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Pavilion by Álvaro SIza and Rudolf Finsterwalder, Insel Hombroich Foundation, Ruhr Valley, Germany

SIza and Finsterwalder collaborate to add a brick farmstead-like complex to gathering of existing brick pavilions at the Insel Hombroich Foundation. Photography by Duccio Malagamba

The Insel Hombroich Foundation and Álvaro Siza are made for each other. The island of Hombroich, an extraordinary post-military landscape in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, is populated by strange brick pavilions that are elemental excursions on geometric form, light, plane and weather. These pavilions were made for collector Karl-Heinrich Müller, to display his eclectic art collection (including work by Yves Klein, Kurt Schwitters, and Hans Arp, as well as antique objects and sculpture) in the most unique of circumstances.

German sculptor Erwin Heerich began the first phase of buildings for the Insel Hombroich Foundation in 1982. Heerich’s work is strongly related to the formal interests of modernism, often played out in his early investigations of isometric drawing. The resulting pavilions at Hombroich are building-scale manifestations of these isometric experiments. All are made from a mottled red brick, minimally detailed, with some open to the elements in various ways and others closed with paintings within.

The atmosphere of Heerich’s original pavilions is amazing. There is no signage, no docent, no one to direct you in a particular route. The pavilions themselves have a roughness and informality, despite their highly geometric forms. Heerich completed 15 of them at Hombroich before his death in 2004.

Latterly, the Insel Hombroich Foundation has begun to involve a wider group of international artists (including Per Kirkeby, Katsuhito Nishikawa and Eduardo Chillida) and architects (including Raimund Abraham, Tadao Ando and Siza) in its further development. In 1994, the foundation bought an adjacent former missile base, and, going by the unfortunate jargon title of Spaceplacelab (‘Raumortlabor’), this is now something of an architectural zoo compared to Heerich’s original development of pavilions.

Perhaps the best building in this second phase, and certainly the most Hombroich-like, is Siza’s architecture museum, completed in collaboration with Bavarian architect Rudolf Finsterwalder. The project began in 1995, when Finsterwalder was working in Siza’s office in Porto, but was delayed, and finally began again in 2006, progressing very quickly until its completion last year. The revised pavilion retains the same basic form as the original, but is on a different site, and has a completely different internal layout. The original programme was to have been an institute for biophysics, and the pavilion will now be an architecture museum and photography archive.

The collaboration was genuine and involved. The planning of the building was done by Finsterwalder’s office in Germany, and he also supervised construction. Siza visited the site several times, and Finsterwalder travelled to Porto every three months during the construction period. Finsterwalder says: ‘It was important to me not to build quickly and not to do a weak Siza. But you can see that he worked a lot on the project - I’m very happy with the details.’

Siza’s is made of the same brick as the Heerich pavilions, expressed similarly in its details, and with a similar zinc-coated steel roof. But it is less a geometrical asteroid, and much more a landscape-related and typological building. It consists of two parts. The first, larger one is U-shaped, like three sides of a courtyard, and will contain the exhibition spaces. It is connected by a long wall to another volume of accommodation, which will contain a photography archive.

The U-shaped main volume is entered from a white stone portal. Inside are museum spaces, intended for the display of architecture. Once you enter the building, you have to turn twice in order to see the landscape again - a very Siza-esque sequence.

Inside, the details are rich and executed in a loving manner. The timber ceiling is solid 30mm oak and is part of the structure of the roof together with the glulam beams.

‘It’s a very rich detail,’ says Finsterwalder, ‘and it was quite expensive - but it is very nice. When you look at it, you can see slight torsions between the beams, which are very nice when the light is from the side.’ The museum is deliberately kept quite dark, at the request of Müller - there is limited artificial light.

The building, despite moving sites, is a compelling marshalling of the landscape. Hombroich is a place of strange and bleak beauty. The best artworks work there make semi-mystical standing stones and henges.

Siza’s instinct is not to create another totem-like marker in the landscape, but a farmstead-like complex that allows the landscape to be protected from the elements, and brought into relationship with the spaces inside.

Compare it to Tadao Ando’s Hombroich pavilion and you realise that, while the Japanese is a consummate scenographer, Siza, much the greater architect, connects landscape, shelter and typology in his work. The building seems to have a relationship with Siza’s Belgian Maison van Middelem-Dupont, completed in 2003, which also holds three sides of a courtyard in a large, flat landscape. But while that project looks rather like a rich person’s house, with its abstract dry-walled interior, this is more sophisticated and somehow rougher.

Let’s hope that it attains its intended use as an architecture museum. German architect Wilfried Wang was intended to be its director, though I understand that there is now some doubt about this, due to Müller’s death in 2007 and a lack of funds. It will have the foundation of a fascinating collection, with Heerich’s archive plus the records of the many great architects who have worked at Hombroich. Finsterwalder is optimistic that a projected opening show of Siza’s work will still happen. Take that chance to visit this amazing place.

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