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Oval Offices, Cologne, by Sauerbruch Hutton

Bespoke details and a colourful car park trump sustainability at Sauerbruch Hutton’s Cologne Oval Offices, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Jan Bitter

‘Whenever I see that building, it fills me with joy,’ says Caroline Wolf of Sauerbruch Hutton, referring to the GSW Headquarters in Berlin. Completed in 1999, this was Sauerbruch Hutton’s breakthrough project. It expands on many of the qualities of the practice’s smaller 1998 Photonic Centre in Berlin - in particular the refreshing use of colour, notably in the solar-control devices behind the curtain wall and the organic geometry of its plan.

It is not the components of this architecture that are unique, but the special touch which brings them together. Sauerbruch Hutton’s Oval Offices in Cologne, which were completed last April, convey a similar sense of joy.

The site for this speculative office development on the bank of the Rhine is sufficiently open to accommodate the amoeboid plan of its two blocks that sit like a pair of distorted Spangles.

Their geometry is sympathetic to the spatial qualities of the site’s soft landscape and helps them to negotiate their neighbours, a muscular 12-storey 1960s structure and smaller buildings to the west. It also enables each floor of the two blocks to split into two or three units, each with its own core, and it provides office spaces of varying depth.

Unlike Sauerbruch Hutton’s coterminus KfW Westarkade in Frankfurt, Oval Offices isn’t aggressively sustainable. Its fully glazed facade might even struggle to comply with the new thermal standards required by UK building regulations.

But the shallow-plan office zones and glazed corridors minimise artificial lighting requirements and the heating and cooling system taps into the Rhine as a natural energy source. The openable windows and exposed concrete soffits, which enhance environmental performance, would raise any British developer’s eyebrows.

Oval Offices feels effortlessly simple, taking sustainability and commercial logic in its stride and focusing on the expression of its architectural concept through its detailed design.

Although Sauerbruch Hutton had to increase the height of the development when two blocks were omitted as a result of a change of ownership, the massing and the proportions of the facades feel comfortable and generous. The controlled ranges of graded hues chosen for the pivoting external glass louvres distinguish the two blocks and establish formal clarity.

There’s something Scandinavian about the design and its old-school attention to bespoke detail. Softly tapering ceiling rafts point towards the windows and accommodate lighting, air conditioning, sprinklers and soundproofing. Toilet cubicles and back-coated glass lift lobby panels, with distinctive integrated typography, have all been lovingly detailed.

There’s a bespoke reception desk made of overlapping strata of Eternit board and vast curved sliding panels that enclose, or reveal, a kitchen area. ‘Although design-and-build procurements are sometimes discussed as an idea in Germany, usually the architect is still responsible for everything,’ says Wolf. Interestingly, she is highly critical of an internal wall with a vivid green paint finish specified by a tenant’s interior designer, and this reinforces the interpretation that Sauerbruch Hutton’s work runs deeper than its perceived trademarks.

It would be possible to criticise Oval Offices for prioritising sensual and haptic design qualities at the expense of environmental performance, especially as one stands in its ample basement car park and admires its finned concrete columns, decorated with a distinctively vivid colour scheme. But then it is the most beautiful car park I’ve ever seen.

Credits

Start on site April 2008
Completion April 2010
Gross internal floor area 43,000m²
Form of procurement Competition won in 1999
Total cost £67 million
Client DKV represented by MEAG Munich Ergo Asset Management
Architect Sauerbruch Hutton
Structural engineer Agne-Wahlen-Daubenbüchel
Quantity surveyor Drees & Sommer
Energy consultant Transsolar Energietechnik
Landscape architect Weidinger Landschaftsarchitekten
Acoustic consultant Müller BBM
CDM co-ordinator Sauerbruch Hutton
Approved building inspector Stadt Köln
Estimated primary energy consumption 105kWh/m² per year
Average U-value for windows 1.42W/m2K
Airtightness at 50 Pa 0.2m3/hm²

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