On the Ruhr

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Melbourne University alumnus Peter Wilson and his German partner Julia Bolles run one of Europe’s leading practices. Here’s how their Münster office handled stifling budgets for two post-industrial buildings at the Castrop-Rauxel Business Park.

Photography by Christian Richters. Report by Claudia Gliemann.


Looking north-west from the car park to the angled entrance facades of the Dieze Erin Educational Building, with its louvre-draped conference centre at right.

Smoking chimneys, black clouds, haze, coaldust, gasometers and pit heads: this, until recently, was the image of Germany’s Ruhr region, between the Ruhr, Lippe and Wupper Rivers, and one of Europe’s largest industrial areas. Now the Ruhr is in transition: grey is becoming green.
Steel and coal are being replaced by culture, high-tech commercial production and leisure. In post-industrial politics, regions compete to attract new and relocating firms. Our case is Castrop-Rauxel, a city in the north of the Ruhr: a city which grew, like many others, around its colliery tower and shaft rather than a town hall and shops, and is held together by a network of tracks and streets.
Coal was mined here after 1866, when the Irishman William Thomas Mulvany opened his ‘Erin’ shaft. Following the economic boom of German reconstruction came the coal crisis and the pit closed in 1983. The consequences: massive unemployment, erasure of all industrial structures, and a need for topsoil to travel to Holland for detoxification. However, the pit tower stayed and it is today the centrepiece of a new landscape and business park, with the motto ‘Erin: working in the park’. This development overlaps the urban and rural contexts.
Münster-based architects Bolles + Wilson have built two buildings in this industrial park: a service centre (Dieze) for the Hagen Open University, including a business and technical retraining centre for unemployed women, and a second investor-financed building, housing medical services for ex-miners. These were pioneer objects in the new park. Placed between a footbridge connecting to the city and two streets, they act as both autonomous landscape objects and framers of particular spaces.
The plan of Dieze spreads in different directions from a rectangular central anchoring core. The larger arm has seminar rooms and, above, the administrative offices and library of both occupants. On the other arm, a foreign body has landed. It is a metal clad conference room – dividable internally and opening at both ends to windows; one stretched vertically and the other horizontally. Above this space, a curved ceiling hangs like a heavy sky. Only one object, a sculptural screen masking a chair store and technical cabin, interrupts the spatial continuity. This constellation of framed but disconnected sculptural object recurs throughout.
The building is constructed in reinforced concrete with a hung skin of black and white brickwork, with secondary elements in glass bricks or corrugated aluminium oscillating between vertical and horizontal. The cladding – through its three dimensional checkerboard-like rotations – disengages itself from that which is clad. This system is regularly interrupted by yellow colour fields of an almost sunshine, almost poisonous tone. Windows are scattered with varying formats, autonomous incidents like the ‘F’ window. F might stand for frauen (women), or fenster (window), or fernuni (open university). A sort of text minimalism without the necessity of legibility. According to Peter Wilson, this is no longer an option for architecture. Readability implies a common language, as was the case with classicism. The consequence is a linguistic reduction. The inscribed F takes on an iconic status, prescribing a singular self-focusing location. There is no reference here to the complexities of an ungraspable elsewhere – simply the thing itself in its blunt simplicity. It is a rejection of informative or referential content; an unloading and a strengthening through reduction.
The facade as independent enclosure is particularly apparent in the entrance hall. Here one finds again a contained sculptural object breaking the regular intervals of flooring with a box bridge and gallery. From here, alternative routes open up through the building; creating a spatial choreography.

