The gallery on the outside protects free work on the inside

Andrea Jürges and Peter Cachola Schmal
Discussion about the new build for the HfG Offenbach

Photo: Felicitas von Lutzau

Andrea Jürges: In my view, all the works submitted clearly highlight the specifications that formed the basis of the competition brief. First, the division of the site into one third in the western section and two thirds in the eastern section. Between these is a public pathway with an important visual axis from Offenbach city to the River Main, which had to remain open.

Peter Cachola Schmal: Yes, most of the designs stick to the specification for this diagonal intersection and generally place a building for student housing on the eastern side of the competition site in order to separate it from the other section. In addition, the client’s preference for a kind of post-industrial charm is clearly recognizable in the results, which shows that it’s helpful for the task if the awarding authority is very clear about what they want.

AJ: Most definitely. It helps the design process and also the quality of the designs. And it helps the spatial arrangement, as you can see very clearly in the work by Henn GmbH Munich, which was awarded fourth prize. There we have an administrative section with auditoriums and a café, the large outdoor area, and this modular studio block, which houses the teaching areas and workshops. And of course, the student housing is at the most easterly point of the development.

PCS: That’s actually what everyone did. It works well as a transition to the residential district.

AJ: Except for the first prize.

PCS: So where is the housing located in the first-prize entry?

AJ: Directly by the public area in the center of the campus facing the Main, so it works differently.

PCS: Will that remain the case in reality?

AJ: I can imagine there will be some debate about it again in the subsequent rounds of planning. Of course, the first-prize entry has the potential to do things differently. You could also just say right now: “OK, then the park will be shortened a bit.” And then you could simply incorporate a separate student housing block in the eastern section – that’s no problem at all. As I see it, the strength of the winning design is that it creates ONE university. There is a circular flow, even inside, which is of course also very well thought out and ideal for the famous “HfG Rundgang” open days. And there isn’t this separation of administration in the western third and creativity in another corner. Instead, the inner park stretching through the development actually makes it ONE university. That really makes the first-prize design stand out.

PCS: You can also see very clearly from the site plan that they are the only ones to have defined a large garden as an important spatial element and subordinated the rest of the building mass to it. That is a convincing, forward-looking gesture, of course. The circular flow on the inside means that anyone can open up their area to it, to the walkway or to the garden, or to both, depending on the weather. It is quite conceivable that what we see in the rendering will actually be realized more or less.

AJ: Yes, the industrial character is wonderfully recognizable here, too. Likewise, it’s clear that this garden offers all the workshop areas an additional outdoor space that can be used for construction and experimentation.

PCS: Not only was Topotek 1 Berlin responsible for the landscape planning, but Topotek 1 Architektur from Zurich was also involved architecturally. Xaveer de Geyter recently said of their collaboration: “Dan Budik, one of the managing partners, was himself part of our team a long time ago.” So they know each other well – and Topotek 1 is represented by both its offices, which is very unusual. It’s easy for us to look back and comment in hindsight, unlike those on the jury who had to make decisions. But if you look at the first prize, the acknowledgements, and the other prizes, I would say that you can see how the jury worked and argued in a certain direction – with the third prize being the exception. The jury (generally?) appreciated a large, spacious link running transversely to the riverbank, to the waterside road, which cuts between the blocks of the building and then does something with the diagonal and the space, as in the second-prize entry by Robertneun Architekten. The impulse of the diagonals stipulated by the city was significant. In the third prize proposal by Kim Nalleweg Architekten, we don’t have this transverse link. Instead, there is a reaction to the diagonal, which is also beautiful. The rendering clearly shows the cluster of roof terraces that descend like steps down to a plaza resulting from the diagonal.

AJ: Exactly. You can see what that really means very clearly in the third-prize entry, and of course in the first prize, too – namely, better protected open spaces for students. We’ve come across this before, specifically at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin by Ortner + Ortner (visited the site as a finalist, on the jury for the DAM Prize). When we talked to the Berlin students back then, they said: “What we actually need are booths.” What makes the third prize really great is the abundance of work booths.

