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Science Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, Wolfsburg, Germany

Burg or a berg? Stronghold or floating mass? Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre is open to interpretation

Originally published in AR April 2006, this piece was republished online in August 2011

This building study will not concern itself with the so-called superstar status of its architect. Neither will it adopt inappropriate superlatives that inaccurately place the building at the forefront of state of the art architectural progress: those that allude to performative infrastructures, warp factors , or futuristic forms of lunar urbanism.

It will instead focus on the physical reality of one of the world’s largest pieces of hand-crafted fair-faced in-situ concrete, and one of Zaha Hadid Architect’s (ZHA) most accomplished projects to date, the Phaeno Science Centre: a building that challenges formal convention, compressing construction history by merging ancient and modern techniques as handmade formwork meets advanced computer analysis.

Cast from over 27,000 cubic metres of selfcompacting concrete, the fact that this building is a technological triumph is not in dispute. It has been discussed at length in an earlier technical review (AR January 2004). In completion, however, merit now lies in its holistic coherence, both as a work in its own right - as a synthesis of materiality, space making and formal manipulation - and as an experiment in place-making; or, as Hadid defines it, mini-urbanism.


In anticipation of this long awaited work, many have rushed to draw early conclusions, illustrating observations with bleak unoccupied photographs set in stark isolation. This review, however, attempts to unify building, user and locale through Dennis Gilbert’s insightful photographs of the building in use: images that deserve to be seen in amplified format.

It also seeks to demonstrate how the building has found its place in Wolfsburg; how it has resolved its three sidedness when viewed from station, Porschestrasse, and neighbouring Autostadt visitor centre; and how it performs as a science centre, established to help broaden Wolfsburg’s appeal as a cultural destination.


Despite the City Architect’s interest in an island building, placed at the centre of the site, ZHA’s strategic decision to push the bUilding hard up against the ICE rail line was key to its success in defining a public space and termination to Porschestrasse, the city’s main public precinct. With preoccupations borne from her 1994 Cardiff Bay Opera House proposals, Phceno serves as a critique of the Modern Movement’s use of the ground plane, which in Hadid’s view failed to usefully regenerate land liberated by pilotis.

Her second critique of Modernism focuses on the limitations of mass-production when applied to civic situations, which is not only pertinent to Wolfsburg’s industrial heritage, but also to Hadid’s interest in producing civic buildings that derive essentially from uniqueness; one-off responses to sites and situations that apply, unify and extend thirty years of the Hadid arch itectural research curriculum, which in relation to Phceno includes subject categories like Continuous Surfaces, Carved Spaces, Excavations, Fields and Liquid Spaces.


As a single entity, structurally and spatially seamless, continuous, carved, excavated, and liquid, the building comprises three principal terrains; a 15,000sqm car park below, a 12,000sqm exhibition space above, and a public landscape in between. With the exhibition held 8m high on 10 conical pilotis, Phaeno could be seen as an equivalent to Herzog and de Meuron’s Barcelona Forum (AR September 2004) as both bUildings compress a public space between artificial ground and an elevated triangular form.

In reality, however, each have distinct qualities, and what Phaeno’s moody sheltered public space loses in terms of natural light and sparkle (without top-lit patios or a reflective metallic underbelly), it gains through a material integrity that extends from the ground to give it a more rooted sense of place.


Furthermore, while the Forum’s public space is dominated by a large ticketed auditorium, Phaeno’s inhabited pilotis withdraw toward the perimeter to overlook and enliven an otherwise dreary no-go zone. To extend comparisons further, however, is of little relevance. These buildings respond to entirely different programmes and locations, and unlike the Forum that provides flexible space for mixed and multiple use, Phaeno provides a solid home for a new civic institution; a specific client in a specific place with a very specific mission - to provide an ‘experimental landscape’ in which to open up new approaches to the world of natural science and technology.

This is a place where hundreds of thousands of people can gravitate to test natural law, physical truths and ingenious inventions, within a building that serves as the first and the final exhibit, expressing the material efficiency of its structure (through the thinness of its shell) and by responding to the complexities of the science centre’s organisational structure, encouraging participants to move through the space like highly charged ions, navigating a new form of internal landscape.


The principal success of this building lies in the consistent quality of internal and external environments; even the subterranean car park expresses the building’s solidity, right to its core. All three environments extend dynamic new landscapes that encourage free circulation and the right to roam, controlling vistas and views along the way, either beneath the building to connect industrial north and cultural south, or from within through a series of specifically shaped openings that take on eccentric curves as they slice through the building’s distorted structure.

The manner in which the concrete form dramatically morphs to express the notion of continuity is an unprecedented success; when the design rationale deviates from this discipline the building does on occasion lose its conceptual clarity, as is the case with the preformed concrete panels on the south elevation, and where a number of the internalised cones lose their robust self-finished surface in place of a traditional plaster finish.

In most cases, however, the building maintains its robust integrity, which is a significant achievement considering the lacklustre quality of most black box exhibition spaces; a curse that this building radically avoids.


Roofing the building, however, was always going to be conceptually problematic, and the chosen method has attracted the most significant criticisms; being at best functional (successfully resolving distorted geometries, Sam spans, and routing the building’s principal services), and at worst imposing, oppressive and far from cutting edge. With over 100,000 visitors in the first four months, Phaeno has been extremely well received, and is well on the way to surpassing the annual target of 180,000 visitors.

As the realisation of many late twentieth century Hadid research projects, it certainly deserves recognition as one of the twenty-first century’s first truly ground breaking buildings, taking its place alongside the work of Scharoun and Aalto on Wolfsburg’s prestigious promenade architecturale.

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