The Soul Catcher

Munich architect Peter Haimerl saves the old souls of derelict farmhouses through progressive design. Garnering the German architecture prize, his concept of inserting concrete cubes inside historic facades creates modern living spaces while preserving vernacular Bavarian architecture. Haus Zilly ft. Jutta

Cilli remained the last living soul in the old farmhouse built in 1840 in the Bavarian Forest. The farmer woman had inhabited the Waldler farm’s spartan living quarters at the edge of Viechtach, a small southern German town near the Czech border. When Cilli passed away in the 1970s, Peter Haimerl’s family inherited the historic farm, and young Peter resolved to someday save the building from deterioration—an endeavor that nearly two decades later would at first prove difficult for him. Haimerl had just graduated from architecture school in Munich in the early 1990s when, brimming with gusto, he ripped out the ceiling to create more space in the low-ceilinged parlor. “I interfered with the structure of the house by doing that,” Haimerl says in retrospect. “It became very clear to me that the houses here have a distinct character—that a house’s spirit lives on.” Wanting to preserve the soul of Cilli’s old farmhouse, he drafted close to 100 designs. It wasn’t until years later that Haimerl, by now a renowned architect, ventured into the actual restoration.

“It became very clear to me that the houses here have a distinct character— that a house’s spirit lives on.”

He soon discovered a hidden grid in the house’s structure; the proportions and dimensions themselves revealed a coherent picture. “To discover this took time. It appears the carpenters back then had an intuitive understanding of the framework. Many craftsmen and architects today, by contrast, are mere implementers of concepts from the home improvement store,” grouses Haimerl, who abhors Toscana-style mansions and, even more so, the romanticized yodel-cabin aesthetic often found in the Upper Bavarian and Austrian alpine regions. Fortuitously, he found himself in a particularly fitting area for his very personal project: The faraway, barren Bayerwald is miles removed from alpine kitsch and tourist hordes. In fact, the region suffers from rural exodus, since the young and educated are migrating to the cities. Country idyll meets slow decline here.


Out of stock

Many of the old houses and farms have already been torn down. Authentic historic design has become rare to find, the architect regrets. “Those were the homes of simple, poor people. They had to make do with the little they had, which characterizes the particular quality of construction.” Logs were treated rudimentarily, and artificial elements were reduced to a minimum. Haimerl is fascinated by this reduction to the essential, the individuality, the deftness of traditional Bayerwald architecture, which was soundly adapted to the given materials and setting. The old farmhouses were invariably built parallel to a geological phenomenon known as Bayerischer Pfahl, a quondam 150-kilometer- (93-mile-) long quartz vein traversing the northeastern Bavarian Forest. Ostensibly, the people in the region oriented themselves by the Pfahl.

His adoration for his native region and its peculiarities combined with his respect for traditional craftsmanship eventually drove Haimerl—who by now was practicing architecture in Munich—to entirely preserve the original exterior facade rather than “restoring the house to death,” as he phrases it. Instead, the new was to meet the old with prudence—a premise for all of Haimerl’s projects.

Set in time and concrete

Driving past the little chapel toward the forest, stately new construction projects and revamped farmhouses remain blatantly absent from the landscape. Time seemingly stands still here. Facades quietly crumble. Envisioning anyone living here is difficult.

In addition to the facade, Haimerl preserved the building’s underlying fundamental makeup—the stable in the house, the Austragskammer (a small room customarily reserved for a live-in aging relative) on the building’s north side, the granary in the attic, and the barn under a roof that extends all the way down to the ground. Haimerl poured four concrete cubes into the derelict farmhouse’s interior—lightweight concrete, to be exact, with aggregate foam-glass ballast. The foam-glass ballast, made from recycled glass bottles, is highly insulating and eco-friendly. The concrete dams the house from the inside while shielding it against the outside. The original facade remains intact; the ancestral farmhouse lives on. Haimerl received the Architekturpreis Beton (architecture prize, concrete) for this technique in 2008. Moreover, the vivid glass surface references the Bayerwald’s traditional glass industry.

