Sanjay Gangal is the President of IBSystems, the parent company of AECCafe.com, MCADCafe, EDACafe.Com, GISCafe.Com, and ShareCG.Com.
Aachenmünchener Headquarters in Aachen, Germany
February 12th, 2011 by Sanjay Gangal
Company headquarters in the inner city usually form blind spots, unattractive to the public and desolate after office hours. Therefore, the design is not understood as an architectural but as an urban task with the aim of maximizing public space on the building lot. With a number of plazas, a direct footpath from the main train station and the inner city and the integration of external uses, the area becomes more attractive to the public. The demand for maximum public use and communication dictates the internal organization of the building.
Aachenmünchener Hq, Aachen | Germany The annex occupies two blocks of late 19th-century city fabric, and provides a new interpretation of the typical perimeter development with its semi-public and leafy courtyards. The urban sequence of expansions and squares is extended by a perron and a plaza evolving from it. Existing and new buildings are connected by the “boulevard” which consists of a transparent level hosting seminar areas, a restaurant, a cafeteria, meeting rooms, and other communication areas. The boulevard floats above the various garden spaces inside the building block, and connects the office spaces, eventually opening up at the main entrance and the pocketpark, offering a representative face to the street.
Even Building a Piece of the City
“Not a house, but a new piece of the city” was the title given by the Aachener Zeitung in January 2006 to kadawittfeldarchitektur’s biggest building project up until then: the new building and extension of the headquarters in Aachen of the insurance company AachenMünchener. An exciting task like this – the chance to build such a complex building – doesn’t belong to the everyday life of an architect. And because it’s not located in the middle of a green meadow, it’s also a big challenge to build within the existing city fabric.
The company wanted to gather all its various divisions – which up until now were distributed over various buildings in the city – into one coherent building complex. Considering its 250,000 inhabitants, Aachen is not a small town; rather, its city center is shaped by a mixture of fragments of small Middle Age groupings and heterogeneous areas with impermeable large structures. The decision to channel this ambition in a demanding urban and representative location and, considering the attention given to the existing site is, on the one hand, a commitment of the company to the historical site and, on the other, a true challenge to plan.
Building an office complex of 30,000 m² into an existing structure contains not only chances but also risks for the urban surroundings. Elsewhere, there are many examples of sealed-off company headquarters that occupy inner city areas and, thus, deprive the public access to entire city districts. Perceived by both the citizens and inhabitants as “blind spots” in the city – unattractive and desolate outside of office hours – they function as a sad counter-model to what should be a dynamic city. It is often wished by a company that the architectural expression should be manifest in an unmistakable architectural sign: often this is not the case in German cities where companies are represented neither by the location nor their significance.
With the construction of the AachenMünchener Insurance building, the opposite path was taken by matching the requirements of the client to build a representative central headquarters as well as the demands of the city and its citizens. Rather than imposing the spatial requirements of the company onto the city, they were integrated in a compliant way: a quality recognized already in the competition phase by the jury and which eventually led to first prize.
Beyond the point of view of architecture, the design was considered from an urban-planning perspective with the goal that the property held in private hands would be made accessible to the public at particularly vital locations – a “public-private partnership,” with advantages for both sides. The project closes a gap in the “Via Culturalis” in the pedestrian footpath connecting the axis between the main train station and the inner city, with a series of public squares, so-called “urban steppingstones.” After reaching the Bahnhofsplatz (station square), coming from the direction of the Marienplatz is a grand perron leading to the new AachenMünchener Platz on the Borngasse and, with the help of an elaborate ramp, it overcomes the difference in levels between the two public squares and adjoining streets. From here, one arrives via the old postal courtyard (today called the “Kapuziner-Karree”) directly on the former trenches of Aachen’s Old Town. A further not insubstantial part of the lot has not been overbuilt in the area of the Pocket-Park on Franzstraße, thus, offering up the community a public added-value space. In order to make this urban area more lively, a post office, shops, and restaurants are integrated into the adjacent building to satisfy daily public needs.
Corresponding to the desire for a open, communicative quarter – both transparent and with a particular flow – the volume was dispersed throughout several buildings yet connected and given a new identity via a glass bridge. The inner boulevard connecting the various building parts of the project serves its users as a space for communication and meetings. Its typology is new territory, arranged in an elongated space as such that the relevant public program of the insurance company, i.e., the staff canteen, cafeteria, conference, and training facilities, as well as the communication zones call to mind the elevated passages of modernist urban utopias. The boulevard functions like a protected street space and develops a sequence of expansions and contractions which correspond to an adjusted rhythm on a more human scale. Accidental meetings and encounters are as equally wished for as the functional advantages through vertical connections and shorter paths.