PCS: On the rooftops.

AJ: Yes, that’s the quality of the third prize.

PCS: What that means with regard to sun and shade, however, remains to be seen. Open terraces are one thing, but these days you need shade, too. However, the entry has two green spaces: along the diagonal axis and then a second park towards the residential section. Why is that? Couldn’t they come to an agreement?

AJ: No, a lot of designs have done that. The idea is that this green space, which appears to be open, is actually a protected green area for the university – at least that’s how I understood it. There is the public, diagonal green space, then there’s something at the back that leads to the pathway along the Main. And in the eastern section, between the university and the student housing, there is then actually a green space that you could say is an outdoor student space. Whether it is or could be such a thing in reality, I don’t know. This open space, I believe, is then very much exposed to the main road and the riverside path, which is very busy with bicycles.

PCS: Robertneun Architekten (second prize) did things differently. They assessed the green space and decided to position the main green section along the diagonal, allocating a smaller green space to the residential part. This left the special-purpose space available for a circular building component. Has that worked? Or does it just look circular in the ground plan?

AJ: I think round ground plans are fundamentally difficult. If you look at the roof view, you can also see that inside there is of course a large lecture hall, along with other administrative levels.

Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin (©O&O Baukunst)

PCS: So it’s more like a round roof?

AJ: Yes, perhaps even just a kind of canopy. I know why they’ve done it. They saw it as a hinge, as a way of deflecting the urban-planning level. You don’t see that on the site plan, but it’s clearly discernible on the figure ground plans – the deflection in direction here, which is why the round shape was chosen. This division into administration in the smaller third and creative work in the larger area can be found in many of the entries. It just seems to make sense, given the diagonal line between them. I think it’s unfortunate because in a university, the administration is also part of the university and shouldn’t be excluded.

PCS: But the lecture hall center is there, too. There’ll be things going on there.

AJ: Yes, fine, but how often do you attend a lecture compared to time spent in the workshops and studios?

PCS: But you can see that those who didn’t pursue this route didn’t then progress any further in the competition, although there are some submissions that turned out nicely anyway. So I wondered why they didn’t get any further. Obviously these entries, which were articulated in large complexes or large structures, were not rated so highly by the jury. For example, schneider+ schumacher/Snøhetta have superimposed a giant geometry over everything, which in the end also is opened up again under the roof. Seen from above, though, it remains a grand gesture – with a really nice stage on the diagonal under the roof.

AJ: Yes, I think the open space was rated more highly by the jury, by which I mean leaving it open rather than enclosing it under a shared roof. The same goes for the rather more sensitive handling of free-standing greenery. I think part of this is also the desire to retain what they appreciate about the old castle today, with a spacious inner courtyard to itself. But in the group of large blocks, I think the design by schneider+schumacher and Snøhetta is a good piece of work.

PCS: Yes, that’s the main issue. What you have now is a good location with mixed qualities, with a castle that’s tricky to make use of. Then there’s an old building from 1913 which has its own special features but no good ground-floor relationship to the courtyard. Quite the contrary – it’s not easy to find your way to the courtyard from inside. And the west wing by Reuter + Werr dating from the Noughties is also very peculiar. So, on the one hand, you have a perfect location in the city, although, on the other, a not-so-perfect university building. And there’s a major lack of rooms – that has to be improved. In future, the location will be more undisturbed: on the riverbank without a road running through the university grounds. But the location is less central than before.

AJ: But then you have Nordend as a neighborhood.

PCS: The Nordend is great.

AJ: More and more cafés and pubs are opening there.

PCS: Yes, and they are emerging on precisely this diagonal. That’s really great, but it’s quite a long way to the S-Bahn station.

AJ: That’s true.

PCS: The Ledermuseum station is some distance away, and that’s not going to change. Perhaps a bus will go that way later on.

AJ: Right now, of course, the HfG’s super-convenient; you can be at the market square in two minutes.