3 Küche

The project’s realization proved challenging, since walls and ceilings had to be poured in one piece and the concrete needed to mold to the old masonry’s somewhat crooked plaster. The former Stube (parlor) is now the Mutter-Kubus (mother cube), the only heated space in the house. The three smaller cubes—bathroom, kitchen, and bedrooms—are heated by the fireplace in the great room. “We wanted the house to be comfortable, to an extent. But this wasn’t to be a house designed to serve us. The installations needed to be adequate for the old farmhouse and conducive to its time and scale,” Haimerl explains. Big openings in the concrete give view to the old facade, the old windows, and the attic. The large attic hatches are closed in winter and opened in summer for light and air. Parts of the old loam floor stayed exposed. Time and history are integrated within. “I want the patchwork character, those pieced-together elements of the existing building, to remain visible,” says Haimerl. “You have to be able to see the places where the house needed to expand, where it needed to grow with the needs of its inhabitants.” The building’s history is evident in the layers of peeling paint, the variation in the walls’ thickness that marks different building phases, in the antiquated electrical wiring, in the feed trough in the stable. Even the sparse interior design references the farmhouse’s ordinary past. The existing part of the building is furnished exclusively with pieces that were already there before the renovation, such as the old wooden bed that Cilli, the old farmer woman, slept in, and an old dress that still hangs in the closet—a patchwork of decades and a mirror of time, like the old farmhouse itself. Haimerl’s wife, Jutta Görlich, visualizes that sentiment in artful photographs.

“You have to be able to see the places where the house needed to expand, where it needed to grow with the needs of its inhabitants.”

The new living spaces inside the concrete cubes are furnished with salvaged artifacts and pieces made from recycled materials, such as reclaimed-wood benches and an iron stove built with recycled materials in the new kitchen. It’s comfortably warm in here, and the house’s old soul is perceivable. It’s easy to see why the architect loves to spend time in his idiosyncratic vacation home.

The farmhouse also serves as the architect’s office and showroom—here, he can demonstrate his design principles, his innovative mix of old and new. Something he continues to do. His project “Birg mich, Cilli!” (Salvage Me, Cilli!) received outstanding press coverage and raised great interest among city folks longing to escape to an authentic Bayerwald house. The project is equally recognized by the locals, who value the idea of preservative restoration. For that reason, Haimerl founded the interest group Hauspaten Bayerwald—loosely translated, “a call to adopt a Bayerwald house.” The initiative brings together builders, architects, investors, craftsmen, and grantors for the salvation of these relict houses.

Concert hall Blaibach

The movement has not only catalyzed the renovation of several historic farmhouses—and with that the architectural revitalization of the Bayerwald—it also connected Haimerl with the noted German baritone Thomas Eduard Bauer. The fellow Bayerwald natives collaborated in building a “refuge” for the Kulturwald festival Bauer had established to honor and celebrate the region’s culture. In a tenacious effort, and despite initial protest from the locals, the two contrarians created a strikingly innovative concert venue in the small neighboring community of Blaibach, where world-class musicians perform today. The building in the form of a tilted granite block partially sunken into the village square and outfitted with a granite gravel facade was largely funded through Bavarian government programs.

So, too, were the new community center and city hall next door: As part of the pilot project Ort Schafft Mitte (Place Creates Center) for the revitalization of abandoned village centers, Haimerl encased the existing building with a minimalist shell made from his recycled-glass concrete. The new concert hall he built was to evoke a sense of awakening in this somewhat desolate region. An open staircase beneath the monumental lithic structure leads into the foyer. From there, concertgoers reach the steeply ascending auditorium, which seats 200 guests on wire chairs. The slotted wall of cleverly stacked concrete slabs was entirely designed according to input from acousticians. On the outside, the tilted cube was clad with granite rubble, and many residents of the former quarrymen's village lent a hand. In 2015, the jury of the Deutscher Architekturpreis (the German architecture prize) distinguished Haimerl’s firm for the concert hall in Blaibach, among more than 150 submitted projects.

Haimerl x Euroboden

Haimerl x Euroboden Stockerweg project

While the prestigious award was the highlight of his career so far, the unorthodox architect has no intention of stopping there. He recently completed his newest project—Verweile doch (Stay Awhile)—in collaboration with the construction and development firm Euroboden. In the Munich suburb of Riem, Haimerl applies the same preservation concept as with his Cilli project, without disregarding the peculiar characteristics of the town’s oldest estate.


