The hermetic potential of the archive finds its ultimate expression in this tower of blank brick on Duisburgʼs waterfront
Amid the visual and experiential cacophony of the contemporary city, many big new public buildings opt for a language of exuberant forms and shiny conspicuousness to make their presence felt. This archive building by O&O Baukunst (previously Ortner & Ortner), part new-build, part gutting of an existing warehouse, takes a different approach. Its main element is blank, buff and four-square − a huge, windowless brick tower rising from the sealed carcass of a 1930s warehouse, its windows bricked up like sightless eyes. But this very muteness is strangely compelling, especially when approached across the bridge over Duisburg’s Inner Harbour from the city centre.
It is the largest purpose-built archive in Europe, designed to hold the combined records of the Land (state) of North Rhine Westphalia, bringing them all together − or the five per cent that are chosen to be saved − for the first time under one roof. Looking like a kind of Ur-house on steroids that has sprouted from the shell of the existing warehouse, it is slightly comic, slightly disconcerting and very graphic: like a more dour, Teutonic version of one of FAT’s provocative conceptions.
Its blankness is further emphasised by the bricked-up windows of the warehouse shell. Reminiscent of the shallow alcoves of a columbarium, their blinded gaze increases the sense that the building is withdrawing into itself, an introspection that seems appropriate for an archive. The really disconcerting part is its scalelessness. The lack of openings in the tower and the relative elision of the window openings in the archive stack remove a key indicator of size. From afar its stacked simple geometric forms flip perceptually between a child’s wooden toy brick structure, and a vast, staggered mass of clay bricks like a transplanted ziggurat of Ur.
These perceptual illusions were deliberately cultivated by the architects, who removed the old guttering, pipework and other detailing from the warehouse shell, thus abstracting it further. They had originally intended that there should be small windows in the tower but these were cut for budgetary reasons. If included, they would have given a very different feeling to what is now read as a sealed, embalmed whole.
The singularity of the tower’s size is not a random conceit, but generated from a fundamental programmatic requirement that the archive should be able to house 148km of records. By extrapolating the floorplate size that could be inserted into the middle of the existing warehouse, the resulting building came out at 20 storeys high. Though massive, the tower is also to a degree contextual: its pitched roof on a square shaft quotes the precedent of the tower of nearby Duisburg Town Hall, while its aesthetic of strong, simple brick forms is picked up from neighbouring structures such as the adjacent 1950s Schwanentor Bridge. The angle of the pitched roof is derived from the surrounding smaller gabled roofs of the former corn store/silo on which it sits. Dating from 1936, the silo is a far cry from the industrial exemplars that inspired Le Corbusier, but instead employs the grossly inflated vernacular favoured in the Nazi era for working buildings.
Bricks were matched to the original colour of those in the old silo and are intended to gradually merge with it, although with less coal-fired pollution to distress them, this may take some time. The roof is covered with the same bricks fitted into a steel frame to function as tiles. These are similarly patterned but stretched out, so that from afar, the roof appears the same as the walls, reinforcing the sense of a single skin and the project’s key concept: for the archive to be perceived as a single, singular object.
The site is intensely urban, or rather post-urban, caught between the embanked A40 motorway, train lines and the long finger of the Inner Harbour, the largest in the world which − alongside the city’s position at the confluence of the rivers Rhine and Ruhr − made Duisburg rich, allowing easy transport for locally smelted steel fuelled by coal from the Ruhr coalfields.
Yet today Duisburg is a classic shrinking city. Following the closure of the Ruhr coalmines, it has lost over 100,000 residents since 1975 from a population of fewer than 600,000, though it still remains the locus for German steel and pig iron production as well as being a major port. And while this project is a powerful statement of Land investment in a city that has tended to play second fiddle to nearby Düsseldorf and Essen, its recent history of decline seems tacitly expressed by the melancholic spectacle of the blocked-up windows of the old building.
The surrounding dockside area, still in an uncertain state of relative disuse, is part of a Foster + Partners masterplan for the Inner Harbour, originally dating from 1994, but since revised and extended. This nurtured a smattering of leisure activities, including a marina, and other reworkings of industrial buildings, such as the Museum Küppersmühle for Modern and Contemporary Art by Herzog & de Meuron (AR June 1999) and ‘signature’ office developments, such as the seven-storey Five Boats by Grimshaw Architects.
