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08 Jan 2008

Architect Jürgen Mayer is making waves internationally and in his native Germany, and his latest office project, ADA 1, is an arresting new addition to the city of Hamburg inspired by the maritime location


In Hamburg’s conservative inner-city lake district, a distinctive office new build by Germany’s rising starchitect Jürgen Mayer, of Berlin-based practice Jürgen Mayer H, shows how the fusion of innovative office design with the surrounding landscape can boost a country’s design confidence. Rounded windows pop out of the facade, which Mayer describes as “eyes” overlooking the surrounding area and letting the charm of the city into the office. The shape of these windows echoes the maritime flair of the harbour city like waves and drops of water, each glass module flooding the inner corridors with natural light. “It sits there like a big ocean liner on its way out to sea,” says Mayer of his ADA 1 building, named after its address, An der Alster 1. Alster is Hamburg’s beautiful lake, whose shore houses celebrities from Jil Sander to Wolfgang Joop in traditional white stucco houses. The point at which the new building stands is where the rich Alster area meets St Georg, in the seedy, rundown Hauptbahnhof district, which is experiencing a wave of regeneration not least due to ADA 1. “The fact that it’s constructed on the crucial border between these two diverse areas may be one of the reasons why the new build fits into the context so well,” says Jan Prätzel, sales director at the KNSK advertising agency that moved in to ADA 1 last month and occupies three and a half of the building’s six storeys. “Even though the style is unmatched in Hamburg it somehow fits.”

Like the Gherkin’s presence on the London skyline, Hamburg feels it is entering a new era of architecture with this striking project. Germany’s leading news magazine Spiegel says Mayer has the “courage to break with convention” and the power to wake the nation’s architecture out of its recent lethargy. He certainly has the talent to create eye-catching buildings with a unique, almost flamboyant style. And while his shapes may suggest parallels to the fluidity of Zaha Hadid or the sculptural blocks of Rem Koolhaas, Mayer’s projects tend to revive a location rather than dominate it. ADA 1 is a perfect example of how a building has unified and upgraded an area while remaining true to its natural and urban environment.

I meet Mayer in his studio, an old West Berlin townhouse with high ceilings and white stucco walls. We sit on Konstantin Grcic’s Magis chairs, although he quickly passes me a cushion, saying how he loves the chairs but “they do get cold in winter”. He has a black Paul Smith scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and is dressed in the understated fashion typical of architects. The wall behind him is covered in prints of his extrovert designs, colliding with his personal air of Teutonic pragmatism. “ADA 1 is structured horizontally,” says Mayer, “aesthetically picking up on the city’s maritime identity. The characteristic protruding oval eyes are also found in the ventilation gutters and the green landscaping features outside the main building.” He modestly adds, “The project’s success is very much down to the property developer, Andreas Barke of Cogiton, who is from Hamburg and had high aspirations. For him it was all about consistency, from the exterior right down to the details of the interior.” The property developer didn’t stop there though. To achieve complete consistency he made a deal with the city council to take on the design of the public ground in front of the building to create a green park, which mirrors the building’s distinctive design elements.

The interior of ADA 1 is exclusively white and grey, lending it a certain sterility, but Prätzel assured me that with time KNSK will automatically add some colour. Despite being a creative ad agency, KNSK has split the floors into two-people offices rather than leaving it open plan, which adds to the contained atmosphere. On the other hand, cubicles are common in Germany and Mayer tells me that he has been witnessing a strong trend back to boxed offices. “Some companies like Pixel Park here in Berlin experimented with open plan, but like most firms they are currently shifting back to individual workspaces. It’s just better in terms of sound and concentration.” If ADA 1 is anything to go by, they certainly have the space to do so. The corridors seem empty in comparison to London offices, where we’re all squashed up like sardines. The lobby area is stylish with generous free space and a few Fritz Hansen chairs dotted around (the classic Swan in the lounge and Oxford in the meeting rooms) – all in white and grey of course. Tobias Grau’s Go XT lighting panels fit in with the clean interior, and the meeting room table is custom-made with one large continuous corian surface that cleverly incorporates a structural column, along the lines of “what you can’t hide you highlight”. The most prominent feature is the coffered concrete ceiling, which is cut in the same oval shape as the building’s external eyes. The consistent design motif aside, the ceiling functions as a cooling system, making air-conditioning obsolete. “The building has a double facade consisting of two glass layers,” explains Mayer. “In summer the windows can be left open to cool down the rooms and the heavy concrete mass of the ceiling absorbs the cool air and emits it during the day.” There is also a system similar to heated flooring in reverse, with water pipes in the ceiling that cool the rooms throughout the day.

