This factory for an old established furniture company embodies new ideas about management and the relationship of the manufacturing process to the natural environment.
Originally published in AR January 1994, this piece was republished online in February 2016
Four high naves, regularly spaced along the length of a long white building, rise above the slopes of a green valley. Half timbered and brick villages, south-west of Hanover, open farmland and an expanse of sky are the backdrop for Thomas Herzog’s production hall for Wilkhahn.
The contract chair and table manufacturer’s headquarters takes the form of an assembly of diverse buildings, a document of factory building since the company was founded in 1907 by the Wilkening and Hahne families: a two-storey brick block with some original metal framed industrial windows, now used for conferences and shows, entertaining, design and press offices; the original saw mill where the company used to process their own local timber; an administrative concrete and glass block by a pupil of Walter Gropius, Herbert Hirche; and early prototype steel constructions by Georg Leowald along with utilitarian 1960s shoe box production halls. Frei Otto’s 1987 four square tents, with soaring timber roofs, were the last additions before Thomas Herzog was asked to rationalise the complete area and design regressive phases of building.
Standing on the present west boundary of the site, the first new production hall is entered through the neighbouring older halls or from the outside through one of several doors positioned for safety or delivery reasons. There is no main entrance as the functions within each of the three interconnecting halls (table top production, chair assembly and upholstery) are related to work carried out in other parts of the factory. Materials and parts arrive and leave through various routes. Breaking up the large hall into almost square areas also reflects the smaller groups of people working together. A pilot project has self-determining teams of craftsmen, all equal and individually responsible, producing particular models. Wilkhahn is now partly worker owned and profit sharing.
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In the four three-storey high nave blocks, industrial standard steel and concrete stairs lead to electricians’ stores, workshop, personnel offices and the distribution administration centre. The absence of hierarchy or formality in the use or appearance of the interiors, apart from the blue sisal carpet in the offices and the concrete slab in the production hall, is Thomas Herzog’s architectural response to a company, which is trying to break down authoritarian structures. The work atmosphere overall is neutral, airy, filled with daylight and much influenced by the timber construction: the post and beam walls, laminated beams and plywood ceiling with timber ribs.
‘I come from a background of steel construction, but timber is a universal building material that has a whole range of basic advantages’, says Herzog, who has developed a timber High-Tech architecture by executing clear structural concepts with a variety of different energy-saving infills slotted into timber frames.
In contrast to the timber-based architecture, Wilkhahn (one of the few manufacturers left in an area where local forests once provided the base for a chair-making tradition) nowadays uses little wood in their products. However, as part of a policy of aesthetic, human, ecological and economic responsibility, timber is seen as a link with the foundation, the area, and an environmentally acceptable material.
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Early sketches by Herzog show four people, in place of the four naves, supporting the factory roofs between them. The 24m laminated timber roof beams do indeed hang from the naves. Slender bottom chords of steel provide a greater effective structural depth. This principle is clearly expressed on the elevations. The roofs’ curved corrugated metal cladding covers plywood panels, which can be seen as ceiling soffit from inside. The structural frame on the two short elevations, north and south, is infilled with insulation sandwich panels faced in larch boards and solar reflecting or insulating glass, depending on orientation.
On the long east and west elevations, white insulation fibre matting, within the double glazed panels, disperses daylight to avoid glare internally, and adds insulation to protect against internal build-up of heat in summer. At eye level, a continuous strip of clear glazed and openable windows gives external views and the possibility of manual cross ventilation control in production areas.
Apart from functional requirements, the aim of the architecture was to integrate administrative and production workers as much as possible. The dispersal of offices in naves at regular intervals along the length of the production hall helps to bring down the scale of both industry and bureaucracy. Visual communication between the two processes is helped by clear glazing to the naves on virtually all sides. From office levels there are uninterrupted views of production areas inside and of the landscape seen between the structural timber members and steel cross bracing.
Clarity of structure can produce strange incidents. Steel diagonals, part of the cross bracing in the naves, rise out of the timber board floor and are attached to the wall columns. As yet no one has tripped up or broken their leg. The natural timber boarding, heavy beams and long narrow rooms in the naves are like domestic attics. The first of two energy plant buildings is situated to the north of the site. Running off a new natural gas supply, two boilers (for fuel efficiency and greater flexibility) and the pipework are insulated so that the glass cube needs only give protection from rain and snow. This is also a hanging structure, suspended at eight points from a tubular steel frame which stands outside the glass walls. As on the production hall where materials like the larch boarding w ill weather, change colour and document the passing of time, so on the energy building climbing plants will grow over the steel frame and the net that hangs from it to eventually obscure the glass box.
Thomas Herzog and Bernd Steigerwald’s planning concept includes further production halls, a second energy plant building and administration block called the Prism. Included in the ecological management of services are collection of ra inwater for a fire-fighting pond supply, an area for separating rubbish, the concentration of vehicular circulation and parking to minimise sealing off the ground, and a wind tower for electricity generation. By planting the roofs, Herzog intends to conceal the building’s foot print in the landscape. He is continually experimenting with combinations of materials, solar protection, insulation and energy-saving constructions. A glass canopy on the south facade is of sheets of ASI amorphous si’licone. This form of solar cell is being tested for the first time outside a laboratory. At this stage, although it does not justify its capital cost, it generates enough power to run the fork- lift trucks. Herzog, who received the Bund Deutscher Architekten award in September 1993 in recognition of his life’s work, says he is concerned with ‘developing programmes for solutions’. His architecture provides spaces for group co-operation, interiors where people do not lose touch with the external environment, and a man-made environment which seeks a balance with the nature.