The Melsungen complex, in Stirling’s own words, indicates the ways in which, as architects, he and his colleagues felt:
‘We thought our design, if anything should respond to those man-made objects in the campagna – elements in the landscape such as viaducts and bridges, canals and embankments. Also avenues of trees and the straight edges of forests against fields. This 45-hectare site extends from the southern slope of a valley to the top of a small hill which, although only 10 metres higher than its surroundings, forms a visual interruption between the lower part of the site and the town … The valley shape suggested two levels of circulation and we proposed a large multi-storey car park in the middle of the site, accessible via an enclosed footbridge to the edges of the terrain and linking important parts of the factory. Which makes an architectural image for the place, like those modern road viaducts which contrast with the landscape and complement it in a dramatic way; there are many of them to be seen in this part of Hesse (Germany)’.
This footbridge is ‘like a giant centipede marches across the site’. Stirling adds, ‘the front zone is designed like an open jardin anglais with a tree-lined canal in the form of a river cascade, a bubbling lake, and stepped terraces and ‘tree henges’.
In the rolling hills just outside the small town of Melsungen, the Braun complex is approached from the western side. The long bridge is apparent immediately, with its stained timber structure, from a distance it represents a remarkable expanse. The administration building, is carefully positioned astride the small 10 metre high knoll to the left (west) of the elevation, its status unmistakable there, compared with the remaining works and distribution centre. The ‘drive’, as with a ‘Capability’ Brown carriageway, breaks into the landscape from the main road and runs with gentle curves past the lake itself.
On the other side, at the end of the long pedestrian bridge, the triangulated pavilion of the canteen is prominent against the mass of the larger production building. To the east, and partly hidden by the bridge, the great artificial convex mound of the distribution and dispatch building, green-tinged, establishes its own correlation with the surrounding landscape, a kind of parenthesis of its own existing conformation.
Set in the green fields and woods, Stirling here provides a scheme capable of further extension, but always in sympathy with the existing landscape context. In fact, the architects were relieved to design again, so long after the cancellation the masterpiece for Olivetti, within the precedents of the twentieth century modern movement, and of a functional tradition, and its actual rejection of history: Stirling himself referred here to hoping to have achieved an unmonumental lightness of being. But of course there was history in the chosen context, a long-remembered landscape memory, indeed a resurgence of the landscape ‘sublime’ and English eighteenth century precedent: not for the first time taken up enthusiastically on the continent.
Melsungen is an extraordinary integration of architecture with landscape site. Such is the massive scale of the Braun complex, which manufactures here plastic medical products, distributing these all over Germany from this site, that it is remarkable how Stirling and Wilford, with Nageli, were actually able to harmonise such a sheer volumetric mass with the surrounding countryside. Here was an essentially metropolitan practice (and Nageli’s own association went back as far as 1979 when the three collaborated in Berlin) which pulled off the trick in one sweep. There is an urbanism about the headquarters buildings, with their own piazza and infrastructural linkages (as further extended in 2000) which is essentially mainstream Stirling and Wilford. But the disposition if the masses elsewhere is ingenious. In dividing the site, rather than becoming embedded within it, and drawing upon the functional tradition of bridges and viaducts it became possible to establish a clear hierarchy of building blocks, of all kinds of use, and to draw upon landscape history to reconcile these insertions with the rural expanse and its own inherent harmonies.