Sauerbruch Hutton's Photonics Centre, on a former aeronautical research site in Adlershof, Berlin, comprises two amoeba-shaped buildings whose scale, magical colours and eerie lighting conjure up a strange, dreamlike atmosphere
For an example of a landscape where function reigns supreme, you couldn't do much better than Adlershof. Built alongside a disused airfield near the south-east edge of former East Berlin, this vast territory was a centre for aeronautical research before the war. Wind tunnels and vacuum chambers co-exist with aeroplane hangars. Not designed for human occupation, these structures exist at a no-scale, without the comforting reference points of windows or conventional doors - a giant dreamscape in which people wander round like Lilliputians.
The federal agency Wista is currently transforming the site into Berlin's City of Science and Technology. As the area becomes more densely populated, aeroplane hangars are being converted for human occupation, and a new scale of architecture is being built. The Photonics Centre, a base for research into optics, optoelectronics and laser technology, is one of the first of these establishments to be built. The commission was won in competition in 1995 by Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton, with a scheme for a family of four amoeba-like structures, each containing laboratories, offices, production facilities and workshops.
In the event, two of the buildings were designed by Vienna-based practice Ortner and Ortner, which obligingly produced low-key rectilinear blocks which enhance rather than detract from Sauerbruch Hutton's scheme. The smaller of the Sauerbruch Hutton blobs is a steel-framed column-free hall with 7.5m headroom (to accommodate serious machinery) which can be let as a single unit or divided into two. It is linked by an underground tunnel to the main three-storey building, which is subdivided into independent units. The shapes of Sauerbruch Hutton's two unbuilt buildings have been immortalised in amoeba-shaped benches in the surrounding landscape which are miniature replicas of their forms. These benches are plain white, rather ghostly echoes of the buildings which might have been, in contrast to the blaze of colour of the two buildings which have actually been built.
Their strange, irregular outlines seem peculiarly appropriate in an environment which is littered with the extraordinary shapes. The peculiar concrete structures which once served obscure scientific purposes are to remain, standing unused as sculptural relics of a bygone age. The nearby airfield still reads as a partial hexagon, the shape it had to be to ensure that aeroplanes could always take off against the prevailing wind. As an experiment, a network of possible paths and roads has been mapped out with a lawn- mower, and, completing the surreal effect, sheep graze the irregular islands of long grass which have been left in between.
The centre's immediate surroundings are more conventional and, despite its exuberant appearance, its amoeba-like shape is in some ways less obtrusive than a conventional block, reading as an alien intruder in the existing courtyard rather than eradicating it all together. The meandering outline of the buildings breaks down the mass of the building, and establishes a comfortable relationship with the random pattern of the surrounding trees. The contours of the building appear to have been determined by intuition, a refreshing contrast to the stark rational lines generally associated with scientific endeavour: both buildings are being let to fledgling scientific firms.
At first glance both appear to be constructed of different-coloured glass. A moment's contemplation reveals that the colour belongs to blinds behind clear glass, a simple trick used to dramatic effect. Part of the initial confusion arises from the fact that colour seems to be impregnated into the building, rather than applied to it, which, in a way, it is. In the larger of the buildings, the coloured blinds occupy a threshold space between the two layers of a double-skinned glazed wall. Prefabricated concrete paired columns which support the perimeter wall are painted with mineral pigments which literally fuse with the concrete, becoming part of it, as opposed to an additional layer.
Each blind is electronically operated by the inhabitant of that particular part of the building so that the composition is in a state of constant flux. Inspired by the research into light which is carried out in the building, the colours are loosely arranged in a journey through the spectrum, with a pragmatic nod to the surroundings - yellows and greens are on the side of the building which is bordered by trees. It is easy to believe - but difficult to prove - that this magical palette of colours will inspire the occupants to yet higher levels of intellectual enlightenment but, in any case, working in these unusually jolly buildings will surely make long hours of work much easier to bear. Psychological effects aside, the louvred blinds fulfil the crucial function of protection from overheating and glare.