A further special feature of the boulevard is created by the overlapping of the inner-space qualities with various urban attributes. In the staff canteen area and the smaller conference areas, the boulevard runs – or even floats – through the courtyard and green garden in the area of the foyer and perron, connected with the urban surroundings, and in the direction of Franzstrasse, a lush view of the new Quartierspark is opened up. Both these inner and external characteristics allow that the path through the building complex becomes shorter and more diverse and, at the same time, offers up a communications forum with a representative character. What seemed at first to be a hurdle in the plan proved to be a strong point: the extreme difference in the street levels between Aureliusstraße and Borngasse led to an optimal continuation of the boulevard on one level. As a new address of the AachenMünchener insurance company, the foyer lies consequently at the intersection of the boulevard with the “Via Culturalis.” At the new “AachenMünchener Platz” on Borngasse, the boulevard is coupled with the grandiloquent curved perron which provides a representative opening to the city space.
When selecting the material of the boulevard, an analogy to the city space played a role. On the one hand, the continuation of the concrete tiling work from the outside into the foyer, and, on the other hand, the anthracite-colored monolithic terrazzo, which is used in the style of the Aachen bluestone on the inside boulevard. All of the necessary structural installations and building services – the sprinkler, smoke detector, electricity, acoustics, and cooling elements (wafers) – are in a homogenous black behind the suspended ceiling made out of white lacquered expanded metal elements integrated into the central area of the roof’s surface. The story-high glazing reaching to the edge of the roof as well as the curved glass panes in the area of the expansions reinforce the dynamic of movement.
The fixtures of the boulevard are minimalized with the use of just three materials: the high glossy furniture walls with sunken displays or recessed vitrines mirror (like display windows) the movements of the boulevard and the passersby. The white color of the side rail elements, columns, and walls in combination with the vertical silver metal panels on the core stairway also embrace the reduced canon of colors. The only exceptions are the island-like communication zones whose spatial rendering is defined by the use of high-pile carpets. The seminar and conference rooms in the front become places one truly wishes to stay for longer, i.e., during the coffee breaks, with their red and black seats and high-glossy lacquered coffee tables.
The Building Complex
The extension stretches over two Gründerzeit city blocks. The building volume of the four newly built houses fit to the surroundings, according to their height, and are placed as such that the flow of the urban promenade remains uninterrupted. Rather than classical blocks, they are angled and set up facing one another so that there is an exchange from an almost flush-with-the-street development, thus, creating small public squares. Of course, the existing AachenMünchener insurance building from the 1970s is integrated into the building ensemble. It lies on the inner boulevard, yet remains recognizable as a “child of its time” and greatly profits from the additional offerings on the boulevard.
The historic profile of the Borngasse was reconstructed as such that the backstreet feeling can be experienced once again. At the same time, the street is given a new rhythm and even revalued through the staggered height and the moderate length of the buildings because of the newly planted greenery along the street. Thus, the newly created views – to the inside, to the outside, and looking through – reflect the desire of the company for transparency and communication. The new complex is integrated into the existing architecture less out of representative reasons and more like repairing a piece of the city, employing rather the representational potential of the urban situation.
The new building is the built evidence of successful teamwork deriving from city-planning needs and a private owner, who at the same time as the benefactor acts on behalf of urban added-value space and, thereby, finds its own identity. The building complex of the AachenMünchener insurance company is thoroughly characterized by the idea of integration: the integration of various companies, the integration of old and new, the integration into the urban space. A spatial balance of interests between public space and private capital, in which the tendency is that an underused quarter becomes more structurally consolidated and functional and, at the same time, is given the air that the city needs to breathe.
The office façades have a black anodized aluminum element construction in a structural glazing optic – each element 1.35 – 2.70 meters, analogue to the modular grid. Vertical story-high glass panels alternate with room-high window elements with window stops as well as closed gold-colored anodized alu-panels. Therefore, a uniform rhythm to the façade system and is created, at the same time, a mirror image of the lively inner life of the building. Functionality is consciously readable, so that the neighboring areas are created through closed horizontal aluminum window bands with a golden coating, while the large-scale, two-story welcoming foyer is distinguished by an all-glass façade, stretching across the entire room height. The glass boulevard – with a partial glass ceiling – takes on the character of a light and spacious covered promenade. Rounded glass elements in the corner areas underscore the impression of meandering. Underneath the boulevard overpass, there is a translucent suspended ceiling made of coarse-meshed white lacquered expanded metal, hiding the fixtures such the sprinkler, smoke detector, ventilation, etc., and integrates the lighting as well.
Category: Commercial Building
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