These monolithic structures deliver a dramatic and substantial balcony solution to this late nineteenth century apartment block, perfectly complementing its scale and massing. The two towers are constructed out of prefabricated concrete columns and platforms, the modular nature of the architecture being subtly disseminated by a 10mm shadow gap detail. Both are freestanding as an historic preservation order protects the property’s external fabric.
The concrete’s etched finish - the result of extensive testing with several 1:1 samples incorporating various aggregates and pigments - references the use of red sandstone in the building’s door and window trims. The objective here was not to copy the painted treatment of the sandstone, but rather to articulate the material’s core qualities - its colour, composition and texture - within a concrete template. And as a way of a counterpoint to the scheme’s solidity, self-supporting stainless steel railings elegantly enclose each floor plate.
The spindles in each railing section are set into 50mm deep countersunk stainless steel bushings. These cyclindrical holes are precisely aligned, the result of being configured as a single unit within the pre-cast concrete mould, welded together with steel rods to eliminate any potential movement. Each bushing was fitted with a plastic insert during casting to ensure its volumetric integrity. A circular steel plate surround completes the design; these encase the spindles, slotting into the bushings and sitting flush with the floor.
Internally, the platforms are detailed with a 2% fall to allow for drainage. 3cm thick sandstone slabs, positioned on footings, provide a walking surface that is safe and durable, and in keeping with both the concrete and building’s use of sandstone.
In essence, the project’s materiality, tectonics and geometry represent a seamless integration of making and thought, culminating in two contextually measured structures that are well-honed, well-grounded and well-proportioned.
Beton-Balkone Prefabricated bespoke concrete and stainless steel railings Frankfurt am Main, 2013
From the street this white monolithic house will appear impenetrable, its windowless façade and recessed entranceway delineating a clear demarcation between the public and private realms. Surrounding properties are a mixture of two and three storey pitch roof housing. All have been carefully referenced in determining the project’s scale, mass and proportions. A series of setbacks on floors one and two allude to the timeless ziggurat form. And as a way of a vertical counterpoint to the building’s robust horizontality, the traditional chimney is articulated as an elegant rectilinear column.
Villa W is about generating presence. The build is Romanesque in stature. This is architecture communicating through its constructional ontology the importance of place and dwelling.
The scheme utilises a restrained palette of materials: for the externals walls, one course of high insulation clay blocks; for the internal walls, cast in-situ concrete, which is used also for the floors and ceilings, the villa’s roof, and the inverted U frame installation that organises the project's ambitious fenestration design. The house is finished in a mineral based render, so preserving the breathability of the walls. As there is no specific insulation layer used in the build, the external walls are specified at 450mm thick in order to achieve the desired U-values.
Villa W provides 640 sq metres of living space over four levels. The floor-to-ceiling heights for the lower ground level through to the second floor measure 2.4m, 2.8m, 2.6m and 2.4m respectively. The main social spaces, a living and dining area on the ground floor and a gallery/study on the first floor, are located to the rear of the property, orientated towards the garden via the fully glazed south elevation. Here, the building’s structural credentials allow for the insertion of a dramatic double height space (6m x 6m x 3.4m), thereby articulating these interiors as one large interconnected two-tier cuboid.
The glazing to the south elevation comprises a series of bespoke triple pane units: three for the ground floor (3.5m x 2.8m, 3m x 2.8m and 3.5m x 2.8m); three for first floor (3.5m x 2.6m, 3m x 2.6m and 3.5m x 2.6m); and two for second floor (3.5m x 2.4m and 3.8m x 2.4m). The scheme’s tectonic rigour is further disseminated through the inclusion of a substantial glass unit (6.0m x 2.8m) to the ground floor west elevation.
The development's second floor L shaped composition, with full height glazing on three sides, delivers scenic views of the Tanus mountain range. A skylight situated above the staircase provides diffused north light. This soft, even illumination creates a sense of expectation as one ascends, which, on fine days, is heightened by diagonal rays of sunlight via the pavilion’s south west glazing.
