A canteen by Jürgen Mayer H. brings truly thoughtful architecture to Germany's Universität Karlsruhe
Gisela Williams-Kramer -- Interior Design, 5/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
In Karlsruhe, Germany, all roads lead to the palace, a grand neoclassical structure built by the city's founder, Karl Wilhelm von Baden-Durlach, in the early 18th century—and rebuilt after the air raids of World War II. (Karlsruhe translates as Karl's peace.) Now the city has a second architectural focus, a Universität Karlsruhe cafeteria by J. Mayer H. Architects.
While both landmarks are painted a shade of pale yellow-green, that's where similarities end. Standing between a pair of very staid buildings—one red brick and the other painted peach—the futuristic/brutalist cafeteria is defined on all four sides by organically shaped vertical and diagonal supports and beams. Its roof slopes down from the front, facing the street, to the back, which opens to a soccer field and small park.
The 8,000-square-foot cafeteria's transitional situation dovetails with what Jürgen Mayer H. describes as the nonlinear creative process of his office. "With the city on one side and nature on the other, the architecture should blur distinctions," he explains. "It's something between a forest and a building."
This blurring of the natural and the man-made was achieved in a unique variety of ways. As one approaches from the front, one passes through a subtle layering of what Mayer H. calls porous screens: a row of trees, then the facade's columns. Behind them, enormous windows reflect their surroundings, making it difficult, at certain times of day, for passersby to look in.
Directly behind the windows are the café, to the left of the entry, and the dining hall, on the right. The two zones are actually opposite ends of the same long open space, distinguished only by their furniture. The café is a cluster of small square tables and stools; rows of long tables distinguish the dining hall. On both sides, the green of the tables and the yellow of the walls and floor make another obvious reference to nature. For more immediate contact with the outdoors, stairs go up to a mezzanine that offers access to a dining terrace facing the field.
Even the building materials play with the nature idea. While searching for a low-cost, durable translation of Mayer H.'s design, director Andre Santer developed an innovative sustainable material, a lightweight highly compressed wood with a polyurethane coating that's weather-resistant and self-cleaning—it requires no upkeep beyond a paint job every 30 years or so. The coating also produces a seamless appearance, so interior and exterior structural elements look like an organic whole.
J. Mayer H. Architects has plans to use this product again for a much-anticipated commission in Seville, Spain: The Metropol Parasol series of connected umbrellas shaped like giant mushrooms is slated for completion in the city's Plaza de la Encarnación in 2009. Both the Spanish and German projects exemplify Mayer H.'s focus on experimentation with materials and technology.
A large part of his philosophy is to create "activators." He thinks that design should "provoke, tease, and seduce people to become part of a public space in order to appropriate it as their own." And he achieves this in several ways. "Ambiguous scale," he continues, captures attention. "Sometimes things look too small or too big, which causes you to look twice."
In the case of the Karlsruhe cafeteria, the soaring front veranda has become a place for students to sit, wait for friends, or nap in the sun. "What I like about our projects is that they're strong enough to allow individual expression," he says. "Although we wouldn't necessarily want colored cutout flowers," he jokes, referring to the naive paper decorations that recently appeared in the windows. The truth, however, is that nothing—not a daisy chain, not a plate of schnitzel—could possibly detract from this standout building.