The ancient city of Vienna has been at the centre of some of the greatest political upheavals in European history. Once home to the Hapsburg dynasty and later the Austro-Hungarian empire, it became a city divided after the second world war, split into four by the Allies. With layers of history settling like silt on the bed of the Danube, modern Vienna is a mish-mash of contemporary and vintage architecture. Romanesque and Baroque styles continued under the Gründerzeit movement, which deferred to the Vienna Succession, an interpretation of Art Nouveau later deserted by its leading lights. This complex, rich and at times conflicting backdrop led to an uneasy relationship with the modern architecture condemned by some as too clinical in such a historic city.
A recent addition to the city is furniture company Bene’s showroom and office. The building is eight storeys tall and has an unapologetic modernism that could be described as functionally, rather than aesthetically, clinical. Designed by Viennese architects Rataplan-Architektur ZT GmbH, the building stands in the heart of the old textile district between the stock exchange,
the Ringstrasse and the Maria am Gestade Church. Dormant since the textile industry’s decline in the 1970s, the area has recently been reincarnated as a buzzing creative hub with the arrival of design studios, architects’ practices, coffee houses and bars. A forward-thinking expression was needed to capture the area’s new-found optimism without conflicting with its baroque neighbours. Concerns for the coherence of the existing urban environment ran high and Rataplan negotiated with city planners and local government to come to an agreement.
Rudolf Fritz, Rataplan’s project architect, explains: “It is very seldom there is a chance for a new building in this part of Vienna. It was made very clear, it can’t be bad for Vienna.”The building forms the corner of Neutorgrasse and Wedertorgrasse, replacing a 1950s structure and joining an existing Gründerzeit building that is an extension to the ground floor showroom. Rataplan began with the idea of cutting back the southern elevation to create a piazza in front of the building’s entrance. In a district defined by quadrangular blocks this decision had three effects: it allowed the street breathing room, broke with the historic building next door and created a public space. “It was a case of live and let live. We wanted the old building to live with the new and vice-versa,” Fritz says. With the facade curving back out to the rejoin the street and make the corner, the architects achieved a quality reminiscent of the international style. However, this is obscured by the facade’s more unusual feature, a series of perforated vertical sun shades. Made from stainless steel, the shutters add a three-dimensional element that references the porticoes of the adjoining baroque. “There was no life in the facade of the old building, so this new one had to be of the same quality as those around it,” says Fritz. Individually controlled by the occupants’ computers, the result is a building that is continually changing its appearance. “We wanted it to look like a wave in a curtain,” explains Fritz. The wisdom of the idea is effectively demonstrated by the inarticulate flat facade of the building opposite, whose bluff desperately seeks, and accomplishes, anonymity. The oak-yellow enamel glass behind a transparent layer echoes the vernacular yellow masonry and further embellishes the sense of depth. On the ground floor the practice dispensed with the shutters, allowing an 80m glass-walled showroom window to take centre stage. Above are three floors of office space, while the top floors house apartments and a roof terrace. At the building’s heart is an open-air atrium, which serves as a social space and smoking area, a feature peculiar to Viennese architecture and essential given the populace’s enthusiasm for tobacco.Working with Viennese architects SOLID Architecture, Bene seized the obvious opportunity to show off its products in a real-life working environment. “We call it the living showroom,” says Sigrid Mayer, Bene’s head of showroom design. The multi-faceted ground floor is largely taken up by the Bene showroom, but is also home to an informal meeting/reception area with a large Corian bar and soft seating. Movable acoustic barriers allow the space to be configured in various ways. Behind this bright and airy space are glass presentation rooms with projector screens and automated blinds for privacy. The aforementioned atrium is also positioned here, its sliding doors allowing the social area to be extended outdoors. The 1,700sq m of workspaces above are tailored to each department’s working style, but also reveal the Austrian penchant for having individual offices and partitioned banks of desks. Many of the 90 Bene staff inhabit glass cubes – “be seen, but not heard” seems to be the maxim. Indeed, particular attention was paid to the acoustics – with sound-absorbing panels adorning walls and ceilings throughout the space. “We had a problem with noise in the old building and we calculated you can increase productivity by 52 per cent with good acoustics,” says Mayer.
Positioning a service desk on the first floor, the design team hope to encourage more chance meetings. “It is midway between all departments. We tried to replicate the smokers’ corner where people would meet,” continues Mayer. Away from the workstations, Bene has tried to create a varied design with breakout areas, standing tables mixing it up with cellular one-to-one meeting rooms and larger conference rooms. Elsewhere, four glass meeting cubes are colour-coded to correspond to the activity within – ranging from calming blue to brainstorming green. On the second floor, colourful stencils on the glass walls signal that this is where the creatives lurk. Green woven flooring demarcates the breakout area and racks of magazines are on hand to galvanise the ideas men. Here workspaces feature partitioned desks with letterbox-style openings through which staff can chew the fat, pass documents or dish out the Haribos. The glass cubicles and partitions may be a slightly alien concept to those used to flattened-out hierarchies, but perhaps there is something to be said for not sharing a desk with the CEO.Reaction to the new building has been generally positive and Bene themselves seem immensely proud of their new HQ. It is undoubtedly an intriguing contribution to the Viennese cityscape and the company took a calculated risk in moving to such a celebrated area. With the spotlight upon them any misjudgments would have been greatly magnified. Thankfully for both practice and client the result is a strong, but not overpowering, contribution to Vienna’s architectural mix.