PCS: Yes. But it’s not only more space that’s needed, but also greater quality. The fight for the new HfG has been going on for almost 18 years. Now it looks like there will finally be a happy ending. I think they’ve got a super team in Xaveer De Geyter and Topotek 1. All other, similar art colleges can only envy them. The poor Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts, for example: They’ve also been struggling for just as long, but it could be a very long time before they can one day produce a book such as this with similar results.

AJ: Yes, you need incredible perseverance on the client side to get what you’re fighting for: better – or even just suitable – university conditions and simply more space. And accordingly, you need a hell of a lot of staying power to actually then put it to a competition. The HfG is a fantastic university. Part of this is the willingness of all the responsible agencies and authorities in the city and federal state to build a new building or make changes. That’s how it starts. Then you need a plot of land, and for that you need the city. Then you need the federal state as the developer of the universities.

PCS: The university itself has to pull together. And policymakers need to facilitate a spatial arrangement that is better than before and sufficiently large. Ultimately, the competition still has to lead to a happy outcome, but to do this, it needs to be clearly formulated. In particular, the reference in the competition to the desire for a workmanlike, industrial focus has led to results that appear post-industrial across the board. As if something were being reworked that doesn’t exist in the first place. So you’re simulating a rebuilt industrial heritage that is full of spatial stimuli. And I see a lot of echoes of Lacaton & Vassal, particularly the Lyon School of Architecture here with its huge open spaces, which are not that easy to incorporate into the spatial arrangement. We see these in a few of the designs. Allmannwappner, for example, designed an exposed concrete building with many open spaces that are built over. But they got nowhere with it. Instead of covered open spaces that are climate-controlled, such as those by Pichler & Traupmann Architekten, which are not so easy to pull off, uncovered open spaces are perfectly feasible, because they don’t appear as such in the spatial arrangement, as they are unused areas. They are just spaces, and I don’t have to pay for them.

AJ: Exactly, no enclosed space, so no need to worry about the façade and the roof.

PCS: Is there any other submission that you would like to mention in particular, even though it may not have been among the first prizes and acknowledgements?

AJ: I have to be honest and admit that the first-prize winner is thoroughly convincing. Because it manages to create ONE university and not a division into a bit for students here, a bit of creativity there, then a bit of administration there. I think that’s unique and makes it a worthy winner of the first prize. You can only hope for the university that it gets a new building exactly like that. I’m particularly impressed by the zoning: adjoining the noisy street is the circulation system, meaning the corridor, from which the rooms lead off to the south.

PCS: The circulation system is inside, isn’t it?

AJ: Yes, exactly, inside the building. But the way around is always oriented towards the south, sometimes towards the garden, sometimes the street.

PCS: Along the street?

AJ: Yes, of course you have the buffer to prevent the studios heating up, you have the workspaces facing the courtyard …

PCS: But there’s only the north wing facing the inner courtyard.

AJ: Yes, but that’s brilliant. If you actually hang something up in the hallway, it’s visible to everyone from the street. That’s also a new situation compared to now. At the moment, you have to immerse yourself in this closed university world and dare to step over the threshold regardless of which entrance you’re trying to get in through. There will be an opening to the outside, but a controlled opening. If students were to work facing south, they would always be exposed to what is happening, i.e. the public. Workspaces facing the courtyard feel more protected. When we talk about booths and creative work, it is important that there are places to retreat to. At Central Saint Martins College of Art in King’s Cross in London, there are also a few studios on the ground floor that are visible from the outside. I bet that the students think very carefully about whether they want to go in there or not – the studios are very exposed.

PCS: I think the architectural language that is recognizable thus far is so strong, the concept is so strong, that there is relatively little that can be messed up, even if the execution is cut back in some places. Only now is the façade being developed in detail in cooperation with the university. Naturally, we would like to see the quality we are used to seeing from the Flemish team realized here again.

AJ: That’s right, ideally it’s a resilient concept, including against administrations and savings. That’s what you want to see: that it’s strong enough to withstand a lot, and that it’s modular enough to be easily rebuilt.

ENSAL (École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Lyon), vue de l’intérieur – mars 2022 | ©Laurent Cerino