One faith, many references... the offices of one of Germany’s biggest Catholic dioceses have a new home that is eclectic enough to fit their context
On entering, the first thing you notice is that the German town of Rottenburg’s cathedral isn’t symmetrical. It’s not very big either, but it’s the asymmetry that hits you first, a quirk of the town’s growth. From the base of its 13th century stone tower first came a Lady Chapel, followed by the town’s market square, but by 1644, when they got around to building the actual church of St Martin, the alignment of the market place in front made extending the nave along the tower’s axis impossible, so they merely built it further to its south. None of this would have had any historical bearing were it not for the fact that in 1828, with a protestant king ensconced in the regional capital of Stuttgart, a Jesuit college in the town and a theological faculty about to be set up at the nearby University of Tübingen, the catholic diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart found itself politically plumping for this humble and off-kilter church as its new Cathedral. The decision wasn’t popular – even its first Bishop wanted it demolished, but later plans for a grand new edifice were never carried out. No surprise that it’s famous for being the smallest cathedral in the country.
Unlike St Martin’s, German architectural practice Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei has no such problems with symmetry, seeming to have embraced it with almost religious zeal in its latest building for the Diocesan Curia, which has just opened in the town. Commissioned to allow the church’s dispersed regional administrative functions to be brought together, it also connects existing period buildings on the site to each other. The firm is at ease working with existing conditions. Similar formal and material games to those displayed here can be seen in its Ravensburg Art Gallery (PIP June/July 2013), whose high performance Passivhaus body is cleverly shrouded in an ancient brick cloak.
LRO is itself interesting. A Stuttgart firm founded in 1982 by Professor Arno Lederer, all its partners went to the city’s university. Considering that Marc Oei’s father is Chinese Indonesian and Jórunn Ragnarsdóttir was born in Finland, you might have expected the practice to have a rather more international outlook; but one small house in Reykjavik aside, all its output is concentrated in south west Germany. Some might view this as provincial and unambitious, but it means that over the last 30 years the firm has quietly and happily developed its own style, with one eye on architectural influences and the other on the presence of a strong and increasingly familiar local vernacular. It also seems to have generated in their work a contradictory sense of honed naivety that’s both confounding and refreshing in equal measure.
In this regard, the €35m, 12,000m2 diocesan offices at Rottenburg are pretty much a text book example of the firm’s thought processes and work. Oei explains that its strangely eclectic mix of modernist and classic language is partly due to the context and to the project’s 11 year gestation period, adding sagely that ‘sometimes it’s not good to think about things for too long.’ By ‘too long,’ I take it he means not more than a century, as Oei says the firm’s heroes are the likes of Corb, Jacobsen and Aalto. The last perhaps more than the other two – one of Lederer’s mentors was Swiss architect Ernst Gisel and, Oei recalls, he did a stint working for the Finn. Certainly, the Aalto-like curves that Gisel adopted for his 1990 Jewish Museum in Frankfurt are echoed here by his understudy for the entrance elevation.
This is the public face of a 100m long, four storey high row of private stacked office cells that run behind the hall, along the line of the town’s now-lost Roman wall. Placed centrally relative to this, the combined building is a model of symmetry, a body with lanky arms stretched out in a rood embrace, linking the two other 17th century buildings on the complex. The other new and highly visible component is the wall that runs east from the entrance elevation and down the hill of Obere Gasse. Behind this at ground level sits the diocesan archive reading room, above two other levels of subterranean archive storage; making a picturesque planted courtyard of what was formerly a car park.
Catholics in the diocese
office buildings formerly occupied
area of existing buildings refurbished on site
new build offices
plug-in lights making up the bespoke old entrance hall light fixture
Oei explains that entrance hall position was predicated on the site of the Old St Joseph’s church, which was burned out and demolished at the end of the 18th century. A baroque plan of four semi-circular side chapels and a bigger curved chancel, its absence left a mark on the complex; and it was one that LRO was keen to fill. The choice of brickwork for the hall and wall is an interesting one. Oei says the more formal, civic architecture of the town tends to be distinguished by different materials; it is of no object to him here that the existing buildings there are all white-rendered.
