Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

LRO’s Sparkasse building is a play of unexpected detail, texture and colour

Sparkasse LRO

It may be an annexe to an annexe, but this is definitely a case of tail wagging dog

An extension to a local building society does not perhaps sound like a brief to get the old architectural juices running, conjuring up something solidly modest and self-effacing. Indeed something much like the bland, new six-storey Sparkasse stretching east down Neue Strasse from Ulm city centre. This new administrative annexe for the German equivalent of a local British building society, with its thickly gridded cream concrete facade – the default ‘urban’ clothing for city blocks in Germany, spreading across Berlin like a rash – was designed by Nething Generalplaner Architekten Ingenieure (ngp), a local commercial practice with offices in Berlin and Leipzig. At its western end, however, another new block continues its line along the street, with a contrastingly animated facade, dappled by broken reflections of the city and sky.

‘The result is a facade caught in an attractive if slightly ungainly mash-up between Expressionism, PoMo, Deco and a sort of ’50s civic Modernism’

This is the ‘annexe to the annexe’ of the Sparkasse, as its architects, Stuttgart-based Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei (LRO), describe it. For in some odd – no doubt local political – compromise, while two-thirds of the new Sparkasse’s site was designed by ngp, the other third was awarded after the 2008 competition to LRO – connecting only at basement and third floor with its eastern neighbour. 

The LRO building has a distinctive presence, with a high arcaded brick base, its piers gently flaring out, giving a sense of the building raising itself on tiptoes. Above, dense strips of small triangular oriel windows project, the chromed zigzagging stainless steel of their frames explaining the shifting dappled reflections as you approach – giving the effect almost of shimmering scales. 

Sparkasse LRO site plan

Sparkasse LRO site plan

Location plan

Sparkasse LRO

Sparkasse LRO

The result is a facade caught in an attractive if slightly ungainly mash-up between Expressionism, PoMo, Deco and a sort of ’50s civic Modernism – but one that effectively gives light and life back to an otherwise fairly bleak north-facing stretch  of Neue Strasse, one of those wide arterial streets cut through the city in the high tide of ’50s autopia. The street has been since tamed further along by new buildings, including a Kunsthalle – a contemporary art gallery – plonked down along its centre in a pedestrian-friendly noughties attempt to knit the old city centre back together again. But at its western end it is still wide and unprepossessing, which the new arcade alleviates and humanises for pedestrians hurrying along it. 

To the south and west the site drops away, a full storey at its western end where Neue Strasse crosses the small Kleine Blau river, which once bounded the city walls. This river feeds into the Danube to the south, which for centuries was the lifeblood of mercantile Ulm, an orientation to which the adjacent medieval gabled district of Fischerviertel references in its name. Ulm’s inner city is otherwise centred on its cathedral, its fabric scattered with further extensive fragments of the gabling and patterned-plaster of chocolate-box Germany – although mostly pragmatically suppressed under new plaster and insulation.

Sparkasse LRO Floor plan

Sparkasse LRO Floor plan

Floor plans - click to expand

The LRO building nicely if abstractly  picks up on this decorative tradition – the reflections in its stainless-steel window frames recalling the visual play of the trompe-l’oeil Baroque frames painted around the windows of old burgher houses; while the density of its windows and slight top-heaviness throw up suggestive echoes of medieval cantilevered upper storeys. And while overall its street-line and blocking – flat-roofed, four-square, contemporary – follows that of its neighbour, rather than its frontage offering up an abstracted field of unforgiving orthogonals, the canted arcading and sometimes dogtoothed shadows thrown underneath the oriels gently echo the insistent diagonals found in the surrounding city’s gables, while also softening and visually breaking down the Sparkasse’s bulk. 

The brick used is recycled, explaining its textured patina, and selected colourwise to match that of the massively brick and gabled 16th-century Neuer Bau facing it across the street, today the local police HQ. Indeed at their western ends, these two buildings literally bond, brick to brick, where both their facades continue sheer down to river level, connecting along a walkway under the roadbridge. These two buildings together effectively remake the street, dealing with Neue Strasse’s scale, while also recreating a sense of a city wall, their contrasting but similarly sized bulks acting like gateposts to the city – in scale an appropriately massive civic crust to its centre. 

