A Metabolized Storage Space

With the new Kunsthaus in Göttingen Atelier ST has finally helped old plans for an even older context to come to fruition.
by David Kasparek | 6/3/2021

The idea germinated in 1970. At the time, publisher Gerhard Steidl was 20 years old. He, a few other young people, and a committed deputy mayor in charge of Culture came up with the ambitious vision of realizing a home for contemporary art in Göttingen, decked out in state-of-the-art architecture. And, because some ideas take longer than others to germinate, Kunsthaus Göttingen is only opening this year. Today 70 years of age, that once young publisher is a respected master of his profession. The building, too, however, has experienced many vicissitudes over the course of its genesis. Launched in 2015, the architectural competition, followed by the process of awarding the relevant contract (VgV), was won by a design by Kassel-based architecture practice “Atelier 30”, with a majority of only one vote. In the following negotiations, the doubts that had been expressed by a number of jury members concerning the concept of accommodating the required exhibition space on only two stories were confirmed. The architects waived their right to execute the building, thus making way for the design that had placed second, the brainchild of Atelier ST, a practice in Leipzig. For Silvia Schellenberg-Thaut and Sebastian Thaut, architects and members of BDA, the German Association of Architects, it was a real honor in to be taking part in the procedure after the real winners had stepped down. Firstly, in order to protect the canon of values within the profession and secondly to avoid attempting to discredit the jury’s verdict.

Now, however, it is finished, that building on Düstere Strasse where cloth makers once hung out their wares to dry, stretched across the alleyway, thus making it darker and lending the street its name [düster means dark in German]. Göttingen-based company ONP planungs + projekt GmbH acted as their local partners. Gerhard Steidl has remained on board. And on the gallery’s website he, who made the plot of land available to the city in the first place and now acts as its founding director, has been quoted as saying “Above and beyond showcasing international art Kunsthaus Göttingen sees itself as a place for culture, communication and interaction with art”. The new build is part of an art quarter that is still growing. The Günther Grass archive is located here, along with Steidl-Verlag, a bookbindery, a boutique hotel and bookstores. The archive is the neighbor to the south of the new art museum – a half-timbered house dating from 1307, other sources talk about 1310. Whatever the case, very old, definitely worth preserving and very fragile considering the plans to erect something right next to it. Admittedly, its neighbor to the north is some 200 years younger, but even it is now pretty elderly. An immense challenge in terms of the building site: “Because of the high groundwater table in this area, and particularly because of the historical neighboring structure which needed to be protected, the work necessary for the cellar was very complicated and cost-intensive,” explains Thaut. The architect explains: “In order to make as much exhibition space available as possible, we located the technology, the repository, the bathrooms and the checkrooms in the basement.”

A complicated procedure needed to be used in order to secure the two historical neighbors. Propping bored pile foundations were introduced by means of additional injections inserted diagonally underneath the existing foundations of the neighboring little half-timbered houses. Because of the groundwater on the level of the underwater structures it was important to cement the basement depot. “We had to demand everything that technology currently has to offer of the concrete construction section,” explains Thaut. There are three stories on top of the complex basement level, plus an attic story. “The idea of the museum’s small footprint, and of it stretching out further and further into the open street from one floor to the next comes straight from the old half-timbered houses,” is how Sebastian Thaut explains the historical reference behind the little extra overhand on every story. The museum is, however, perceptibly larger than its neighbors. “What we wanted to do was not only build contextually and take account of the circumstances of the location, but also to indicate that what we have here is a new building. And this can be reflected in the building materials used and in the museum’s size.” This new build takes full advantage of “every last centimeter” of what the development plan has envisaged for the ridge and eaves heights. “Anything to generate as much exhibition space as possible,” comments Thaut. The plan worked. Steidl talks about it a “spatial miracle”. And indeed, the approximately 500 m² of exhibition space for a plot size of just under 140 m² comes as a genuine surprise.

Kunsthaus Göttingen sees itself as an exhibition location for photography, work on paper and new media. With this in mind, extensive accompanying programs are being planned – especially for children and young people. The museum has succeeded in recruiting Ute Eskildsen, a former deputy director of the Folkwang Museum in Essen, as the founding curator. The latter has already assisted both the city and the architects during the planning and construction phase. Joshua Chuang, Head of the Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs and Photography curator at New York’s Public Library, will be acting as guest curator. The museum does not boast its own collection and there are no plans for such a move. Instead, the aim is to mount between three and four temporary shows per year, giving young artists, both from the local scene and those with international backgrounds, the opportunity to present their work to a wide audience. From the very beginning it has been the objective to open up access to contemporary art with as low a threshold as possible. Accordingly, entrance to the new art museum is free of charge.