The highly distinctive facade of eccentric curves used both for the roof profile and the triangulated arches of the entrance, Oei adds, are ‘ghosts’ of the curves of that original baroque plan, and a broad reference to the west elevations of traditional churches; but it creates a novel elevation of obscure provenance. Above the entrance doors strange protruding glass boxes denote the conference rooms area. ‘You don’t need big windows for these spaces but special ones,’ says Oei. ‘There are mirrors on the wall reveals that create a strange effect.’ He doesn’t explain further but I want to see the trick.
In the small courtyard to the west of the hall the true eclectic nature of the design begins to manifest itself, with a whole number of architectural styles evident. Here we’ll see a 17th century elevation, a curved modernist stair meeting contemporary punched brick windows and an office corridor elevation that blends floor to ceiling punched openings with upper level Oxenaugenfenster, ‘cow’s eyes’ – elliptical windows effectively constituting a form of classical entablature. This whole concrete elevation is coated in a thick, prickly, overblown artex-like white render. Meanwhile, the north elevation is devoted to marking the office ‘cells’ with individual angled windows that repeat unrelentingly from one end to the other, save for an arced window in the centre and the JJP Oud-like stair towers at the ends. As you move around the exterior, it turns out references are alternately classical, modern and post-modern, depending where you choose to rest your eyes.
But whatever’s going on outside, nothing prepares you for the hall’s interior, which seems to sublimate all three simultaneously. Above a floor of red marble planks, three banks of six white painted concrete semicircular balconies project into the hall space, beneath round rooflights. On seeing them you might think anything from Johnson Wax to Philip Johnson – the geometry, although suggested elsewhere on the exterior, surprises; a child-like evocation of clouds parting. Again, Oei has little to say of this ‘instinctive’ response short of the notion that it is a reversal of the old baroque church’s side altars, eating into the void rather than carving out space for it. The office areas that the hall feeds, as requested by the client, are ‘cells’ that, despite the views, have a sombre monastic quality that will appeal to lovers of St Jerome, and the access staircases at the far ends are a definite tilt to modernism; but you keep coming back to the counter-point of the hall, where this dreamy po-mo gesture keeps holding your attention.
The pure eclecticism on show here, the juxtaposition of influences and narratives and their almost casual pulling together to generate form is not something, if I’m honest, I’d normally recommend. But LRO, nestled in its corner of southern Germany, seems to have been ferreting away at the technique for years and seems wholly comfortable with expressing it. Oei says they have always been relaxed about their precedents, picking things from the past and ‘reinterpreting them’, always resistant to the idea of architectural dogma. They also feel unencumbered with the responsibility of having to ‘do something new’. Oei calling the work of the practice ‘conservative’, although he admits that his partners probably wouldn’t agree with the statement.
On balance, I think that I would – but even if it is conservative, it is design thinking being applied with nuance and humour. LRO is no game changer, but is proving itself a skilled post modern practice in the best sense of the word. A review of Arno Lederer’s mentor Ernst Gisel in the Süddeutschen Zeitung once said of him that he’d ‘managed to be an innovator without being polemical, modern without resort to mere style.’ The comment seems to sum up where LRO is coming from. As the Father, so the Son...
Client Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart & Bishopric of Rottenburg
Architect Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei
Project manager WPM Projekt-management
Structural engineer Breinlinger Ingenieure
Building engineer Ingenieurbüro Grammer
Archive engineer Eckert Planungs-gesellschaft
Fire consultant Ingenieur Riesener
Building physics Bayer Bauphysik Ingenieurgesellschaft
Health and safety consultant Ingenieur-büro Thomas Ille
Surveyor Ingenieurbüro Wellhäuser
Concrete structure (new build) Wolff and Müller Regionalbau (refurb) Gottlob Rommel
Brick facade (new build) Klinker Kuntz
Exterior rendering (new build) Reimund Lombacher
Prefabricated concrete Georg Reisch
Metal windows (new build) Firma Bacher
Timber windows (new build) Fensterbau Schillinger (refurb) Fensterbau Schmid
Facade (refurb) Anton Gieselhart
Roofing contractor (new build) H Fritz
Stone floor Fa Lauster Stenbau
Linoleum floor Die Wohnidee Stolz