It is no surprise that the property developer has already commissioned Mayer for two further Hamburg projects: another office new build, resembling a waterfall, in the Speicherstadt warehouse district and a charity project for deprived children.These commissions may place the architect, still a national newcomer at the age of 41, firmly on the map, but his practice has been on the nation’s radar ever since winning the Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2003 for the Stadthaus Scharnhauser Park in Ostfildern. Here his team demonstrated their ability to think outside the box by questioning the traditional use of a town hall in a digital age. The result is a mixed use public building with galleries, a library, a gym and music school combined, encouraging citizens to come to the new town hall to revive a feeling of community.“I generally find the multipurpose approach to certain workspaces very interesting – although it can be more difficult to find an investor in mixed-use than in retail or office,” says Mayer. “In the Stadthaus we pushed to break up the convention of mono-functional space and I think re-using a space in its ‘off-time’, turning it into an ‘on-time’ for another facility, makes perfect sense, especially in overcrowded urban areas. At the same time we have experienced territorial thinking, and security can be an issue. But with good planning and space management the overlapping of public and office space usage could hold potential for the future.”

After winning the prestigious van der Rohe award, a number of pioneering concept designs followed, including the science park Danfoss Universe in Denmark and the arresting Mensa Karlsruhe for the Karlsruhe University in Germany. Each project has a landmark value and it is Mayer’s ability to surprise that gives each building its particular energy. Germany is glad to finally have a high-ranking name in architecture again, although Mayer wouldn’t brand himself as a German architect: “Nowadays, we all study abroad and gain global influence – it’s impossible to stamp a national mark on a particular design.” Just this month the University of Toronto appointed Mayer as the Frank Gehry International Visiting Chair for 2008, making him the first European-based architect to hold the chair. “I’ll be popping over every two weeks for two days. But I’ve been teaching abroad for almost eight years now, mainly at Colombia. I’ve always felt it’s important to keep an ongoing dialogue with students about what architecture could be. It enables you to research and inquire in a way you simply can’t in the office.”

Even though the core of Mayer’s practice is architecture, his studio has always worked in an interdisciplinary fashion across art, installations and especially product design. Just recently Rolf Fehlbaum invited Mayer to participate in the Vitra Edition exhibition (running at London’s Design Museum from 13 Dec to 31 January), listing him among the likes of Frank Gehry, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, the Bouroullecs and more. Mayer’s Lo Glo is a seat made of piled-up disks that glow in the dark, highlighting where you sat. “The concept of active sitting and leaving your mark is particularly topical in our times of increased use of biometrics for security purposes,” he says. “There is no such thing as a naive or innocent surface – everything we touch could become an information carrier. So we played with this idea and used luminous paint for the Vitra stool so that when you get up from the chair it continues to glow until the next person comes to make their mark. It’s personalised, heat and time sensitive design.” Mayer has always been interested in the haptic experiences of materials. He experimented with thermo-sensitive surfaces as early as 2000, when he designed a bench for the Pixel Park office that highlights where you sit and the Heat Seat exhibited at San Franscisco’s MoMA in 2001.

So where is Mayer heading next? “I’d be interested in designing a skyscraper simply because there are many interesting aspects that come with height and its relationship to the city and the landscape beyond. I must say I’ve also found speculative office build very intriguing, although your options are always dependent on good, innovative property developers.” Finally Mayer talks me through the printouts of his recent projects on the wall, including competition entries that never made it or plans that were choked by bureaucracy like the Speicherstadt in Potsdam this year. He highlights projects where the design clearly outshone the brief, including a fabulous beach project for a Spanish island. “We will always push the boundaries to create something special – I’m not interested in designing something standard.” Jürgen Mayer H is quickly becoming a name associated with uncompromised and aspirational design. At this stage what sets Mayer’s style apart from the notorious ego-designers is that he isn’t out to shock, but aims to uplift without alienating the context. It’s a fine line, and at present he is still dependent on the mercy of investors to push for this kind of progressive design in Germany. It’s good to see that it was an office build that got the ball rolling. We can only hope that one fine day a wise UK investor will bring Jürgen Mayer H to our shores too.

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