The ghosts of Stuttgart’s past gather in this palimpsest of historical layers, drawn together in a building of unusual inclusiveness to form a new headquarters for the Protestant Church in Germany
On the west side of one of the two major roads that slice the centre of Stuttgart into three, and up a slight rise, the Hospitalviertel, or hospital quarter, is a slightly sequestered and seemingly bland area of the city, mainly consisting of anodyne office blocks which replaced a once-residential area flattened by bombing in the Second World War.
However, at its heart now stands a distinctively articulated new building. Designed as a cultural and administrative hub for the Protestant Church in Germany, it is wrapped around two sides of a courtyard and shares its city block with the truncated remains of a 15th-century church. The latter hints at the complex history of a site that has been variously a monastery, hospital, police station and Nazi detention centre, before its postwar return to Church use.
‘It’s a place of light and shadow, like all over Germany’, is how Jórunn Ragnarsdóttir, of its architects Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei (LRO), describes the historical palimpsest of the site. And on the bright early autumn day I visited, her words were evoked more literally in the deep repetitive shadows thrown across the building’s facades by its most noticeable features: closely coupled rows of windows, rectangular and circular, even triangular, each with prominent sun baffles capping or curling around them, giving the building an idiosyncratic half PoMo, half Art Deco feel.
But it was indeed the site, its history and its relationship to the city that was integral to the LRO’s design of the building, which drew on it to generate its overall form and parti, aiming to reestablish the site as a centre of gravity again in the district, creating a public focus to help kick-start local regeneration. LRO’s press release for the building opens by stating: ‘A building is always just part of … the city in which it stands.’ They go on to cite the Nolli plan of Rome, which famously marked the interior plans of major buildings, like churches, with their columns and apses, as contiguous spaces of the street and the public realm.
‘The site has been variously a monastery, hospital, police station and Nazi detention centre, before its postwar return to Church use’
And this area has good bones: the tight grid of surrounding streets was modelled in the 16th century on that of Turin and still has the intimate scale of a former residential district. It was laid out around (although significantly not quite in alignment with) the church, which predates it and was one of the three original churches of Stuttgart, built by the Dominicans with an accompanying cloistered monastery in 1473.
The monastery did not last long, for with the Reformation it was converted into the hospital which would give the area its name. By the 20th century, while the church remained, major new roads had marooned the district somewhat, and the hospital had closed and become a police station. It was this latter incarnation that would later see the Nazis use the building and an adjacent street as a holding area for people rounded up for internment, including many Jews later transported east to the death camps (a fact soon to be commemorated with a plaque).
Much of the church was destroyed in the war, and only the choir and tower were restored. The majority of the south-east side of the nave was retained as a screen wall, linking a new administrative block of offices and a hall designed by Wolf Irion for the Protestant Church, completed in 1963. Though well-designed, the Irion building was poorly built and by this century not fit for purpose: hence the 2009 competition.
Unlike the postwar arrangement of two distinct object buildings (hall and offices) loosely linked in dialogue with the church, the new design attempts to graft the ensemble back together into the unified whole of the original monastery.
So the new building is a single L-shaped block, the inner facades of which follow the line of the original cloister. Its north-west arm houses the entrance with a generous reception lobby and café, and a main stair leading up to a 650-seat hall on the first floor; while its south-west arm contains conference rooms below four floors of offices. These facilities are used by the Protestant Church, both for day-to-day administration, but also as event spaces for meetings, seminars and classes.
Significantly, the orientation of the new building is in line with that of the original church, and on plan, the corner of its tower and the remaining wall of its destroyed nave mark one side of an imaginary orthogonal, completed on two sides by the new block. This reorientation means the whole is twisted slightly off-kilter with the surrounding streets, generating wedge-shaped slivers of public space, akin to small squares. The city has agreed to re-lay them as shared surfaces, employing the same granite setts as those in the new courtyard.
This sense of a new public realm is most generously expressed to the north-east, at the main Büchsenstrasse entrance. Here the building is entered under an open canopied arcade, set back and perpendicular to the choir of the church. To the right of this arcade, on the ground floor facing the street, is a space intended for a café. Marking the building’s public and outward-facing role, its four sets of large glass double-doors are topped at first-floor level by small oriel windows with internal seats. On approach, the entrance canopy appears more a threshold to the courtyard than the interior, making it separate but visually and spatially contiguous with the street − with just a line of steel gates as a barrier (intended by the architects to be closed only at night). And physically and conceptually the courtyard is the heart and main ‘public space’ of the scheme: an embodied metaphor for the function of the Hospitalhof to provide a protective yet welcoming environment.