A great deal of attention has been paid to physical comfort. The larger building has a single-glazed outer wall and a double-glazed inner wall, creating a 700mm cavity which in winter acts as a thermal buffer zone, and in summer becomes a solar chimney, helping to ventilate the offices. Full-height paired concrete columns divide this perimeter wall into alternating zones of fresh and exhaust air. Fresh air enters at each of the three storeys through a simple opening in the outer layer, while a sash window on the inner layer allows the occupier to control ventilation. Warm exhaust air escapes at the top of this window back into the cavity, where it is drawn through holes in the double columns to louvres in the external skin at the topmost edge of the building, from where it escapes into the open air.
Inside the building, services rise in shafts along a central spine corridor, and are distributed horizontally within prefabricated concrete U-shaped beams which are part of the floor/ceiling slabs. Services are continuously accessible at both floor and ceiling so that any point in the building can be independently serviced at any one time, and service-riser cabinets are positioned so that they can be maintained and replaced from the corridor without disturbing the labs. Lettable units are set at right angles to this central spine corridor. Their widths are determined by the 7.2m structural module, but they vary in length depending on the meanderings of the perimeter wall.
This basic layout is punctuated with 'events': irregular-shaped staircases set against zig-zag outer walls; the optical-fibre spinning machine, which sits in one of the stairwells, and takes the form of a tower so tall that it pokes through the roof; the towering entrance hall with 16m-high in- situ concrete columns dappled with the unearthly hues of sunlight dancing through multi-coloured blinds. The hall doubles as spillover space for the adjacent bar which, with its suspended timber ceiling, lacks the dramatic austerity of the other spaces, but looks set to become its hub, and is as close to cosy as this building gets.
Plans of the Photonics Centre suggest a more formal 'heart' - the central atrium criss-crossed by stairs. The atrium was something of an afterthought on the client's part, and is not as thoroughly integrated into the plan as it might otherwise have been. The original brief called for large daylight- free laboratories and a low proportion of circulation space, and a single corridor with deep-plan laboratories either side seemed ideal. But a late decision to allow for smaller naturally-lit spaces in the heart of the building prompted the decision to include an atrium. In the process, service risers which had been positioned along the corridor were simply relocated further towards the edges of the building, somewhat marring the purity of the lab space layout.
But, in fairness, this awkwardness is only visible on plan, and the atrium itself has been approached with typical aplomb. Openings in the thick concrete floors are an irregular, roughly circular shape, rotated and repeated at every floor, ingeniously creating a volume with shifting boundaries, with a construction process with all the advantages of using repetitive shapes. It is more cavernous and more mysterious than the building's other common parts, but shares some of their fundamental qualities. All are dreamland spaces: larger than life, magically coloured, and eerily lit: this may be a workplace for people, but it captures all the surreal drama of a landscape devoted to science.
Sauerbruch Hutton Architects: Matthias Sauerbruch, Louisa Hutton, Klaus de Winder, Holger Frielingsdorf, Jitse van den Berg, Annikka Meier, Amir Rothkegel, Camilla Wilkinson
Fraunhofer Management Munchen/Berlin with Bauplanung Stoessel Munchen/Berlin
QUANTITIES AND SITE SUPERVISION
Harms & Partner Berlin/Hannover, Carsten Timm with Horst Kirchlechner and Gabriele Schmidt
Krebs & Kiefer Ingenieure, Darmstadt/Berlin
Zibell, Willner & Partner, Berlin/Koln
Dipl. Ing. Michael Lange, Berlin/Hannover
Buro Schrickel, Berlin
Hosser, Hass & Partner, Berlin
£17.3 million approx
10,990m2 gross, 6500m2 net
START ON SITE
SUBCONTRACTORS & SUPPLIERS
main structure C Baresel, Stuttgart, precast concrete elements Wochner, Knautnaundorf, steel construction Willy Johannes Stahlbau Hemslingen, facades Radeburger Fensterbau, colour application R Vogeler, Koln, mineral paint supplier Keim Farben, Diedorf, roofing AIT, screeds Schuh + Co, Berlin, sanitary partition walls Stammberger, Berlin, doors DMW Schwarze, Bielefeld, lifts Bottcher & Co, Aufzuge, Berlin, gantries Sudstah, Mertingen, mechanical ventilation & air conditioning, building management system Kieback & Peter, Berlin, sprinklers Total Walther, heating M Niersberger, Erlangen, data & telephone ELITA, Potsdam, sanitary equipment Bitzer, Niedergurig, cooling plant ROM, Berlin