A building must help define its surroundings

Individuelles Wohnen im Hochhaus – Teil 1


Claudia Meixner und Florian Schlüter

| Jul 23, 2014
Claudia Meixner and Florian Schlüter in their office. On the table: model studies for residential high-rise at the Europaalee in Frankfurt. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Residential high-rises still have a dubious reputation in Germany. Above all as a result of the period in which they arose there. Much space for little money was for many years the key idea. That is changing now. Today, increasingly attractive and high-end residential high-rises are popping up in the larger cities. Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architekten are at this very moment planning two for Frankfurt. One will be at the end of the new Europaallee. The other, the former Henninger Turm in Sachsenhausen, was for many years one of the city’s landmarks. Thomas Wagner talked with Claudia Meixner and Florian Schlüter about the specifics of the design brief, how they view it, and why individual footprints, public zones and a different form of relationship to the outside world make all the difference.

Thomas Wagner: Let’s talk about residential high-rises. Not that we’ll be able to avoid talking about high-rises in which no one lives and about residences that aren’t so high. How do you see the design brief for ‘residential towers’?

Florian Schlüter: Sadly, in Germany residential towers were discredited by the large number of such forms of mass housing erected in the 1970s. In fact, 75 percent of residential high-rises in Germany have negative connotations, and are considered cheap accommodation. At present we’re witnessing a bit of a renaissance of the typology, but in association with extremely high-end living. Meaning the prejudice is just being revised. What we find exciting is that we have the good fortune to just be building two such towers. The key parameter for them is firstly that they stand out from the 1970s versions, and secondly that the designs are not only high, but differ significantly from typical office high-rises.

Were the prejudices against living in high-rises fueled back in the 1970s, when the housing shortage prompted many a cheap tower to overcome the problem? In the 1950s and the 1960s, somewhat higher residential builds had a better reputation, didn’t they?

Florian Schlüter: Yes. Actually, as far as I know, residential towers have been built in Germany since the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I myself spent the first few years of my life right at the top of a great high-rise in Karlsruhe; that was really special, even if the tower, with its 14 storeys, was not really high by today’s standards. In general, such buildings were erected with the intention of creating a great concentration of cheap housing – and there are plenty of bad examples. But it bears remembering that the tower as an urban phenomenon for offices and banks downtown did not appear in German cities, and specifically in Frankfurt, until the 1950s and 1960s. And that the skyscraper type was itself long viewed with suspicion. It is only now that residential towers are considered high-end properties, in particular those in prime locations. Outside the country, for example in London, top-quality residential high-rises have existed for quite some time. That said, there is now a whole series of high-grade residential towers in Frankfurt and in Hamburg, for example, and the ads emphasize the view and the impressive location. We felt that the key to setting ourselves off from the 1970s skyscrapers was to use high-grade materials and generous groundplans, boasting special spatial qualities and magnificent surroundings.

Claudia Meixner: The difference to residential towers of yore can be seen first and foremost from the public zones. Stairwells and entrance lobbies are the places where people who live in the towers meet. Such zones have to be especially pleasant if they are to encourage vibrant public life.

What are the key aspects here? Corridors and lobbies that are larger or have a different layout?

Florian Schlüter: Well, firstly entrance halls are far larger and there’s a reception desk and a concierge; moreover, the general areas are likewise larger or at least feature higher-grade interior design. The same applies to the elevators, corridors and the corridor sections outside apartments.

Florian Schlüter and Thomas Wagner with the competition plans of the high-rise project "Marieninsel“. In the background: the model for the residential high-rise on the Europa Allee in Frankfurt . Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

What then is the difference between residential and office high-rises?

Florian Schlüter: The key difference to office high-rises is the relationship to the outside world, with the design of loggias, terraces and balconies. This is quite manifest with our project for Europaallee in Frankfurt: The building features an urban side and one that points to the interior of the grounds, in this case southwards, which is ideal. This garden side is consciously more free than the road frontage, contrasts to the latter’s urban feel, and is structured by loggias and terraces.

Could you give a bit more detail why the building is structured the way it is?