Built circa 1750, the Zendath estate consists of a farmhouse and stables. Only parts of the residential portion and remnants of the stables were left standing, though. “With the historic farmhouse’s ambitious transformation, we wanted to create a pathbreaking paradigm for dealing with architectural heritage,” says Euroboden CEO Stefan Höglmaier. He and Haimerl intensively studied the rich history of the Schusterbauern house and its inhabitants (generations of owners were shoemakers and farmers) before embarking on their installation of two family-friendly dwellings. They connected the home and the stables spectacularly by inserting a concrete cube. Set into the forty-five-degree roof, the cube creates new levels with living spaces. Its steeply angled walls are a nod to the nearby alpine peaks. While the first unit remained largely intact except for a modern kitchen and bathroom, Haimerl’s design of the second unit encroached far more radically on the old structure. From the entryway behind the old barn door, multilevel mezzanines lead to a two-story space with gallery. Beyond lie the living room with a fireplace and the bedrooms. Exposed concrete, light-colored wood, and gray felt make up the interior architecture in this part of the building—only the old barn’s collar beams reveal that the centuries are overlapping here. “My architectural concept is based on two premises: preserving historic building stock while at the same time introducing a reinvention of space,” says Haimerl. He achieved just that in Riem. Once again, he saved the house’s soul through singularly progressive architecture. Once again, he caught that old soul and grandly made his mark with minimalist yet artistic aspiration to connect tradition with modernity. △

Monolog der Schusterbäuerin / Monologue of the Shoemaker Woman


es wird erzählt,

hinter dem Feldstadel,

ein kleines Häuschen

Dort wuchsen die Schuhe auf seinem Grund


it is said,

behind the barn,

there was a little house,

and there, the shoes grew out of the ground


es wird erzählt,

ihr Stubenboden war so sauber,

essen konnte man darauf


it is said,

her living room floor was so clean,

you could eat off it


es wird erzählt,

die Stallschwester Nanni spielte im Sommer unter dem Birnbaum ein Grammophon

Alle Knechte der Nachbarschaft kamen zum Hören

Sahen die wilden kleinen Früchte Tanzten wild in der großen Stube


it is said,

in summer the stable girl Nanni played a gramophone under the pear tree

All the servants in the neighborhood came to listen.

They saw the small, wild fruits and danced wildly in the big living room


es wird erzählt,

dass der ganze Zehent

der Kirche zu Riem zu reichen ist

in Geld


it is said,

that the whole tithe

had to be paid to the church of Riem

in money



es wird erzählt,

der Balthasar ging 24 Mal barfuß nach Altötting

Um 3 Uhr früh weg,

abends um 6 Uhr in Altötting

Ein braver Mann!


it is said,

that Balthasar went to Altötting barefoot 24 times

He left at 3 in the morning,

and was in Altötting at 6 in the evening

A brave man!


es wird erzählt,

die Schusterbauern haben sich verdient gemacht

im Dorf, für die Kirche

und gegen das Feuer


it is said,

the shoemakers rendered services to the church

in the village

And against fire


es wird erzählt,

mit dem Flughafen verschwanden die Felder,

da verschrieb sich der Schusterbauer

dem Pferdesport


it is said,

with the airport the fields disappeared,

so the shoemaker turned to

equestrian sports


es wird erzählt,

ein Lehrbub sollte von seiner Furchtsamkeit geheilt werden

In der Ledertruhe versteckte sich einer als Leiche

Man glaubte ihm nicht und nahm ihn bei den Ohren


it is said,

an apprentice lad needed to be cured of his fearfulness

Someone hid in the leather trunk pretending to be a corpse

He was not believed and was grabbed by the ears


es wird erzählt,

nach dem Brand der Scheune

verschwanden die Schusterbauern

von dieser Erde


it is said,

after the fire in the barn

the shoemakers disappeared

from this Earth

Peter Haimerl was born in 1961 in Viechtach, Bavaria. He studied architecture at the University of Applied Sciences Munich. After graduating in 1987, he worked for various architecture firms (1987–1988 for Günther Domenig, Vienna/ Graz; 1988 for Raimund Abraham, Vienna/New York; and 1988 for Klaus Kada Graz/Leibnitz). In 1991, he founded his own firm in Munich. Among his best-known projects are the remodel of Munich’s Salvator garage (2006), Das Schwarze Haus in Krailling (2006), “Birg mich, Cilli!” (2009), the concert hall in Blaibach (2014), and the restoration of the Schusterbauern farmhouse in Alt-Riem, Munich.

Haimerl received the Architekturpreis Beton in 2008, the Best Architects Award in gold in 2009, and the Bayerischen Kulturpreis (Bavarian culture prize) and the Deutschen Architekturpreis for his concert hall in Blaibach. Haimerl is married and has two children.