The use of light as a building element, defining space and animating form, is utilized throughout the project. The seemingly solid north facing façade is subtly detailed with a recessed glazed entranceway and a horizontal slot above the front door. These gently illuminate the hallway, enabling the dwelling’s main light source, its south elevation, to draw one through and into the social hub of the home.
Villa W, Frankfurt am Main High insulation clay blocks, cast in-situ concrete, glass and sandstone Starts on site: November 2013 Modelmaker: Innovation Technologies GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
ICH BIN EIN FRANKFURTER
Ian Shaw finds the exacting standards and precision of German design are his perfect fit
‘He’s more German than the Germans’. That’s what they say: colleagues, clients and friends. It’s a little weird, I’m a Mancunian, but it is flattering: German architecture is all about exacting standards and tectonic precision. They call it ‘Baukunst’ – the recognition of building as an art form – and this is what we aspire to in our projects.
Ian Shaw Architekten was established in 1998. There are six of us and I am the only Engländer. We are based in Frankfurt, but we receive commissions from all over the country. We have also completed projects in the US, Russia and India.
Before moving to Germany, I spent three years in London, having graduated from Liverpool University in 1989. I worked first with Ken Armstrong – which was quite an experience. Although the firm was small, its architecture was widely published and won numerous awards for design excellence. But after a year I was looking for something more structured. I wanted to hone my detailing skills, and I when I joined Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands this is what I did. LDS also gave me the opportunity to work on some decent design projects – the wing-like canopy roof for south London’s Oxo tower restaurant building on the Thames being one of the most interesting.
Back to Europe
After three years, though, I wanted to get back to Europe – sorry, I mean mainland Europe! I was spoilt having done my internship with the acclaimed Swiss practice arb Architekten in Bern: with such clarity of thought, and its integration of design and construction, the firm does some beautiful work. The master builder ideal – ‘Baumeister’ – is alive and well out there. So when I got the opportunity to work in Germany – which comes a very good second to the Swiss – I had to take it. I had learnt German during my time in Bern. Actually, I had learnt Swiss German, but while I knew it was different, I didn’t appreciate how different. Big mistake. It must have taken me a good six months to adjust to High German (Hoch Deutsch). My colleagues wanted to speak English, but I insisted on German. They were very patient with me.
The company that I joined, and subsequently worked with for two years, was Braun and Voight, a highly respected practice in Frankfurt am Main.
Within six months I was promoted to project director. This did feel a little odd because I was the youngest architect in my own team. One of my colleagues was in his early 60s. He was a site supervisor. His knowledge of construction was incredible; he gave me such an insight into the building culture over here: it’s about ‘making’ architecture, creating a sense of permanence, and being part of a tectonic tradition.
I need to stress that I’m not suggesting such attitudes don’t exist in Britain. But it just feels more pronounced in Germany. Everything is taken to the nth degree. Building regulations are incredibly exacting, but it makes you sharper, more disciplined and more demanding. In Germany we just assume the very highest standards. You don’t have to apologise over here if measurements are out by a couple of millimetres – it’s done again until it’s right. And this applies to all areas of construction.
Another issue that is central to building design in Germany, and has been for some time, is the environment. The country’s green credentials are second to none. The first Passivhaus dwellings, I believe, were built in Darmstadt as early as 1991.
In fact, we are working with one of Germany’s leading environment engineers, Professor Tichelman, at Darmstadt University of Technology – developing our own version of the plus energy house concept. And within this work process it’s the architect who controls the costings. We don’t have quantity surveyors in Germany. Not surprisingly, this helps us appreciate how much things actually cost. Moreover, along with environmental issues, it informs how we design and how we build. This methodology applies to all our projects, both here and abroad. And yes, of course, we would love to build in the UK.
My architectural education – along with my three years of professional experience in London – taught me design theory, but the Germans taught me how to make buildings work. I still miss English humour, though. No one does irony like the Brits.
This article first appeared in the July edition of the RIBA Journal