Claudia Meixner: The building we planned is located in Frankfurt’s Europaviertel, at the far side of the Europaallee. It forms the end of the avenue, where the original masterplan foresaw there being two office high-rises forming a gateway. Since no developers could be found for these office high-rises, a study was made exploring whether a residential tower would not be a better solution. The situation can be described as follows: Essentially there is a large axis, flanked by buildings that, as is customary in Europaviertel, run through to the edge of the sidewalks.

Florian Schlüter: The tower relates to this system and vice versa.

Claudia Meixner: Compared to the originally expected distinctions between the high-rises and their surroundings, we developed a kind of closure for the blocks in the form of a high-rise that likewise stands flush with the sidewalk. It is a new type of tower and reflects what already exists in the surroundings – down to the existing rows of buildings on the south side of the site. A line of row houses is thus also incorporated into the high-rise complex.

Florian Schlüter: As a next step, and taking account of the clear urban design contours we then focused on the context and developed the theme of an urban wraparound curtain as opposed to the freely designed balcony world of the south.

A look at the model shows this quite clearly. The building has two different sides, as it were. How did you elaborate on them?

Claudia Meixner: They are as evident from the building’s corpus as they are from the design of the frontage. Almost all the apartments are “slotted through”, meaning they move from the urban side, which has one wide window in the façade and is relatively firmly structured, through to the open residential zone. On the latter side, a protruding balcony gives you the feeling of walking in free space everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether I live on the 15th or even the 17th floor: I can always step outside and there’s a spacious balcony for me to use, something quite rare in high-rises.

"The key difference to office high-rises is the relationship to the outside world, with the design of loggias, terraces and balconies." Florian Schlüter explains. Illustration © MSW Architekten, Frankfurt

Up to what height can such terraces be deployed?

Florian Schlüter: Well, if it gets too windy, you can simply go back inside. To be serious, though, we have opted for raised glass railings to provide a degree of wind protection. Meaning the balconies and terraces can be enjoyed even if it’s windy.

Claudia Meixner: That is but one example of how we are trying to distinguish the building from a customary high-rise that could also be an office tower. We feel it’s very important to find a building type that fits the theme of “homes”. When preparing our entry for the competition we toyed with countless standard typologies for high-rises using working models. We studied a typical 1970s type, which generates quite a lot of surface area, we structured intervening spaces and layouts, and even considered an anonymous block. And we then tried using fairly individual units, which initially looks pretty interesting.

So how did you arrive at the solution you then proposed?

Florian Schlüter: Let me put it this way: At some stage you get to a point where you notice what type of building best fits the location, responds to the setting, and accordingly reflects the urban design context. Only then have you arrived at the specific type that consists not just of parts of other types, but corresponds perfectly to the references and ambivalences innate in the location and the brief. We think it’s great that on the one hand you think it’s a high-rise, and yet you realize that it is built flush with the sidewalk. It simply does not look like what you would automatically associate with a tower.

On the side facing away from the street, the edifice almost resembles a terraced house. Did you deliberately want to emphasize the many small sections of the building?

Florian Schlüter: Essentially it is the attempt to create an individualized structure that entails shifts in scale. The building does not look as though it houses 150 apartments. You approach an abstract volume and only then do you discover that it’s precisely not that, a feeling fostered by the fact that within the overall order, each set of two storeys is emphasized. Or, if you take the shell, a game of various “disruptions” arises. You first see an urban façade where two storeys have been combined, and only then do you realize how lively and multi-faceted it all is.

What is the idea between the sets of two storeys? To prevent the building seeming too high?

Claudia Meixner: Exactly, it doesn’t seem so high or so anonymous. Visually what you get is not some monotonous stratification of 20 storeys, but only ten. That alters the scale and helps individualize the edifice, makes it somehow enigmatic and toys with the viewer’s perception. The overall result simply seems less profane. What you have in front of you is not a house, a window or a door, but a differentiated structure that absorbs all the elements of a building.

The building features an urban side (left) and one that points to the interior of the grounds (right). Illustration © MSW Architekten, Frankfurt

So the difference to an office high-rise is above all the variations and the individualization of a regular grid?

Florian Schlüter: Yes, in the attempt to open the volume up and individualize it.

Claudia Meixner: Individualization is so very important because it’s a residential tower where people with different tastes and needs will live and the idea is not to create a building that is 95 percent identically cut office spaces. Were it an office high-rise, the differentiated structure we chose would seem overly imposed and would simply not correspond to the fact.

