Gnädinger Architekten has put its stamp on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz with a futuristic cube for prosthetic limb developer Otto Bock
Since Berlin’s reunification, the development of Potsdamer Platz has attracted some of architecture’s biggest hitters. Pritzker-prize winner Renzo Piano, our own Richard Rogers and Helmut Jahn have all added their signature brushstrokes to the area’s rich canvas. Recently, local practice Gnädinger Architekten got in on the act, unveiling a healthcare and exhibition centre for prosthetic limb developer Otto Bock Healthcare.
Completed in June last year, the project was begun almost on a whim by Otto Bock kingpin Professor HG Näder. Eager to return the company to its birthplace in the capital, the multi-millionaire had been eying up a slice of land in the heart of the city, halfway between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate.
“He saw it as his last chance to buy a plot in such a fantastic area, but he did not really know what to do once he had bought the land,” explains Christoph Claus, Gnädinger’s lead architect on the building.
The architects were originally commissioned to design a small office, and the wheels were set in motion in 2006, but as time passed the plans evolved into something more ambitious. The small office grew steadily into a medical exhibition centre combining admin offices, consultation and exhibition space, conference rooms and a rooftop penthouse.
The project developed “very, very slowly” according to Claus, but this allowed the practice considerably more artistic freedom. Rather than referencing the surroundings, Gnädinger attempted to stamp its own mark on Potsdamer. And how. The building’s gleaming white aluminium facade is set against a backdrop of stone and glass, which only serves to enhance its impact.
It certainly doesn’t lack self-confidence, but as Claus points out, fitting in was not part of the plan. “We wanted to do something different, not because of the surrounding stone architecture, but due to the client. We wanted to find a language that corresponded with their domain.”
Otto Bock was founded in 1919, in response to the vast amount of disabled German soldiers returning from the battlefields of the first world war. Today, it remains at the forefront of prosthetic limb design.
Reflecting this specialism, Gnädinger worked with Berlin-based building envelope consultants Priedemann to design a series of aluminium panels cut to look like human muscles.
“When we first presented him with the scheme it was not that concise and we were a little nervous. The client was never really in touch with designers or architects,” says Claus. However, his enthusiastic reaction soon dispelled any jitters: “He saw the first model and was immediately fascinated. It was fantastic.”
“The building should look as clean as possible, reflecting the cleanliness of medical technology”
Suspended from concrete floors, the convex and concave shapes overlap each other while curving around the building’s glazed second layer. The flowing lines ingrain the building with a flat 2D feel, further emphasised by the protruding canopy over the main entrance. Architecturally, this was to prove the trickiest aspect of the exterior.
“The client wanted a very special entrance that attracted people to the building. He said, ‘I have disabled people coming here and they have to feel protected,’” explains Claus. “It could not look like a shop entrance. It had to be discreet and positive at the same time and we really learned as architects.”
Of course, aluminium is not renowned for its sustainability (any eco-warriors should look away now), so what about carbon emission targets?
“There were none at all, fortunately. Aluminium is not so eco-friendly, so we must admit that,” laughs Claus. In addition to being naturally ventilated, the building also needed to be fully air-conditioned. “He [the client] couldn’t really estimate or calculate the success of the building so it needed to have perfect climate conditions, whether it had a few people in it or was completely overcrowded.”
Site regulations prohibited anything higher than 22m and the client was keen that the building should include a penthouse/apartment on the top floor, recessed from the lower facade. Integrating these different spaces into a building that covered a miserly 1,300sq m over six floors was to be the main challenge facing Claus and his compadres.
With floor meterage at a premium, Gnädinger organised the interior space around a central core housing building services and stairwells. The open plan allows for maximum flexibility and varying room sizes as well as an abundance of natural light. The interior finish is predominantly white, a clinical look that the client had insisted on.
“He thought the building should look as clean as possible, representing the cleanliness of medical technology,” explains Claus.
But this raised concerns that the interior was too sterile. In response, Gnädinger wrapped the interior core in coloured glass panels and incorporated grey stone floors with silver carpets. On the top floor penthouse, wooden decking warms the space. The first three floors are given over to exhibition space with interactive simulations of the company’s most advanced products.
As you might expect with a building as contemporary as this, it features enough technology to make Bill Gates jealous. Far from just window dressing, the coloured walls of the central core double as interactive TV monitors beaming information to visitors and staff. A variety of administration offices and conference rooms are situated in the floors above.
Since opening in June 2009, the Otto Bock building has received thousands of visitors, with 200,000 predicted to turn up this year alone. Claus says the “dynamic cube” has become a real favourite with Berliners, but admits it has been less well received by the practice’s contemporaries. However, the building’s number one fan is undoubtedly the client. What began as a speculative land deal became a very personal project with Professor Näder insisting on seeing every little detail.
“Very often he sits in the cafe watching all the people photographing the building, and he is very proud,” says Claus.