Rendering "Grand Central Frankfurt" Quarter

Building community

In Frankfurt am Main, Groß & Partner and Phoenix Real Estate are currently building the new "Grand Central Frankfurt" quarter in the station district, for which mixed use is planned. Part of this is the "Icoon" high-rise by Mecanoo Architecten, which will offer both socially subsidised housing and condominiums. Dick Van Gameren, partner at Mecanoo, explains the concept in an interview.

Anna Moldenhauer: What is the concept of the "Icoon" project? Dick Van Gameren: The leading idea, and I think this should be the leading idea for every high-rise project, is to create an attractive and open ground floor - both outside and inside. The location right next to the railway tracks is special and means a development of the existing city. The project should not be isolated, but should connect with the surroundings. For us, this was one of the main issues we wanted to consider in the project. In addition, there was the question of how to create an interesting addition to what has already become a diverse collection of residential towers in this part of Frankfurt.

The area will become a new neighbourhood in Frankfurt and will consist of both existing buildings and new buildings. What influence did this particular mix have on your concept? Dick Van Gameren: I think it depends on how you organise the connection of the building with its surroundings. How you open it up on both sides to create an attractive and safe space around the building. That is very important. The key part is the entrance plaza, which is an extension of the existing triangular plaza across the street. We have been working on this project for years, but only step by step. We will create a large open square from which you can access the different parts of the building. It is a high-rise tower in direct proximity to a residential building. The two will be connected by a single-storey building. We want to define the public space as well as adapt the volumes to the surroundings in the way they are put together. They should not tower over the existing buildings and be connected to the very narrow Deutsche Post building, which needs to be renovated. In addition, there are the offices of Deutsche Bahn. The volume mediates between the existing and new buildings. I think that is a crucial aspect of the design.

For the façade of the approximately 140-metre tall "Icoon", you were inspired by the industrial atmosphere of the surroundings and chose copper as one of the materials for it. Are there any other influences that you took up for the design? Dick Van Gameren: A special feature is that the tower starts with curved edges and then becomes a straight volume. The building will have rather soft edges, not a hard, rectangular shape like many other skyscrapers. The building will stand out because of its height, but we don't want it to stand out completely from the ensemble. We want it to become part of the surroundings – and this idea can be ideally supported with the design of the façade. In a way, the structure looks like it is layered, as there is a ring of balconies that stretch across the façade in an irregular pattern. Instead of following a guideline, it is more an interplay of the different styles.

The shape of the balconies also changes in the upper course of the building, creating a visual effect. Dick Van Gameren: Exactly, the footprint doesn't really get bigger, but the edges of the balconies on the lower levels are curved. On the upper levels they are then straight. If you look at the diagonal, it looks like the tower is getting bigger towards the top. Depending on the perspective from which you look at the building, the impression also changes. I think it is important to include in the architecture how the skyscraper is perceived from different points in the city. "Icoon" thus offers an interesting silhouette even from a distance.

Frankfurt am Main photomontage: high-rise projects "One" (left), "Eden" and "The Spin" (centre), "Icoon" (right)

This building has a particularly strong effect because it is located close to the main railway station and is therefore seen every day by train passengers coming from different directions. One aspect that I find interesting, apart from the façade design, is the planned use – both social housing and ownership are to be offered. Why was this concept chosen? Dick Van Gameren: That was not our decision, but the city's. But for us, this mix is quite normal from a Dutch point of view, because there is an obligation for large housing projects in the Netherlands to designate 30 or even 40 per cent of all units as social housing. So it is rental housing provided by a housing cooperative. In a way, that is also the case here. We want to have a good mix of residents and not create an enclave for a lucky few with "Icoon". I think it's wonderful that we can also realise this mix in Frankfurt am Main.

Can you say about the difference between the flats – for example, their area and whether this changes over the floors? Dick Van Gameren: On the lower floors is the subsidised housing, which is divided into flats of two different sizes. On the upper floors there are the condominiums. The amenities of the flats will differ a little, but not significantly. What will be different is the access, because the building will have two entrance halls. There will also be a co-working space and a kindergarten on the ground floor.

Visualisation Frankfurt Grand Central

Are recycled materials taken into account in the construction of "Icoon"? Dick Van Gameren: It is still too early in the development to say exactly. In any case, we are looking for ways to minimise the concrete needed and keep the façade light. Therefore, it will not be made of glass, but of steel and bronzed copper balustrades. Both materials are easy to recycle. We also want to make the plans flexible so that the use or division of the space can be changed in the future.

Why did you decide not to include greenery in the building? Dick Van Gameren: We didn't want to build a second "Bosco Verticale", because this model is very beautiful to look at but very expensive to maintain, with a view to the ancillary costs for the residents as well. However, the kindergarten on the ground floor encloses a large, sheltered inner courtyard and the roof of the lower connecting building will be greened. Dick Van Gameren

When you build a high-rise in Frankfurt, the question quickly arises as to why the city needs another high-rise. What would you say to these voices? Dick Van Gameren: I think it's a good thing to use the urban space intensively, because that way you create new life in the neighbourhood and preserve the open space we still have. The transport links to the site are also ideal, so we hope that residents will give up their cars. There are many reasons why high-rise buildings are not always the best solution, but in this case, redensification is worthwhile.

You are the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Delft University of Technology. What do you want your students to learn? Dick Van Gameren: In general, I think it is important to help students develop their own critical voice – especially when it comes to the main challenges we need to address - such as the housing crisis, which is also linked to the climate crisis. We need to work to improve the quality of life for people in the city through architecture.

Icoon Frankfurt