Coalminers Medical Centre Ground Floor PlanCoalminers Plan, Levels 1 and 2

Coalminers Medical Centre Elevation
 



Bolles + Wilson use perspective geometry not as a system that anchors the viewer at one privileged viewing point, but as orchestrated movement within the cone of vision. Traversing such a space is to experience the building unfolding. New perspectives open, others close. Oversized Helvetica texts – sober yet playful – orientate occupants. Colours throughout are restricted to white, grey, black and yellow.
Only in the entrance and stairwell are the floors enhanced by green terrazzo, which sometimes extends from ground plane to wall; a slippage from horizontal to vertical. Such borders are regularly transgressed. Corners repeatedly fold in or out to reveal new sight lines and views, sometimes clear through the building. One experiences these exposed interiors from the arrival bridge, from the street and from the triangular entrance square. Direction changes imply a built dynamic: a necessary dynamic for the new Erin Park, here reiterated in the architecture.
The second Bolles + Wilson building has a reduced dynamic, a consequence of an investor client and an absurdly low budget. The building contains offices and medical rooms for ex-coalminers’ medical services. It is a three-storey box with an extended ground floor. The plaster skin is white on one facade and sienna on the other. The building number 4 is building high. There is only one window type alternating from horizontal to vertical, a pattern that runs unbroken around the entire building. With this unrelenting system Bolles + Wilson resolve the infamous dispute between Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier. Perret insisted on the vertical French window, human proportion, sky-earth connection, while Le Corbusier insisted on horizontal, non-load bearing walls, as a landscape proportion, alluding to an infinite horizon. Bolles + Wilson opt for both – vertical and horizontal – occupant and landscape. A viable, non-partisan alternative if one manages the synthesis.
The two Bolles + Wilson buildings have a few lonely companions in the as yet only partly colonised park. Erin nevertheless signals a new beginning for Castrop-Rauxel: new land, new enterprises. In similar cities, industrial heritage serves as a backdrop for galleries, museums and studios, but here it is intentionally absent. An awareness that culture and business serve a different clientele to steel and coal has lead to an investment in retraining and a focusing on attracting small and middle-sized firms. New working models, new architecture forms. Architecture here is not just to do with specific function; it must also serve as sign and stimulus for the Erin Park and the region as a whole.
The architecture of Bolles + Wilson gives scale and direction to the Erin Park and its future development. They have placed here objects which appear to have arrived by chance. Casual, relaxed but still precisely placed. Objects framing external space without becoming dogmatic, allowing free space without resorting to the arbitrary. Bolles + Wilson do here make use of strict blocks but without resorting – despite the small budget – to gridded boredom or off-the-shelf facades. The quality of their architecture is that of the concrete object, with mass and place specifically present. In this way, they resist the contemporary tendency for architecture to imitate the characteristics of electronic media. Although all architecture ultimately does have mediatic functions, questioned here is the access procedure. Suggested here also is the premise that a physical building may in fact be something quite other than fleeting images and unapproachable, ultimately ungraspable, dimensions of information.
Claudia Gliemann is a Berlin architect who is researching a Ph.D on Dan Graham and Peter Eisenmann at the Gesamthoschule in Kassel. Her article has been translated from German

Above Cantilevered conference facility attached to the Dieze educational centre.


Dieze Erin Educational Building and Coalminers Medical Centre, Germany
Architect Architekturbüro Bolles-Wilson – directors Peter Wilson, Julia Bolles; project assistants Andreas Kimmel, Jürgen Zils. Engineers Motel + Schlicht, Ingenieurbüro Werning + Dr Schmickler. Facade Planner Ingenierbüro Wiethoff. Developer B + P Projektregie.

Below Looking north along the entry facade of the educational centre.


Below Looking north across the plaza behind the Dieze Erin Educational Centre to the footbridge linking the business park to the city centre. At left is an existing electricity supply building.





Top Looking north-west to the rear facade of the Coalminers Medical Centre. Right South-west (rear) corner of the Coalminers centre. Above Looking south-east to the entry facade of the Coalminers Medical Centre, across the carpark between this building and the Dieze Educational Centre.

Top Dieze conference room. Centre and bottom left Reverse views of the Dieze entrance foyer and first floor gallery. Bottom right Dieze staircase to the gallery.

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Published online: 1 May 2000

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Architecture Australia, May 2000

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