Highrises are more than just extremely tall buildings. Wherever they are, indeed, “raised”, they tower over life down in the doldrums of the quotidian and thus cause somewhat of a stir. Highrises are indeed also machines to generate attention. Anyone can observe from a distance first the skeleton of the building rising up like a technoid tree, and then, although still unfinished at the top, the façade being added to the lower levels and interior furnishing work beginning.

No-one can deny at this point the progress of the construction work. So we put our names down to take part in a guided tour of the European Central Bank (ECB) building site in Frankfurt/Main. None other than the master of the design himself, architect Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, accompanied by Manfred Grohmann of Bollinger & Grohmann, responsible for the structural engineering of the “twisted” towers, Michael Lange from the JV IFFT Schott, in charge of the façade, and ECB Project Manager Thomas Rinderspacher take us on a tour of the site, located on the former wholesale market hall complex in Frankfurt’s Ostend district. With so much expertise and prominence, the whole thing inevitably seems like a G8 summit.

A lot has happened since the topping-out ceremony on September 20, 2012. At the beginning of March this year the highrise, consisting of a north tower with 45 stories and a slightly shorter south tower with 43 levels, reached its final height of 185 meters. When the antenna was installed on the very top shortly before Easter, the building had the impressive height of 201 meters. A standalone, from the Ostend district it greets like a distant sentinel the Frankfurt skyline that has taken shape in recent decades, with its numerous bank towers.

What might await us in a building that is setting a striking new tone in the cityscape and creating a new point of reference in the east of the city? What message does such a powerful ensemble send out, which, seen from the square in front of the Alte Oper, is still an unexpected point of orientation?
It is certainly not the case that the new building is simply relocating the ECB offices away from the very elegant former BfG highrise in the city center onto the periphery. Not only the location sets the “Central Bank” apart from the forest of towers, but above all the spectacular, thoroughly iconic building lends new import to the presence of the ECB and is a symbolic expression of its distance. Moreover the building also gives it its own, recognizable face. In the media age, in which global news reports on the activities and decisions of the currency custodians circulate almost daily together with the image of the building in which the bankers work, this is truly no small matter.

For these reasons alone the project has a special relationship with the number two. In terms of urban planning it forms the basis of a second center for the city on the River Main. In future Frankfurt can continue to grow polycentrically upwards and outwards around this hub. Moreover, the ECB highrise consists of two structures that are linked by a transparent atrium and that, depending on your point of view, more or less lean against or merge with each other. And, last but not least, the new building combines the old (the former wholesale market hall by architect Martin Elsaesser [1884 – 1957] from 1928, loved not just by Frankfurters and architectural historians) with the new, namely the highrise complex currently being built. Martin Elsaesser, suffice it to say, was appointed head of the Municipal Buildings Office in 1925 by the new head of the Frankfurt Planning Department Ernst May, a position he held until 1932. The citizens of Frankfurt knew the value of both, as evidenced by a bon mot from the period: “May renews, Elsaesser does it better.”

The tour begins on level ground along the old wholesale market all. The noticeably different base, which has been clad in printed glass, does not instantly appeal from the outside. The intervention in the historical building seems too radical. It is not until we are inside that it becomes clear that it was the light, and not the historical architecture, that was made the focal point. The intervention illuminates the interior so perfectly that you quickly forget the crude approach taken towards the monument.

The wholesale market hall likewise consists of two buildings now, a shell and an insert, which is very subtly oriented on the angles of the pillars in Elsaesser’s structure. We are tempted to call out: What an atrium! And would like to hope that the honestly paid tax money were to entitle each and every citizen to spend time here every day. Which, unfortunately, will be highly unlikely most of the time after completion. What is even more regrettable is that we will only be able to see the room of the “Grand Council” on the TV screen. The view of the city from this height is simply sensational. You can clearly sense a strong dynamic evolving here between two poles.

Wolf D. Prix’s explanation of the façade, which not only serves the purpose of climate control, he emphasizes, but also makes an important contribution to the form of the building, underlines how simple and clear-cut a high-tech climate shell can be. The façade for the atrium was made by Gartner, that for the two towers by Seele. The latter is a shield hybrid façade, which has all the energy-related advantages of a conventional double façade; however, without the disadvantage of natural ventilation through the façade cavity. Instead, vertical ventilation louvers enable natural ventilation. Moreover, the façade cavity features a shimmering metallic sun and glare protection element, which when closed ensures g-values of 0.07 and when the sunshades are open, 0.12. What is also remarkable about the huge tower façade, which measures 35,000 square meters, is that, the corners aside, it consists of 6,000 identical façade elements.
We instantly hope that the atrium façade between the two towers will indeed be as transparent as the architects imagined. Otherwise the two slender structures could end up looking like a rather awkward giant hulk.

Whatever your opinion on Coop Himmelb(l)au’s architecture, a tour with Wolf D. Prix leaves you with an undeniable feeling that this man has incredible vision, for which he fights with admirable persistence and tenacity. The European Central Bank, which has been on the receiving end of much criticism of late, has shown that as regards building work at least, with Thomas Rinderspacher, the project manager of the new building, it has a sure hand. We have him to thank for the fact that the architect and technical planner have a competent developer for a partner, which is no doubt also one of the reasons why the ECB building is among the few major projects in Germany to be completed without any notable delay. Even if the planning and construction phase will ultimately last 15 years and the new Frankfurt landmark in the Ostend district will cost approximately 1.2 billion euro. Yet one thing is clear even now: The bills will be paid in euro and the building, with all its references to the number two, will radiate out to every country in Europe.

Interior view of the Great Market Hall: the old windows were replaced in order to improve the isolation characteristic. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
The ECB, the new building and the magic of the number two
by Robert Volhard
Jul 3, 2013
The curved longitudinal sides of the towers are designed as hyperbolic paraboloids. Photo © ECB
The former wholesale market hall designed by architect Martin Elsaesser will be retained and integrated into the new ECB. Photo © ECB
Anyone can observe from a distance first the skeleton of the building rising up and then the façade being added to the lower levels. Photo © ECB
The ECB will place a staff canteen and several areas for press, visitors and conferences in the former wholesale market hall. Photo © ECB
For the construction yard tour, the visitors gather in the entrance hall. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Almost more impressive than the facade itself: the scaffolding in the atrium. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The future press room stands out from the facade towards Ostend. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
An icon in the reconstruction: the wholesale market hall in Frankfurt's Ostend was the reloading point for fruits, vegetables and flowers from 1928 until its closure in 2004. Photo © ECB
Interior facade detail. photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The ECB in the east of Frankfurt marks a new "high point" on the Frankfurt skyline. Photo © ECB
The facade is not only a climate envelope but also an important contribution to the design of the building. Photo © ECB
The project manager of the ECB: Thomas Rinderspacher. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Connection between new and old - the new ECB building and the former wholesale market hall by the architect Martin Elsaesser from 1928. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
The north tower reached its final height of 185 meters this year in march. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The ECB-building can be completed without appreciable delay next year. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The Lord of the design, architect Wolf D. Prix von Coop Himmelb(l)au, leads through the construction site of the ECB. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The new ECB will change the Ostend district. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark