Kippenberger. See: Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger : the artist and his families, trans. Damion Searls (United States: J&L Books, 2013), 184.
  6. "By positioning his simple photographs within the context of the post-structuralist short essays that Merve was primarily publishing at the time, he was making another comment: robustly countering the fetishistic and authority fixated elements of theory by presenting the possibilities of the visual and, one might say, the need for emotionally founded communication." See: Manfred Hermes, "Psychobuildings", in Nach Kippenberger, 123.
  7. Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger : the artist and his families, 343-344.
  8. Neville Wakefield, “Psychoarchitecture”.
  9. Nicolas Guagnini, "Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective",, October 28, 2009, retrieved May 14, 2019.
  10. Roberto Ohrt, "Introduction", in A. Taschen and B. Riemschneider (eds.), Kippenberger (Cologne: Taschen, 1997), 23-24.
  11. Ralph Rugoff, "Pycho Buildings", in Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture, published on the occasion of the exhibition held at The Hayward, London, 28 May - 25 August, 2008 (London: Hayward Publishing, 2008), 17.
  12. Diedrich Diederichsen, “The poor man's sports car descending a staircase: Kippenberger as sculptor”, in: Martin Kippenberger : the problem perspective, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008), 136-138.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Neville Wakefield, “Psychoarchitecture”.
  15. Martin Kippenberger, Uno di voi, un Tedesco in Firenze, 1977, oil on canvas, 56 paintings, each 60 x 50 cm, and 50 x 60 cm, Flick Collection. Literally translatable as "One of you, a German in Florence", this is one of the artist's earliest completed mature works (if the term is not inappropriate for an artist like Kippenberger). Completed during an extended stay in Florence, Italy in 1977, the work is notable for the unfiltered, and unabashedly touristic approach that Kippenberger took to representing his surroundings, a 'democratic', nonhierarchical, and straightforwardly accumulative approach that was to set something of a precedent for the future development of his work. See Kathleen Bühler, "Uno di voi, un Tedesco in Firenze, 1977", in Nach Kippenberger, 31-33.
  16. Ralph Rugoff, "Pycho Buildings", in Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture, 17.
  17. Manfred Hermes, "Psychobuildings", in Nach Kippenberger, 123.
  18. Ann Goldstein, “The Problem Perspective”, in Martin Kippenberger : the problem perspective, 85-87.
  19. Jutta Koether quoted in Uwe Koch, ed., Annotated catalogue raisonné of the books by Martin Kippenberger, 1977-1997 (New York: D.A.P., 2003), 133.
  20. Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger : the artist and his families, 192.
  21. Ann Goldstein, “The Problem Perspective”, in Martin Kippenberger : the problem perspective, 85-87.
  22. Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger : the artist and his families, 343-344.
  23. See: Katerina Gregos, "MOMAS: The Unlikely Museum",, retrieved May 14, 2019.
  24. Neville Wakefield, “Psychoarchitecture”. Installation shots of the exhibition appear to show the Psychobuildings images as still mounted up for scanning for repro for the book, laid out in the same sequences in which they were published, but clearly original images, some of them in color.
  25. See: Kunstmuseum Bonn, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, eds., Through the looking brain: a Swiss collection of conceptual photography, (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011).
  26. Manfred Hermes, "Psychobuildings", in Nach Kippenberger, 123.
  27. The degree to which the reformatting of the work still causes confusion is perhaps reflected in the incorrect cataloging of Psychobuildings in the Problem Perspective catalogue as "approximately 120 black and white photographs, 21 x 29.7 cm, Collection of Zellweger Luwa AG, Usler [sic], Switzerland", which succeeds in getting everything wrong, describing neither the book nor the photo work.
  28. Sale 1150, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction, Christies London, 18 October 2013, retrieved May 14, 2019.
  29. Blind Architecture curated by Douglas Fogle, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 20 Nov 2015 - 23 Jan 2016, retrieved May 14, 2019.
  30. Ralph Rugoff, "Preface", in Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture, published on the occasion of the exhibition held at The Hayward, London, 28 May - 25 August, 2008 (London: Hayward Publishing, 2008), 11.
  31. Derek Sullivan, Persistant Huts, artist's book, 2008. Unpaginated, 18 x 14 cm, paperback, accordion, offset printed, black-and-white, edition of 26, published by Printed Matter Inc., New York.