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An award-winning mixed-use project in Munich features 5 metre high LED lettering and an industrially-inspired design that reflects the site’s heritage. Jonathan Schuster, project leader at MVRDV, speaks to Jack Wooler

WERK12 is a mixed-use office, culture and entertainment complex in Germany’s third-largest city, designed by MVRDV with playful incorporation of references to comic strips and graffiti – in statement 5-metre tall letters across its facade.

The project, say the architects, “forms the nucleus” of the Werksviertel-Mitte district – an urban regeneration plan on a former industrial site. Close to Munich’s East Station, the 7,700 m2 building located in the Kultfabrik nightlife zone brings new restaurants, bars and offices, as well as a three-storey gym with a pool, to the area. This “legendary entertainment district,” in the words of MVRDV founding partner Jacob van Rijs, is on the site of a former potato factory, and has been transformed in recent decades.

Conceived in 2014 and completed in 2019, WERK12 celebrates the district’s lively nature while introducing “relevant and contemporary design,” as well as demonstrating an uncommon mixture of functionality and amusement, according to the architects. The latter is particularly found in the building’s expressive ‘art facade,’ featuring quirky expressions.

MVRDV’s client, OTEC GmbH, worked together with the architects – alongside another practice, Steidle Architekten – to develop the masterplan for the project. The building was in fact inspired by the iconic Dutch Pavilion Expo 2000 in Hanover, with some of this earlier design re-moulded and ported over to WERK12.

Since its opening, this eye-catching project has unsurprisingly received a large amount of attention. It was featured prominently in the German Architecture Yearbook 2021, as well as the being awarded what’s been called the “most prestigious architecture award in Germany,” the DAM Preis 2021.

Playful expressions
Viewing the exterior, WERK12’s design prides itself on simplicity, with a combination of “honest” materials and “transparent” facades. The facade – the most striking feature of the project – is animated by an “urban art piece” developed in tandem with local artists Christian Engelmann and Beate Engl. It comprises bold LED letter forms spelling out well-known expressions taken from the German version of Disney’s Donald Duck comics.

At night, the 5-metre tall lettering changes appearance through a programmed illumination allowing “simple geometries to morph into a vibrant light show,” say the architects. The colloquial nature of the expressions chosen for the lettering was a tribute to the city’s graffiti culture, as well as the extensive use of signage previously seen on the site.

Beyond the vibrant text, the glazed facade also displays some of the many ways users are able to circulate around the building. The design’s external circulation core is supplemented by 3.25 metre-wide terraces that surround each floor of the building, connected by external staircases that curl around the structure. The latter references one of MVRDV’s most famous early projects, the Dutch Pavilion at the Expo2000 in Hanover.

This public route up the building is intended to blur the distinction between interior and exterior, placing the interior spaces “in conversation” with exterior balconies. These are finished in the same material as the ground-level pavements, emphasising their status as part of the building’s public areas.

Heading inside, the programme across the five floors breaks down into restaurants and bars on the ground floor, the offices of Audi Business Innovations on the top floor, and a gym extending across the floors between. This includes a level housing a swimming pool overlooking the skyline of the historic city centre and mountain panorama on the other side.

WERK12’s floor-to-ceiling glass walls, combined with its location near to the train station, provide the upper levels with expansive views towards central Munich, punctuated here and there by the lettering sitting on the building’s terraces. Many of the words in fact take on a new meaning when read in reverse!

Inspiration
According to Jonathan Schuster, project leader at MVRDV, the client’s original vision for the scheme was to dismantle the practice’s Dutch Expo Pavillion in Hanover – itself now undergoing a conversion into a co-working office building – and reassemble it in Munich.

He tells ADF that, although the original pavilion was built to be demounted and reassembled as part of the 2000 World Expo, “various circumstances meant that it was not possible to simply bring it over.” So instead of bringing the pavilion structure itself to the site, the client brought the architects, to design a new version of the concept for Munich.

The site
“For me as a German, the Kultfabrik site is nationally well known, as well as Reeperbahn in Hamburg,” comments Schuster. He adds, on the subject of his first visit, “Arriving there and seeing the industrial past merging with the creative spirit of today you could already think that this would be the most important genesis of the project.”

He tells me on his first visit he was struck by the “traces of night culture, music and graffiti.” This lively mix was an important inspiration for the team, alongside the flexible industrial architecture locally.

The architect describes the Werksviertel district as presenting an inspiring contrast to the more “conservative, cosy Munich” on the other side of the station underpass; “a totally different world.”