At ground floor, the entrance lobby and a wide circulation space linking the conference rooms − which can be used as a gallery − open out onto this courtyard, while at first-floor level, a wide balcony overlooks it. It is designed as a space to orientate yourself, as Ragnarsdóttir explains it: ‘… you never lose the sense of where you are’.
Underlining the intention to make it a new inside/outside public space in the city, the architects deftly introduce a play on Nolli, reinstating a trace of the plan of the original church nave by planting trees where its columns once stood; when mature they will provide a lofty approximation of the original, under which open-air services can be held. The line of the nave’s original north-west wall is now marked by a concrete bench, on the other side of which is the ‘cloister’ space with a rose garden at its centre. Its surrounding paving is a random collision of granite setts and variegated red and yellow bricks: the latter another echo of site history, being those few bricks that were reusable from the facade of Irion’s earlier building. In the seeming non-arrangement of these paving materials, there’s an insight into LRO’s design philosophy, as Ragnarsdóttir explains: ‘We said to the workmen: just to do it, we have this number of old bricks. Because I don’t think it is necessary to design things like that. It’s a big problem with architecture: over-design. When you study you think: every little piece needs to be designed. But then you can no longer see the whole: you just see the details, and details are not so interesting. It’s much bigger than that.’
This non-precious attitude is also about the pragmatics of budget: ‘we always have to find out: where do we spend the money and where not’. So the light yellow bricks of the new facade of the building, while chosen to blend with the sandstone of the church (once this is cleaned), were also the cheapest in this colour: ‘Only Zumthor can afford to buy bricks from Petersen in Denmark’, says Ragnarsdóttir. However, the way they are laid does not show a lack of interest in detailing, using at times deep and strongly contrasting Lewerentz-ish mortar joints, a detail which changes on the south-east facade, where the lost two bays of the original nave have been reconstructed, with the massiveness of the original stone, suggested by the use of almost flush joints under a lime wash. Here, slightly unnecessarily, the two original tall Gothic windows and buttresses have been reproduced as exact simulacra in brick of the originals − behind which fire-stairs now lurk: literal additions which only questionably contribute to reestablishing an impression of a public-building, as intended.
‘The architects deftly introduce a play on Nolli, reinstating a trace of the plan of the original church nave by planting trees where its columns once stood’
What comes through is a sensitive, often idiosyncratic, but occasionally awkward approach to detail and design, exemplified by the rows of windows with their sun-baffles mentioned earlier. These are most distinctive on the north-western facade, where the back of the hall’s stage is expressed externally in an overhang, punctured by large round porthole-like windows, each shielded by heavy rounded concrete coves canted to the west, to shield them from the evening sun.
Inside the hall, these have round secondary baffles, in the form of adjustable birch flaps, which sit proud of a wall lined in birch looking a bit like hanging chads. The pale birch wall slinks up the back of the stage to break into a sloping ceiling of slats, articulated in an extruded section, which funnels in light from a row of spinal skylights. Among the large, robust, well-finished but fairly generic interiors, this is by far the most distinctive space, along with the main stair.
However, while the stair carries in its slight, white curves further Art Deco echoes, and is theatrically lit by small square side windows, the hall is an intoxicating rush of colour. Augmenting the tones of the birch, which will weather to a deeper yellow, the floor is covered in red linoleum. It warms up the hall, saving it from institutional greyness, and also leaches out of the lit windows at night, giving them a rosy glow.
This is a building that is not yet picture perfect: the trees in the courtyard need to grow, the church choir is still to be renovated, losing its hastily composed facade that makes it look like a giant mutant cottage, and gaining windows connecting its interior to the courtyard. But it is perhaps not the type of architecture that lends itself to photography in any case: its slightly ungainly features always coming to the fore over its poetry. And it is poetic, while being matter of fact, exuding a sense of calmness and inclusivity.
As Ragnarsdóttir says: ‘We build for everybody. I think it is important to say that because architecture is for everybody. So much architecture nowadays is for rich people and for me they are not interesting. We want to do something for normal people.’ And more immediately, the building just needs to be occupied more fully by normal people, the café to open, events and festivals to roll through it: pulling in life and energy to a previously dead part of city.