Buying the site proved far more costly than anticipated, and this was the major factor in project costs rising to €200 million from an original budget of €30 million. That the latter had not allowed for this (or fees, fit-out and even the new-build extension) did not stop the project became known locally as the ‘cut-price Philharmonie’, after the far more spectacular, and spectacularly over-budget concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron now on site in Hamburg.
However these cost overruns have precipitated significant budget cuts to the building itself and their effect is especially noticeable on the exterior of the six-storey extension that winds its way for 160 metres along the dockside to the east of the main archive building. This was designed to be clad in the same brick, also articulated by a raised patterning, although of a wider grid, suggestive of a fictive frame against which the more randomly punched-in windows were intended to be read. However this has been replaced by a brassy red render, in two different finishes, which looks cheap and cheesy, and the random placement of windows seems like an off-the-shelf office development with a bit of ‘architecture’ injected.
On plan this serpentine extension makes the building look like a spermatozoon as sketched by Philip Guston: a curving waved flagellum containing the public access reading and study rooms and administrative offices, topped by the shovel-headed footprint of the archive itself. At ground level, the form of this ‘tail’ (of which two thirds is at present for commercial let) mediates between the harder industrial environment of the road and rail embankment to the north, with its strong edge of a continuous glazed facade, and the more recreationally focused dock walkway on the south. This side contains the main public entrance, approachable only on foot, at the point where the tail meets the head. You enter a tall, five-storey atrium with curved balconies connecting the administration floors to those of the archive. Three huge circles are cut out of the old warehouse’s original skin, alluding to the cannabalisations of Gordon Matta-Clark, but also lending a touch of Kahnian grandeur and calm to the interior. Through the upper two apertures, rows of shelving can be seen, the only public glimpse of the archive (and one that over-zealous archivists have already installed curtains to block out). Visitors are directed away from the archive itself to a reading room and other study facilities. Books and records are delivered to these areas by a transit system that sees them descend from the archive, pass through the basement, and pop up in the reading room.
In the lowest circular cut-out, there is a small black-walled gallery, the only public access to the archive tower. This exaggerates the sense of being in the dark belly of the beast, with its black walls, although due to budget cuts mineral paint replaces the intended black glass lining. In the archive building itself, floors filled wall to wall with rolling stacks are served by a network of access ways and a vertical core. Since the concrete frame of the original silo building was not strong enough to support the new tower and the archives − the latter effectively weighing more than the structure of the building itself − its elements are cloaked by external armatures of steel, continuing the steel frame down from the new tower above. Steel was chosen for cost and its ability to fit more easily within the carcass of the old building, but another consideration was concrete’s need to dry out, which would have effectively meant the building having to sit dormant for much longer before it could receive any archives. These are currently being brought in, filling the floors with the evocative aroma of old paper and bindings.
The issue of water is also behind the decision not to fit an automatic sprinkler system but to have the building tightly compartmentalised with smoke doors, so that any fire can be isolated, and water for firefighting only brought to that specific zone. At the top of the tower, the space under the pitched roof is filled with plant, protected from the elements by the brick ‘tiles’, yet fully ventilated by the gaps between the rows.
In the new-build extension, detailing and finishes to the generous public reading room which spans the building are, as elsewhere, at times more basic than utilitarian, again reflecting budget issues, but also the fact that contractually the architect seems to have had less control over the final outcome. At upper levels, the original concept of a sinuous expanse of open-plan, light-filled offices, with glimpsed views through to the facade curving back on itself, has been lost to a dull string of cellular offices, responding to the inevitable territorial concerns of a newly centralised cohort of staff decanted to Hamburg from other cities.
At close quarters, the building loses much of its enigmatic power, being experientially disappointing, if serviceable, for its function. But given that it is primarily a closed storage facility, this is perhaps forgivable. For the majority of people it only has to function as the image and idea of the preservation of accumulated knowledge, protected and physically discrete. The comforting concreteness of this role in a world of electronic surveillance and WikiLeaks, is something that O&O has brilliantly cranked up in the treatment of its exterior, so that the building forms a new still centre of gravity in Duisburg. Its powerful presence gives impetus to the idea that the focus of the city might ultimately move back to its historic origins around the Inner Harbour.