Sparkasse LRO 10

Sparkasse LRO 10

Source: Roland Halbe

Sparkasse LRO 9

Sparkasse LRO 9

Source: Roland Halbe

On the Sparkasse’s western facade, the insistent horizontals of the windows turn the corner but are terminated and balanced by a vertical expanse of brick that extends to the building’s full height. This is spotted by a diagonal patterning of rust-red circular light baffles expressed proud over small circular openings that light the communal areas at  the end of the long runs of offices inside, protecting against the afternoon sun.  

These round baffles are a favourite LRO device, seen in larger, adjustable form at their Hospitalhof in Stuttgart (AR Oct 2014), but here, LRO co-founder Arno Lederer, perhaps post-justifying their almost decorative use, points out their coin-shaped aptness for a building society, quoting the German saying: ‘Wer den Pfennig nicht ehrt, ist des Talers nicht wert,’ equivalent to the English one: ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’ The scale of patterning also nicely echoes that of the rows of dormers in the expanse of the adjacent Neuer Bau’s roof. It is this mix of pragmatics, idiosyncratics and seemingly felicitous happenstance that makes this building so rich in detail and feel so comfortably grounded in the city. 

Sparkasse LRO 2

Sparkasse LRO 2

Source: Roland Halbe

Sparkasse LRO 6

Sparkasse LRO 6

Source: Roland Halbe

The building has two main entrances – one at the eastern end on the Neue Strasse level and one to the west at the lower river level. The plan is simply laid out with two corridors running either side of a central core, servicing two bands of flexibly divided office/meeting rooms to the north and south. Its eight floors include a basement that continues the building’s more free-spirited take on the brief by being solely for bikes: cars are parked under its ngp-designed neighbour. The offices bracketed by small communal spaces at each end are topped and tailed by them also. At river level there is a flexible event space accessible from outside and a staff gym one storey above, while the top two storeys are cut back to the south to allow for a large roof terrace. 

Everywhere there’s a play with often unexpected detail, texture and colour – the entrance to the terrace is marked by a concave copper-clad alcove, while in the gym the play of circular openings continues, with large round windows above a vivid apple green floor. 

Sparkasse LRO Section

Sparkasse LRO Section

Sections - click to expand

In contrast, the main floors are soberly coloured and textured: birch ply wrapping around the service core and white partition walls defining the offices, either side of grey-floored corridors. But this is relieved by the playful appearance of the vivid red of the Sparkasse’s branding colour which lights up the vertical strips of (again circular) grilles alongside each office door when they’re in use – a playful, almost tongue-in-cheek effect as  in a cheap ’60s sci-fi TV series.  

At third floor level there is a bridge connecting to the ngp building, which as you walk through, frames the end gable of the Neuer Bau opposite in an almost Play School-like circular window on axis with it. 

Passing from one building to the other via this bridge, it’s instructive to see their very different takes on office space given an essentially identical brief. In the ngp building these are lined by near floor-to-ceiling windows, providing an even, bright, if bland, light, and making the surrounding city appear like so much wallpaper. In the LRO-designed offices, the use of oriel windows, while more contained, increases light levels through the larger glazed area they allow. They also catch rays of sun and framed views of the city, while giving a thickness and solidity to the window wall, all aspects, as Lederer explains, to alleviate the cell-like dimensions of offices, arranged on a 2.7m-wide grid prescribed by the brief. The adjacency of these two approaches instructively illustrates the contrast between neutral generic space and tailored place. 

Sparkasse LRO 5

Sparkasse LRO 5

Source: Roland Halbe

Sparkasse LRO 8

Sparkasse LRO 8

Source: Roland Halbe

It is this mix of thoughtful tailoring and gut design decisions, of visual pleasure as much as functional need, that results in a building that feels engaged in its site. It is a perfectly pitched essay in the richness to be gleaned from the simplest of ingredients in terms of function – admin and meeting rooms – creating an ordinary civic architecture, but one with a distinctive street presence, not trying to be banally everyday like so many sub-Swiss-style urban blocks around – but nor a pushy icon – exhibiting personality not ego.

This may be an annexe to an annexe, but here it’s definitely a case of tail wagging dog.

Sparkasse LRO Construction detail

Sparkasse LRO Construction detail

Construction section - click to expand

Sparkasse

Architect: Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei (LRO)

Structural engineer: Röder Ingenieure 

Photographs: Roland Halbe

Related files