Published  07/07/2002

Braun AG Headquarters, Melsungen, Germany – Masterwork Revisited

Braun AG Headquarters, Melsungen, Germany – Masterwork Revisited

Masterwork Revisited: James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Partners (With Walter Nageli ). Followed by Michael Wilford GmbH Architecture and Landscape United.

In 2002 this famous project stands complete as perhaps the final masterpiece of the Stirling/Wilford office, executed together with Walter Nageli in Germany. The works complex designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford, with Walter Nageli in Germany was, for Stirling, the first major landscape-related project , since the Olivetti Headquarters (Milton Keynes — l971). By this token it has been all the more important as representing Stirling’s inherent empathy with landscape context, a basic characteristic in the make-up of the architect’s complex sensibility which has largely been overlooked as a result of the predominantly urban portfolio of his life’s work. This awareness had deep roots in Stirling’s own childhood enthusiasm for bird-watching and ringing in such famous landmark areas as the Dee Estuary, Anglesey, the Denbigh Moors, Great Orme, or St Bees in Cumberland. He developed early an observer’s eye for the lie of rural landscape, as a member of the Naturalists Association.

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, ‘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, 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 20th 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 18th 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 infrastructure 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.

In 2001 Michael Wilford was invited to make further additions to the work previously completed with Sir James Stirling. These changes are now completed. A building comprising three main elements, the two storey rectangular base, a three-storey triangular office block and entrance hall and lobby together with a separate central core were evolved, together with a bridge connection. Staff still arrive via the existing office building — steel clad in aluminium — which leads out to the central entrance hall on the second floor now. This core is lit through a glass-roofed lightwell. The new copper-clad building with its inclined walls correlates neatly in materials with the actual base of the existing administrative building. Linear hallways now lead to the office area along the façade and so to the service areas within. Two glass elevators open towards the lightwell and so neatly link up this entrance hall to the three office floors of the main building. On these floors, circulation is structured around the main lightwell. The exterior walls of the triangle itself adjoin these transparent office zones. The main triangular building is clad in sand-blasted stainless steel, but incorporating the coloured window reveals of the original building. Air conditioning for the whole building is distributed through the whole complex. The stair itself is clad in Staffordshire blue bricks imported from England. Already the inherent flexibility of the scheme has been tested and emerged successfully, since Braun AG, the clients decided to incorporate a hot-desking system for staff. The workspaces are linked to enclosures or cockpits for small teams and individuals requiring a measure of privacy. The project as now completed remains in the spirit of the original Stirling/Wilford/Nageli concept, Meanwhile the landscape has matured more rapidly than was first envisaged, so fulfilling , with the lake, these aspirations first developed. There has been much debate since the death in a hospital accident of Sir James Stirling as to which members of each office group or team contributed, how much and when. This is inevitable in the aftermath, and yet these late additions demonstrate that the sensitivity about architectural detailing which Stirling imparted to all he worked with has been successfully carried through by all those still involved, especially by Michael Wilford himself. Others involved were: Manuel Schupp, Chris Dyson, Claudia Murin, Charlie Sutherland, Axel Overath, Boiri Csicsely, Denis Wolf, Martin Braun, and Frauke Goldammer.

Michael Spens

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