words Kieran Long
On the corner of Karl Marx Strasse and Juri Gagarin Strasse sits a fairytale castle of a building.
It is Brandenburg Technical University’s new library in Cottbus, Germany, by Herzog & de Meuron, rising out of the relentless grimness of the western quarter of the town. If the street signs didn’t make it obvious enough, the city’s plan and buildings would tell you that this is deep in the former East Germany, just 30 miles from the Polish border in fact, and the city’s fabric is defined by the legacy of the GDR’s socialist architecture.
Herzog & de Meuron’s library, however, is like an Alvar Aalto Savoy vase, writ large and placed on the brow of a gentle mound on a previously vacant site between the university campus and the old town. It is possible to photograph this building as if it were a classical folly, stumbled upon by a German romantic painter in an idealised German landscape. Schinkel or Caspar David Friedrich would understand the references. With barely a nod to its context, the new library towers above the town like a citadel, embellishing both it and the landscape.
The Cottbus library is a palimpsest of Herzog & de Meuron’s development over the last decade or so. At least, that’s how I interpret it, as the architects were apparently too busy to talk to me about it. The practice won the project in 1993 (the same year that the university was founded) with a scheme intended to house both the library and a large auditorium on the same site. Originally, the project was for an orthogonal building, with towers projecting from a rectangular envelope, attempting, in the classic mode of liberal urbanism, to understand the existing condition of the site and make an intervention that has some formal relationship to it.
The project took years to get off the ground, and eventually the auditorium was housed elsewhere in the campus. When Herzog & de Meuron redesigned the project to accommodate just a library, the form developed, through a series of models, into one unlike anything else in the town. Their motivations for this seem twofold. There are sketches that imply that this amoeboid plan deliberately tries to “embrace” (rather literally) visitors from the town to the east, and students from the campus to the west, with the projecting arms of the amoeba enacting this metaphor. This seems disingenuous. Although the building has this freeform plan, it is identifiably one made up of four circles of different sizes, wrapped in a meandering line that forms the footprint. The effect of extruding this plan vertically is to create a building that appears as a collection of cylindrical towers in the landscape, reinforcing its castle-like feeling through a foggy formal gesture.
This library’s morphological form bears no relation to the town’s buildings. And in the context of Cottbus that is probably a good thing. The town does have a historic centre, but the rest, developed during the GDR or since, is pretty grim, and the prospects for residents must seem bleak. There is very high unemployment (around 20%), and no real industry to speak of. On the face of it, it is a typical east German town post unification, with a decrepit industry, aging population and the odd story of neo-Nazi activity.
But the university gives life to the town, providing an influx of 5,000 students each year, along with academics and other professionals (although many of these commute from Berlin). The city has also retained its own identity since reunification. For example, Cottbus runs an annual festival of eastern European cinema, and every street sign in the city is also written in Sorbian, a language spoken by the indigenous Slavs who live in the Lausitz area. These things demonstrate that the city has a collective memory, even if much of the town’s fabric does not admit it.
This library (it is known by the acronym IKMZ, referring to its information, communication and media focus, although it also includes architecture and engineering libraries) adds a new layer to this web of memory. As Jacques Herzog said in 2002 of the project: “We were convinced that the city of Cottbus needed a different kind of building which would be more sculptural and more of a landmark building within the very generic urban pattern built after the war.”
Its physicality and scale are impressive, as is the site – the architects constructed a one-storey-high mound on which to build the library, ostensibly to deal with the high water table, but effectively adding to the monumentality of the structure, and to the feeling that the building is expressly dealing with orientation in a city shorn of recognisable monuments. It seems as if it responds to Joseph Rykwert’s observations, in his book the Seduction of Place, that: “Points of orientation are essential for any sane urban or rural living. Without them a citizen cannot ‘read,’ let alone ‘understand,’ his home.” He goes on to posit various explanations of this, including a simple one of scale: “As monuments have been dwarfed in space [by huge office and housing buildings], so they have become more difficult to devise and slow to attract validation by the public.”
Cottbus does not contain the rather rich early communist architecture of the centre of Dresden, or the now rather romanticised and popular set pieces of Karl Marx Allee in Berlin. There is little or nothing of value in the communist buildings in Cottbus; they do not function as public, symbolic events in the city, merely as containers. Herzog & de Meuron’s construction of the site as a hill literally undoes the levelling effect that communism has had on the town.
Inside, each of the building’s seven floors are different, with each floorplate cut to create double- or triple-height spaces that face in all directions. The most spectacular of these is the triple-height space at the north of the building, which contains a spiral staircase in pink and magenta. Colour is a major navigation aid in the building, with broad stripes of lurid colours denoting information areas, bookstacks and other zones. But the main points of navigation are the three cylinders that rise through the entire height of the building. The northernmost is the broad spiral staircase, the eastern the goods lift and the southern is the public lift and escape stair. The bookstacks themselves are kept away from the facade in the darker recesses of the plan. The spiral theme is continued in the reading rooms through the huge chandeliers with tiny spiral light bulbs.
The Herzog & de Meuron building that seems to relate most closely to Cottbus is the Laban Dance Centre in Deptford, south-east London, which also provided an exterior membrane that cloaks a complex and specific internal organisation. But here the skin is even more of a coherent curtain than Laban’s. Rafael Moneo said of Cottbus, whose design predates Laban: “The architects’ objective is not so much the skin, the envelope of the solid, but a formal exploration that leads to our understanding the form as the boundary of a rich inner life.” Moneo was speaking about the project years before it was built. Now we can see that the skin also has a more figurative reference to this inner life of books and reading – giant, random letters are screenprinted onto the glass, giving some shade from the sun and creating a rather abstract pattern.
However, until you see this building in context, it is difficult to recognise its urban aspirations. Herzog & de Meuron understands that architecture embodies memory for society. A library, of all buildings, does this even more literally, and should function as a place for people to access this knowledge. Herzog & de Meuron has done what the communist rebuilders of Cottbus failed to do, which is to create a focus for some kind of public life.