The architect describes the architectural evolution of the area: “With each new building that is completed, a piece of its identity is created, which, at the latest with the concert hall, acquires its own downtown quality.”

“We were able to team up with the local architects from N-V-O and a great consultant team around Wolf+ and Teuber+Viel to create a new focal point for the new emerging district around the building.”

Flexibility focus
In terms of the new features of the project adapted by the designers for the site, the most important requirement from the client was that the building be flexible, so that it could be adapted to future uses with different layouts easily.

This flexibility was built into spaces across the levels. The building’s extra-high ceilings – with 5.5 metres between each floor – allows for mezzanines or other level changes to be added by future users. The placement of the circulation on the outside of the building means that the interiors can be easily reconfigured, while also providing structural stability through the use of the diagonal staircases.

“One of the main ideas was to create an adaptable building to allow different uses,” says Schuster. Designing for longevity was a key part of the project strategy – the clients eager to find a long-term, sustainable contribution to the district.

There were some challenges here, however, with it being clear to the designers that in order to be able to achieve that long-term flexibility, “you had to have a little more air in the building.”

According to the architect, the maximum volume was already outlined, so the team suggested taking out a floor and building five levels instead of six, with the possibility of adding a mezzanine.

“You then also have more light inside,” adds the project architect. This, together with the external circulation and suspended balconies, allows the client to “make the most of the most flexible floor plates possible.”

Early in the design process, the idea emerged to use this external circulation, plus the cascade staircase, to unify the project as a whole. “That is now a connection back to the pavilion,” says the architect. “The staircase then fits perfectly to the new surroundings and helps to create a kind of landmark.”

Challenges
Though there was much inspiration from a previously successful project, there were still some practical hurdles for the architects in implementing the designs.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Schuster, was the structural requirements posed by existing buildings on the site, chiefly a parking garage that defined the structural system with a maximum load the building could permit.

The “complexity of the structural analysis” was therefore increased by the two-storey underground structure which would remain under the building. This meant that “all load assumptions and load points that could be introduced were already determined before the first line was even drawn.”

Further complexity was then introduced by the fact that the architects were presented with an evolving set of uses as the project progressed: “Originally, office use was planned, then a fitness studio came in as an anchor tenant and with it a 25 x 8 metre swimming pool. This was on the third floor, where all load reserves were already utilised.” This was made possible by the project’s structural advisor (Wolf+).

Another tricky challenge presented itself during the design, namely the combination of meeting the client’s “desire for maximum transparency” while dealing with high winds at the building’s upper levels, alongside issues of solar gain and protection from the sun’s rays. “But, in the end it worked out well,” says Schuster, citing the fact that the team were given “adequate time to solve these individually.”

One way in which some of these issues arising from the building’s height were addressed was through the structural concept of slab and column, braced by the cascading external stair. Since these are also used as escape routes, they were able to be made wider – which the architect describes as “a win for the project.”

Also, by reducing the building by one floor but increasing the room height (including the potential mezzanine), usable square metres and volume remain the same “but offer new freedom through the interpretation of the regulations.”

Lastly, the design of the interior also presented obstacles: “The floor height of 5.5 metres is generous, but once galleries are added, the clear room height shrinks,” causing issues to the provision of an open and continuous interior space. The architects pay tribute to fire advisor Sascha Kaefer for his “great concept” which made the balconies possible, offering necessary visual connection from mezzanine floor to main floors.

Because of the presence of a fitness studio, ventilation and sprinkler issues also came into play. “This required a good spatial order principle of building services,” says Schuster. “The main structure is fixed, but if different uses and elements have different lifespans; the engineering can be changed quickly.”

Achievement
WERK12 has reportedly been well-received since its completion, exemplified by the project being awarded the German Architecture Museum (DAM) Prize 2021 for an “excellent and visionary achievement.”

Commenting on the award, Schuster’s colleague, and founding partner of MVRDV, Jacob van Rijs, commented that it was an “honour to receive the prize, especially for a building like WERK12 which presents itself in such a light-hearted way.”

He continues: “The architecture world can be quite serious, even dull sometimes, so it’s reassuring that the jury was able to appreciate the value of this fun addition to Werksviertel-Mitte. I’m proud they were able to see beyond the project’s facade to understand that it also deals with some very relevant topics in architecture, with a very deliberate approach to making a long-term contribution to the city.”

The team believes that with this project they have celebrated the location, while creating a foundation for its next chapter, WERK12 being “stylish and cool on one hand,” but also not taking itself too seriously.

Schuster echoes this, concluding: “The building is not typical in Munich, and people really appreciate the joyfulness.”