Wouldn’t it be good if office towers were more strongly individualized, too? Shouldn’t you be concluding from your work on residential towers that we should be rethinking the design of office high-rises?

Florian Schlüter: We haven’t yet designed an office skyscraper, but did tackle the topic in the context of a competition. In fact you can use analogous strategies in the case of an office high-rise, albeit differently and in a more restrained idiom. We tried that with our design for the Frankfurt Ordnungsamt. In general one can say that if a building is very large then it’s worth trying to play with scales, be cryptic here and there, and give it a slightly sculptural feel in the process of alienation. You can of course also opt to use architectural means to somewhat conceal the aggregation of identical elements – apartments, office spaces – glossing over the identical order in an effort to create something more tangible. Or, to be a bit high-falutin, to give it a more human face. Undermining the accumulation of series of similar elements is certainly a good tool to use.

You always focus on the setting, the architectural and social context of the building. Do you therefore on principle develop each of your projects in dialog with the context? Does the design then express the dialog and the resulting interaction?

Claudia Meixner: Yes, definitely. Each project starts with the context in which it arises. Then there’s the brief. The location and the brief, those are the key elements driving everything we do. What is the setting like and what is the brief – everything else results from that.

That sounds easier than it is, no doubt?

Florian Schlüter: Correct. But if you take it seriously and look closely, then you can derive a lot from it. Associations arise, you discover points of reference, maybe a story, something that gives you more, makes things more precise. If you concern yourself with the urban design context, this does not mean: Here buildings are so high, there only so high; rather, you come across complex linkages, the context of what has already happened here and will be relevant in the future. Ideally at least the building contains and retains all of that.

What factors, questions, stories were important for you when designing the Europaallee residential tower? What did you focus on and what influenced you most?

Florian Schlüter: Initially the task at hand: How to find a suitable architectural expression for apartments in a high-rise? In addition to height and the views, can especially high-grade spaces be created that no longer have anything in common with mass-market flats? And we didn’t want to work against the location, creating some basically autistic standalone, but to make certain that the tower works to support its surroundings. The site has something of a natural aura to the south and west – with lines of high trees, a park, and a view out as far as the Taunus hills. On the other side there’s the Europaallee and thus a rigid structure, which we tries to transpose in something vibrantly diverse and positive.

Claudia Meixner: Where Europaallee starts there are already many homes, all of them on a regular grid.

"We think it’s great that on the one hand you think it’s a high-rise, and yet you realize that it is built flush with the sidewalk." Schlüter means. Illustration © MSW Architekten, Frankfurt

The rigid rows are the product of the urban plan, are they not?

Claudia Meixner: Yes, it’s predefined to a degree. We wanted quite consciously to stick with the urban design brief and yet also create a significant property. Success here depends also on the details. How to make a building that functions on the more landscaped and introverted side as residences and yet transposes the normality or standardization on its urban, road side into something special? We achieved this by consciously interrupting the standard frontage to give it an individual feel.

That sounds overly modest. Your residential tower seems very ingenious in terms of differentiation, especially as regards the relationship of inside/outside and the exciting façade structure. Is it diversity and variation that you find so appealing?

Claudia Meixner: We seek to find design elements that contrast with one another and yet combine to form a homogeneous whole. A building must seem to be a matter of course.

The fact is that the variations not only look sleek, but there are quite different structures that are mixed up, alternate, interpenetrate and make the building so lively.

Florian Schlüter: Seen from afar, you notice the grid structure, which suddenly starts to blur, flicker, and we really like that.

Do you like Piet Mondrian’s neo-plastic paintings?

Claudia Meixner: The underlying idea, yes.

Florian Schlüter: Essentially, yes.

A bit of Boogie-Woogie, as with his last painting, never harmed. Especially as grids and deviations from their rigid structures play a major role in Modernism.

Claudia Meixner: If something like that infused things, all the better. But I’d like to add that we usually associate a high-rise with the idea of a standalone. We, by contrast, ideally create a structure that has inside and outside meld to form a coherent unit. And with the residential tower at Europaallee there are also elements you wouldn’t expect of a high-rise. For example, a courtyard with a pool and a large public lobby from which a freestanding staircase leads to the courtyard. Despite living in a high-rise, the inhabitants there also share a courtyard, which fosters public life. Meaning it’s not just aesthetic decisions involved here.

