Schmucker und Partner's renovated Volksbank building in Mannheim, Germany, reasserts the value of thoughtful design
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 5/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Standing 11 feet 6 inches high and weighing a combined 770 pounds, the Volksbank's pair of steel entry doors are equipped with oak-accented pulls and studded with 690 polished steel rivets. Sound difficult to open? Well, think again. You simply touch a pressure-sensitive switch embedded in those door pulls, and a hydraulic mechanism ushers you into an environment entirely unprecedented in the financial annals of Mannheim, Germany. "I can tell you," confides architect Andreas Schmucker, "this isn't something most local German banks would let you do."
Not that Schmucker und Partner Planungsgesellschaft ignored the financial context. As befits a banking institution, gold plays an important role against the overall black-and-white backdrop—we're not talking ingots and bullion, however. Take the reception area, where Schmucker pressed euro coins into sheets of gold leaf and applied them to the back of five square niches.
Even more striking is the gold-painted spiral staircase that sweeps up to the second level. Made of 1/2-inch-thick steel, the slightly elliptical form was very difficult to build because of its size and weight, necessary to reduce vibrations. The effort was certainly worth it. A dramatic statement, it also serves a vital function: supplementing elevator access to the second-floor restaurant where the bank often holds functions for up to 150.
Uniting people—250 employees of three smaller banks that had recently merged—was the main goal of the project. The building ultimately chosen for this task boasted one distinct advantage, a location at the end of a main thoroughfare. Schmucker, nevertheless, saw an incontestable drawback: "It was really awful." A product of the early 1980's, the red-pigmented precast-concrete structure had tiny windows, for starters, as well as floor plans constructed around parallel double-loaded corridors. Not exactly conducive to the increased ' communication that Volksbank management had in mind.
"Before the move, most of the employees didn't know each other," Schmucker points out. To overcome that problem, he opted for open-plan office areas that span the full width of the building. Workstations, clustered in fours, are fitted with partitions no more than 41/2 feet in height, allowing for uninterrupted views.
To increase vertical openness, Schmucker designed a central atrium—topped with a steel-framed glazed roof—and adjacent double-height spaces facing the street. These break-out areas feature coffee bars meant, he says, for "internal meetings or simply chatting about the latest football game or the weather."
Structural work didn't stop there. Schmucker und Partner demolished the building's original top level and replaced it with a lightweight glass-enclosed structure for new sixth and seventh stories. Because setback requirements stipulated that the top story's footprint couldn't exceed two thirds the size of the one below, the architects ran a terrace along the front and back of level seven. The most noticeable exterior change involved the precast-concrete facade, which they replaced with local travertine banded by horizontal concrete inserts.
Inside, square footage totals 93,000, from the service counters on the ground level to management offices on seven. The steel staircase to the latter came in one piece—and had to be lifted in through the atrium before the glazed roof was installed.
Natural light now enters not only through the atrium but also through plentiful windows, enlarged by lowering sills to desktop height. Artificial illumination makes its most striking statement on the ground level. In the entry hall, steps of Scandinavian shale are flanked by a pair of 11-foot-high light boxes to whose glass surfaces Schmucker applied a translucent film that hides the ordinary strip lighting behind. "Strip lights last a very long time, and they're very cheap, but they don't look very nice," he explains. Set into the ceiling above the golden staircase, a circle of stretched PVC diffuses computer-controlled fluorescents in the Volksbank's signature blue and orange.
The bank also defines its identity through art—with Horst Hamann, photographer of the skyscraper book New York Vertical, one of the many local-born artists represented. Meanwhile, excerpts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust appear as cutouts in the translucent film backing the internal glass doors. (It's the famous "witch's one-times-one" passage.) Money men are not generally known for their artistic bent or literary-mindedness. Then again, they're not renowned for sweeping architectural statements either.