In his designs for Frankfurt’s Riverpark Tower, architect Ole Scheeren is addressing one of the big issues of the contemporary city: what do we do with the architecture that recent history has left us? There is a layer of legacy between the historic (the fabric which has been preserved and conserved and which all cities value as a marker of authenticity and rootedness) and the contemporary.
It constitutes a huge inventory of buildings designed for different demands — buildings that are often now in the wrong place or have the wrong use inscribed into their structures. One such is this typically corporate concrete tower from the 1970s on the banks of Frankfurt’s river Main.
Scheeren, a German-born architect whose work had mostly been in Asia, where towers are much more part of the language of living, looked at the building not as an eyesore but as a piece of pure potential. The smartness of his solution lies in looking for what this existing structure could offer that a more conventional new-build might not.
The answer lay in its massive, commercial-scale floor-plates. With its structural frame, rather oddly, at the corners (rather than being distributed more evenly) the building allows huge, uninterrupted windows. The architects have then slotted apartments like randomly left, half-open drawers into the existing structure. Scheeren calls them “panorama plates”.
Next, the top was chopped off and replaced by a pixelated penthouse structure, which reduces the blocky appearance of the tower, breaking it down a little on the skyline and reducing its impact on the edge of the city. The effect is slightly reminiscent of Scheeren’s breaking-down of massive structures into more manageable blocks, notably the Interlace in Singapore and the MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok. It is a motif adopted by others, including Herzog & de Meuron (56 Leonard in New York).
The design has allowed the developer, German Estate Group, to create a tower of a scale that might not have received permission had the building not already existed. From the city’s point of view, there was already a defunct structure here and the community accepted its bulk and presence; the new version, therefore, will not be considered intrusive or too large. Indeed, the fragmented volume of the new design appears to reduce the building’s physical presence.
Yet more than this, the project potentially solves the shocking and commonplace waste of demolishing and replacing huge structures. There is a tendency to reject the immediate past while looking nostalgically on a slightly more distant period — but it is, of course, a cycle.
If we could, as Scheeren has done, look for what is good, interesting and worth preserving in the often derided and overlooked architecture of the unfashionable, we might find opportunities for doing something genuinely different while maintaining the memories inscribed into the city skyline. There is no reason this building should not itself be radically remodelled in another 30 years. Concrete lasts.
Photographs: Büro Ole Scheeren; Dreamstime