KSA Vienna ’09: Cottbus [TXT]

[Herzog & de Meuron’s Cottbus University Library]

At the risk of being overly reductive, we can identify two trends in the early work of Herzog & de Meuron. Their projects were driven either by forces on site, or by the simple application of graphics.

[Plywood House]

[Schwitter Apartment Building (1985-88), Herzog & de Meuron]

In their Plywood House, the building’s plan deflects to accommodate an existing tree. In the Schwitter Apartment Building, the plan follows the curve of the road.

[Architektur Denkform, 1988]

In their Architektur Denkform exhibit of 1988, images of their projects are printed on transparent sheets and mounted to the exterior windows of the gallery. In their Greek Orthodox Church project of the following year, images of icons are reproduced using a halftone screen, enlarged to massive scale, and transformed into abstract patterns, only visible as icons from a great distance, or in the scale model. In the Eberswalde Library the form is purposefully minimal: the “dumb box” allows the façade imagery to take center stage.

In their later work, these two lines of investigation begin to overlap in highly productive ways. At the Cottbus University Library, the architects’ use of graphics begins to merge with their site-driven formalism.

[Cottbus University Library]

Though the amorphous Cottbus design is ostensibly derived from existing footpaths on the site and the relationship to nearby campus buildings, the formal affinity with a halftone screen is undeniable: it’s as if the plan was derived from several dots in a newspaper photo, expanded to the size of a building.

[Cottbus University Library]

The amoeboid form denies an easy reading of entrance. Sited atop an artificial hill, from certain vantages the library appears impenetrable, a fortress. Under overcast skies, however, the milky white façade blends with the clouds. The building occupies an ambiguous realm between monumentality and invisibility.

[Cottbus University Library]

Approaching the library, the abstract patterning of the façade reveals itself to be a matrix of superimposed characters from the world’s alphabets. Herzog & de Meuron’s use of text on glass facades can be traced back to their SUVA Haus (1993), in which an existing office building was encased in a new glass skin, screen printed with small lines of text repeating the name of the company ad infinitum. From a distance, the text becomes indistinct and lends the glass façade a subtle white tinge. At close range, the letters are clear, and brand of the building, like a watermark. At Cottbus this is reversed. The text is only perceived as text from a medium distance, and since these overlaid glyphs have no content and form no coherent words, the letters serve as a generalized representation of the literature stored within. At close range, the letters dissolve into abstract halftone patterns: a field of white dots. The architects maintain that the density of this dot pattern is varied to account for solar gain.

This façade thus serves multiple functions: from a distance, the homogeneity of the pattern reinforces the monumentality and import of the library as a cultural institution and denies an easy reading of scale, as the façade makes no concessions to the floor levels within; at medium range it acts as a signifier of the library’s physical content, and from close range the abstract pattern is modulated to satisfy environmental requirements. Though complex and nuanced, the façade design remains at the perimeter. The section reveals the building envelope as a double-skin curtain wall: typical construction in today’s Germany. Like Eberswalde, the façade does not influence the interior organization.

The floor plans of Herzog & de Meuron’s Cottbus University Library are fairly banal. Though the amoeboid form contains organelles (elevator cores, spiral stairs, information desks), the layout of the book stacks and reading rooms are orthogonal: typical library organization. Without proposing a radical rethinking of this standard arrangement, Herzog & de Meuron are nonetheless able to enhance it through the use of large-scale graphics. Using the pure colors of a TV test pattern, the architects inscribe a secondary organizational system on the book stacks, as an aid for orientation. The library’s function is enhanced through the imposition of this arbitrary image of colored bands. This wayfinding device is especially useful given the amorphous form of the plan and the indifference of the façade to the library’s internal organization.

At Cottbus this separation is useful as it helps to advance a theory on the role of the library in contemporary culture. Despite technological advances, the library remains a repository for physical books. The TV test pattern represents “new media”, but is itself outdated, a remnant of the days before the 24-hour news cycle and on-demand streaming. The image is still architecturally useful, but its original function is no longer relevant. Consigned to history and embedded in the edifice, the medium of television may be simply a prologue to the era of internet video, but books will not be supplanted.

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