Windows with mirror linings, triangle forms and portholes bring a quirky flavour to a traditional plan on a new building for a historic church site
It’s ironic that Stuttgart’s gothic Hospitalkirche was one of the bigger casualties in the wartime bombing of the industrial city’s centre. The 15th century church, hall, cloister and hospital, built by the Dominican Order was, post-reformation, promoted to the one of the city’s premier places of worship with the addition of a handsome clock tower in the 17th century. Most of the structure however came crashing down in 1944, leaving the only the apse, a wall of the nave and half the belfry intact. West Germany had little appetite for reconstruction, so former Third Reich architect Rudolf Lempp made poor amends to the Hospitalhof site, patching up what remained in a bizarre secular vernacular style and clearing away the cloister ruins. A future-looking 60s modernist block was built on the site as the protestant church’s administrative centre, which served it well until now.
With the Hospitalhof looking to further develop an outreach programme of cultural events for the city, the need for a dedicated gathering space for its quarterly synods and a desire to centralise all its offices, local firm Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei won a competition to radically alter the site – a strategy that almost counter-intuitively looked to reinstate its former plan. But expect little by way of pastiche from this die-hard modernist practice, whose intriguing Rottenburg diocesan HQ was recently completed for its Catholic client (RIBAJ October 2013). While it was similarly intent here on using local materials to clad its concrete-framed structure, the demands of a dense programme meant that for LRO, like the aspirational master masons earlier, the only way was up.
LRO’s adoption of the medieval plan restored an angular twist to the block, at odds with those around it, instantly registered on the ground and wholly driven by the position of the church as the site’s original driver. Its historical extrapolation works not just in plan but elevation too, as the whole south nave wall has been in effect reconstructed to bring it back to its original length. At its western end it goes on to form the end wall of what is a four/five storey mix of synod meeting hall, gallery space, large seminar rooms and admin offices, as well as the Hospitalkirche church itself.
LRO was keen to reclaim the social heart that constituted the medieval cloister, so the sand-struck brick-faced building, whose general massing, looking south, is not dissimilar to Corbusier’s La Tourette, has been deliberately turned inwards. Here, looking onto its 670m2 courtyard, the architect has given over the whole of the ground floor to public reception and cultural uses. Wrapping around it are generous, high-ceilinged gallery spaces looking on to it via large, timber-frame doors that, when open, dissolve the boundary between inside and out. Beyond this, to the outer edges of the plan, seminar, meeting spaces and café meet the streets around. On the west elevation strangely compelling triangular wooden windows framed in concrete form part of the rusticated base of the new complex. Subconsciously calling to mind the Holy Trinity and the triangle of space in plan, newly revealed by the shift of the building on its block, it’s the kind of layered formal play that we’re getting pleasantly used to seeing from the firm.
In fact, LRO’s curious use of window forms is exemplified all over the facade. Abutting the south-east nave wall, it was reconstructed by LRO to its original boundary, but abstracted it slightly by painting it ghostly white. Its glazed ‘gothic’ openings are downplayed, with thin timber sections set within an aluminium frame, allowing the old blown-out stone arches to maintain visual supremacy in the elevational composition. Both looking in to the courtyard and out to the street, all the office floors are announced with simple narrow, tall openings separated by a brick’s width, the effect gained purely by repetition. Aluminium composite windows are set in deep reveals, all of which tilt back to open for comfort cooling and night purging of the narrow, naturally ventilated office spaces. This was an intrinsic part of the building’s services strategy, with only the main hall, which holds up to 800 delegates, being air-conditioned. The strategy also results in the curious detail of white-painted thin steel architraves above each window, protruding from the facade. The architect claims it’s merely there to allow windows to be opened even when it’s raining, but they seem like a cross between John Hejduk’s Kreuzberg Tower and the Farnese Palace – certainly the folded ‘scrolled’ projecting nature generates deep shadows on an otherwise flat facade.
At the rear, which faces the blank wall of the neighbouring site, 36 glazed concrete portholes at first floor level announce the presence of the synod space behind it. To combat heat gain from the long, low west light, their concrete housings are pulled out on one side to shade the glazing. This unusual and deliberate animation of a rear facade seems strange, until the architect mentions the Hospitalhof’s sequestration as a WWII Gestapo HQ, and that this side would have overlooked one of the infamous rounding-up points for those destined for labour or concentration camps. Soon to be marked with a small sculpture in a ‘lest we forget’ gesture, the architecture also seems to be keeping watchful eyes on past horrors.
Further round on the north-east side, this former site of fear has, at the hands of the architect, become one of welcome. Tall timber doors access the café area which in turn leads to the courtyard-facing gallery spaces. Above them, three projecting oriel windows give cover to the openings and provide nicely detailed timber seating for the break-out spaces of the synod meeting hall. The white steel boxes punched out of the east stair core (value engineered down from their original copper) serve to not only announce the main entrance, but to pull light into the staircase taking delegates up to the hall level. Their sides mirror-lined, these windows create illusory views as you ascend.
On entering the synod hall, the vibrant blossom pink linoleum hits you first. But it’s the galleried volume, with an Aalto-like, boldly curved ceiling, and the podium wall that leave the impression. Formed of birch slats, they hide the huge transfer beam spanning the space and the high level services, and allow in a diffuse light from the glazed opening above. They also perform an acoustic role, ensuring the space has a reverberation time of less than 1.5 seconds.
In the hall you see the internal face of the portholes – three rows of birchwood folding ‘butterfly’ baffles. Opening and closing manually in vertical sets of three, these can blast the room with light, or reduce it to the merest umbra across the birch wall. Economically realised, the detail somehow ennobles the space, lending this face a sense of occasion. Directly opposite, timber glazed doors open onto a wide balcony, and from here, it is clear this is the new heart of the Hospitalhof. A centralised view overlooks the courtyard’s rose garden and its newly planted trees, placed where the nave columns of the old church would once have been.
The remodelling of the old chapel with a glass wall to open out to the square is, funding permitted, still a way off, but this should not bother LRO. For a seriously low budget of €25million, the firm has not only realised a building that serves the religious and cultural needs of its users well; but, once the lock comes off the old gate, will have returned a place of dignity and contemplation to a city that since its wartime bombing, has been driven by the needs of vehicles rather than residents. Public access is a matter for the synod to decide on, but one hopes that soon the one eccentric pensioner who daily snips herself off one of the courtyard’s fragrant roses will soon be sharing the space with a wider audience.