Office space, visitor centre and sound barrier in one, Stuttgart practice Archimedialab’s new project is an underground hit
Fans of 1970s science fiction may remember the B-movie At the Earth’s Core in which a team of scientists led by Doug McClure (who else) devised a machine that tunnelled through the earth’s crust.
Stuttgart-based architecture and landscaping firm Archimedialab has created a building strangely reminiscent of this long-forgotten classic. Emerging from its surrounding landscape, the new administration building for the ZMS Schwandorf incinerator plant has the look of something that has burrowed its way from beneath the ground. Based on the site of a former aluminium smelting works, the project took four years to complete.
“It could have been a lot faster,” explains project architect Bernd Lederle. “We basically had two clients: 47 councilmen and mayors from all over Bavaria, who wanted it built; and the head of the incinerator plant who we dealt with, who didn’t. From the start of the project to its last day he made it clear he did not want this building here.”
Blimey. It’s little wonder Lederle estimates the project took a year longer than expected.
The brief was two-fold: construct a new administration for the incineration plant, and create a noise-protection barrier to shield the neighbouring town of Dachelhofen from the din of the plant. Archmedialab hit upon the logical solution to combine the two.
“The protection barrier to the north of the site had already been planned out by the client but they hadn’t built it,” Lederle explains. “What they expected, and in fact what most of the other architects did, was design a building that had the same look and feel of the power station.” But Archimedialab had more lofty ambitions than simply tacking something on to the side of the plant.
“It is very fashionable to build straight boxes at the moment, and initially we did not have a favourable reaction from the pure modernists”
For starters, building a plain earth wall turned out to be much more expensive than first thought. After some careful mathematics the practice realised that by incorporating the building into the earth wall they would free up enough cash to “do something interesting with the architecture.” Well, the building is undeniably that.
The 450m earth barrier conceals the vast majority of the office space, which is buried seven metres below the surface, while an auditorium and visitor centre coils round the power station in a kind of embrace. The crescent shape was not a mere architectural flourish, but was determined by the soundproofing requirements laid down by the client. This is not your typical admin den: the auditorium cantilevers 20m over the site, supported by two radial walls, its long glass facade leaning expectantly towards the plant opposite.
“The main advantage is that now we have a panoramic view of the whole compound and power station that people are able to reflect upon, rather than a building that is attached to the plant,” Lederle explains.
The construction of the noise protection barrier proved to be the toughest challenge of the project. Archimedialab had to create a 13m-high wall at an angle of 45 degrees, which was not only capable of supporting itself, but could also accommodate a building within it. The practice looked to bridge-building technology to tackle the problem, constructing the core of the earth wall from lightweight styrofoam geo-blocks, dramatically reducing the weight.
“It was also very important to us that people could not tell where the building started and finished,” says Lederle. “In order to do that, we had to raise sufficient cover so the location of the offices was not given away.”
Archimedialab concocted a mixture of earths, aggregate and a small amount (roughly two per cent) of cement to ensure the stability of the wall while still allowing vegetation to grow. It was a particularly fine balancing act: the mix had to be porous enough to prevent flooding, but also needed to retain enough water to allow plant growth. The disguise is a good one. Only the three aluminium conference rooms that punch through the barrier hint at the hive of activity hidden beneath the ground.
The building’s interior continues in a similar vein. A lightweight timber frame, comprising diagonally braced gluelam beams, ‘grows’ from the pre-stressed concrete structure and creeps across the roof of the auditorium, continually changing its shape to match the geometry of the building.
“It starts out very small and gets bigger and bigger. Even within each girder the radii of the beams changes three or four times because the complexity of the structure,” says Lederle. “The hardest part was finding someone who could build it. We tried three or four companies until we found one in southern Austria who took it on. The plant was fully automated and no human hand touched the wood until it was finished.”
This may make depressing reading for any bluff old traditionalists, but there is no such sentimentality from Lederle. “They were fabulous, really amazing,” he enthuses.
Referencing the industrial nature of the power station, some of the exposed concrete was left in its natural state. Archimedialab wanted to avoid creating a space that possessed all the warmth of an underground military bunker, so the remaining concrete was stained in garishly bright colours.
Elsewhere, coloured magnesia-bonded panels, normally used for insulation, veneer the walls and doors and absorb unwanted noise: “It was very important it didn’t sound like a train station,” Lederle explains.
Channel glass (so-called because it comes in large U-shaped panes) is used for internal walls, allowing light to penetrate far into the building. The building is heated and cooled by an integrated system powered by excess energy from the power plant. As Lederle points out, busting a gut to create a building that used minimal power would have been nonsensical when there was a surplus to be got rid of, and again, it is hard to argue with his logic.
Lederle is quietly proud of the project, which he describes as tough, challenging, but ultimately enjoyable.
“It’s very fashionable to build straight boxes at the moment and initially we did not have a favourable reaction from the pure modernists,” Lederle admits. “But the ones who have visited it say it is actually a great building.”