How do you develop the structure? Does it only depend on the brief or is there some basic structure you always use and adapt?

Florian Schlüter: There’s something of a basic structure, but it’s in our minds. As can be seen from another project, namely a detached house, which we realized here in Frankfurt. For the Schmuck Residence in Frankfurt’s Westend we made something from an “old temporary structure” that has the feel of an inside tip about it.

Haus Schmuck located in Frankfurts "Westend". Photo © Christoph Kraneburg

Frankfurt’s Westend, that is a high-end location?

Claudia Meixner: Yes, the location is a very choice one, top of the market.

Florian Schlüter: For the Schmuck Residence we removed the upper section and stuck a new house on the existing base. What counts here is less the notion of “conversion”, although it played a role as regards building permission. What’s interesting is that a building arose than reacts differently on each side. The edifice is fairly compact on the entrance side. And then it opens out into a mixture of bridge, loggia and frontage. From the green gardens of neighbors, it suddenly all seems relatively soft. We consciously toyed with different degrees of opening outwards. So here again we can see how the design arises from the task at hand, in this case the brief to create a home for a family with four children – and as developed through careful consideration of the urban surroundings. The house communicates with the setting outside.

To achieve the goal you use classic means that you adapt to the situation and thus transform. Be it a closed wall or a façade, or an opening. Does the building take its cue not just from the surroundings, but also from the paths leading into it? And why is the façade green?

Florian Schlüter: The green came from the idea of imagining the entire plot as a potential overall volume and then saying: The actual built mass is coherent with the spaces that the volume develops on the outside. Thus, first of all an entrance emerges, then a front garden, and finally the actual garden.

Meaning not the entire house is green, only the connecting spaces or voids are green?

Claudia Meixner: The voids morph into green spaces as they are a mixture of courtyard and garden. The plot is too small for a garden and too large for a courtyard, resulting in an inner garden-yard that, given the dense downtown setting, is great for family life.

Florian Schlüter: There’s a wraparound façade that is dark. Then there’s the garden space, with a green shell, kind of like a thin skin. On exiting it, you step into the white house.

The green connects the structure to one volume. Photo © Christoph Kraneburg

Here, too, you respond to the context, consider the ration of inside and outside. You not only look at the setting and then simply plonk a building in it. Is it the building itself that responds to the surroundings?

Claudia Meixner: Correct. You must answer more than one question. What is the house itself and what does it communicate to its surroundings? How does the one respond to the other? What does it mean if a building sets itself apart from others while still being open to its surroundings? In other words, how do separation and opening interrelate? Almost like with people. How can I close myself off, open up, and move? To achieve this we often try and generate interstices, and show that the one has to do with the other.

Courtyard, balcony, garden, entrance, corridor, they all play a role as regards distance and separation, opening and attraction. So you feel interstices are not something that architects are simply forced to accept. Do you take them as seriously as the other parts of a building?

Florian Schlüter: What sounds abstract needs to be firmly expressed within a building. You have to feel the space, note how the space intervenes in urban situations, how it creeps between things. We tried to elaborate on how this can be factored into planning when designing an office high-rise. Here, again, volume and functions must be interrelated, respond to one another, spaces and the areas between them rendered tangible. What played a role with the Schmuck Residence is actually important in almost all urban design configurations. Only then can you decide on the materials, color and all manner of other things. And if you’re successful, then all these things meld in a building and it functions as a whole.

How does the fact the living and working are no longer rigidly separated affect your methodology?

Claudia Meixner: The change can be seen from the fact that competition briefs are changing. As soon as people start spending more time in the office, the tasks of designing “office high-rises” and “residential towers” become ever more similar. But it’s also a fact that developers still construe office buildings differently.

Florian Schlüter: Both tasks are subject to strong commercial constraints at present. Office building grids are very ingenious, everything is highly functional. And in most residential buildings, it is the standard version that prevails. Yet here, too, we can discern a trend toward greater flexibility within buildings. There was a time when all the walls in residential premises were masonry, which is no longer the case. And in a residential tower you can now even change entire storeys retroactively. Meaning there are increasing options for responding flexibly to changing user needs.

Office tower "Marieninsel" in Frankfurt, competition entry. Illustration © MSW Architekten, Frankfurt