AfE-Tower 1972 – 2014

For all of two years it was the tallest building in Frankfurt upon completion in 1972 – the AfE-Turm on Frankfurt University’s Bockenheim Campus. AfE stands for “Abteilung für Erziehungs- wissenschaft”, the Department of Education, but the department never actually moved in. This was not a high-rise for banks, insurance companies or lawyers’ firms, but an academic tower. And what’s more, for the social sciences, which are often severely underfunded! You might think such a tower is a rarity for a university. But the tallest buildings in Germany between 1968 and 1973 were actually academic towers such as the university high-rises by Hermann Henselmann in Leipzig and Jena.

When it came to the university building’s vertical organization, architects Nietschke and Werner from the Hessen State Department for New Buildings did not live up to the task. The façade with front-mounted concrete slabs (intended to provide shade) might have been clearly structured, but it concealed a dysfunctional arrangement of floors. The southern section of the tower housed 31 office stories for the university administration, while in the northern section lecture theaters, libraries and seminar rooms one and a half stories high were accommodated on 23 floors. Accessing these rooms presented a huge problem. Five of seven elevators only stopped at four levels; all the other floors had to be reached via the stairs, with their striking orange handrails. Because the stairs ended at the 36th floor, the specialist library for “Pedagogic Psychology and Psychoanalysis” on the 37th floor could only be reached via the emergency staircase. But that was not all: The elevators could rarely cope with the sheer number of students wishing to use them on a daily basis. While the tower was originally conceived for 2,500 students, it actually had to handle double that number. Elevators were often out of order and people had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for the next one.

Following the demolition of the AfE-Turm on February 2, 2014, Frankfurt has lost its only public high-rise from which everyone could look at the city and the Taunus hills. No doorman had to be passed, nor did you have to pay admission for a viewing platform or buy expensive cocktails in bars at a high elevation offering a view of the skyline. Instead, visitors squeezed into the elevator and once at the top could look through the (usually dirty) windows and out over Frankfurt. Now this truly free view of the city is lost forever.

And Frankfurt’s Goethe University has also lost a building that was a symbol of critical theory, in which students argued about the writings of Marx, Adorno and Habermas. Or made the foyer echo to slogans relating to the famous Frankfurt School, meeting at its “TuCa”, the student-run tower café. As such, the tower was also a symbol of students on strike – after all, it was easy to barricade; all they needed to do was to block the stairs using linked chairs and switch off the elevators – and it equally stood for the severe lack of space at German universities. Today, a different spirit presides over Goethe University’s park-like Westend Campus, which has existed since 2001.

So now Frankfurt has rid itself of its last major representative of Brutalism. The other striking buildings of this period, the Technische Rathaus and the Historische Museum, were torn down back in 2010 and 2011. The aesthetic of untreated exposed concrete from the 1970s disliked by so many had to make way for the retrogressive reconstruction of the historic old town.

Yet what will happen now following Sunday’s controlled explosion to bring down the university tower in such an impressive manner? Well, guess what? Frankfurt’s municipal housing association ABG Frankfurt Holding is planning to build two new towers on the spot. Frankfurt will once again get more office premises and sophisticated residential space.

Philipp Sturm
Feb 4, 2014
Photos: Oliver Elser, Deutsches Architekturmuseum, with special thanks to Florian Schönherr, Ofzoe Visual Projects