The new build now stands between its neighbors, looking as poised as it is natural and simultaneously reminiscent of a medieval warehouse. Sebastian Thaut comments: “Two things impressed us about the location – firstly, the picturesque, old core city, with its half-timbered houses, their eaves facing the street, and secondly the stacks of paper on the Steidl premises.” The original intention was to reflect the stacks of stored paper in the masonry with low-level horizontal joints and in layers of stone that jut out. However, in view of the extremely tight budget, it just was not possible to implement this idea. Thanks to private investors and subsidies from central government, the city of Göttingen only had to cover ten percent of the building costs; however, it was not prepared to help out with the increased costs for the façade. Nevertheless, thanks to Silvia Schellenberg-Thaut, Sebastian Thaut and their team, what was actually produced does not look like a makeshift solution. On the contrary. The combed modeling rendering on the façade makes for a subtle appearance, with its horizontal layers. The analogy to the stacks of paper at the neighboring publishing house and its workshops has outlived the change of materials from brickwork to plaster.

Apart from the entrance, plus office and foyer, the building largely turns away from Düstere Strasse, with only two windows, one per story, looking out over the city. On the inside, Atelier ST has ensured that Kunsthaus is stringently tidy and clearly organized. An organizational grid divides the structure, with its irregularly square-shaped footprint, at right angles to the street-facing façade over its entire breadth, into approximately one third and two thirds. Two staircases and an elevator lead to the two sides to the north and south. An air space between the ground floor and the first floor extends the smaller northern section and opens up the building’s interior between Düstere Strasse and the courtyard. On the first floor there is a little gallery, the air space above this has been allocated to the smaller exhibition room. On the south side, there are two access points, each leading to a large exhibition room around 3.4 m in height. Reinforced concrete ceilings with prestressed steel strands mean that there is no need for supporting columns anywhere in the room. The topmost room, which is utilizable right up into its steep roof, finishes off surprisingly with a roof terrace cut into the volume on the building, which opens up a view out over the city.

Inside the rooms, the architects’ thinking over the course of the whole project is also manifest. “From the very outset, we saw the museum as a robust workshop building and a place of action,” explains Sebastian Thaut. “With this in mind and considering the relatively limited budget, we decided, similarly to the case with the Luther Archive in Eisleben, to follow the principle of ‘building shell equates to finished building’”. What this meant was technology that is as simple as possible to operate and just as unsusceptible to problems, the kind of technology that is not, moreover, hidden and has simple details. “Apart from the surfaces of the walls in the exhibition rooms, we wanted everything to be left rough-and-ready,” explains Thaut. And it really is the case that the interiors are surprisingly unevenly finished. The staircase has been executed in a good, but not excessively fetishized concrete, the overall grouting of the tiling is, however, harmonious and the surfaces make an appropriate impression, even on the stairs. This pattern continues into the exhibition rooms. The fair-faced concrete ceiling is executed in the same style but is complemented by a track system onto which various luminaires can be hung, along with the ceiling elements that control heating, cooling and acoustics. However, the necessary ducts have not been hidden. At the same time, the lighting can be operated by means of an intricate DALI system which, in turn, gives the curators freedom in terms of how the room is lit.

The same applies to the walls which, as appropriate for a classic white cube, have been executed with a kind of pre-wall system, thus making what is, in this case, an irregularly-shaped footprint into an entirely straight one. In front of the building shell, on a metal structure, there is a thick slab of oriented strand board to which the two layers of gypsum cardboard have been applied. This means that, for instance, the exhibition makers can work with simple wooden screws and do not have to resort to special screw anchors. And should there at some point be too many filled holes in the gypsum cardboard the upper layer can be replaced separately. There are, by the same token, absolutely no tanks, sockets or any other openings sunk into the sanded cement floors. Any media lines or wiring harnesses run along the insides of the skating boards which are flush with the walls.

And so, today, 50 years after that vision long ago, the above-mentioned budgetary restrictions on Kunsthaus Göttingen are not by any means noticeable. The aspirations were high from the outset. “Right at the beginning and aim was expressed for Kunsthaus to stand up to comparisons with Paris and London,” remembers Thaut. If nothing else, at least in terms of space, the opportunity has been provided for this very purpose.

Kunsthaus Göttingen

Düstere Str. 7
37073 Göttingen
Phone: +49 (0) 551 507 688 70

Atelier ST Kunsthaus Göttingen