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Clinical rigour: a functional rationalist exterior conceals a gentle and convivial social space which encourages the casual encounters necessary in higher academia.




Halle lies on the Saale river in the former GDR, 30 kilometres north-west of Leipzig. Unemployment is high. Many have left the city to find work in the West. At the main railway station, the pervading impression is of deserted and dilapidated buildings, broken windows and cracked plaster. Many of those still in work have to commute long distances. returning to Halle only at weekends. One of the few thriving institutions in the city is the Martin Luther University. As healthcare has moved from repair towards prevention, the potential to manipulate and reprogramme DNA has turned genetic engineering into a commercial undertaking. Botanical research into more efficient farming techniques and medicinal uses has had a substantial direct impact on world health, and research institutes have become part of the new market economy, metamorphosing into companies quoted on stock exchanges to attract the finance for expensive experimental work.

A second campus for these expanding offshoot enterprises is being developed overlooking the Saale. Headquarters, like those for the Max Planck Institute, have been built and former barracks will be refurbished for science departments. Underscored by an ecological development brief, the new campus has a green landscaped centre, ringed by lecture halls and a university library. Surfaces are kept porous, allowing ground water to be replenished, while elsewhere rainwater is collected for fire-fighting and plant irrigation. District heating, which was common in the former GDR, reduces costs, and green roofs and passive solar measures help temper the internal climate and save resources. Air conditioning is installed only where necessary. Personal and manual control of internal environments is the norm.

Kister Scheithauer Gross won the architectural competition for the Biologicum against 20 European contenders in 1996. It houses two research centres, one for botanical genetic engineering and the other for plant and cell physiology. Two identical building halves embrace an inner courtyard with a pitched glass roof. This quiet and reflective heart is symmetrically planned, with trees, shallow steps and seating focusing on a sunken pool. Art installations, including an oscillating cable (symbolizing the DNA double helix) hanging between roof and water, and a green 'life-line' on the ground, running through the centre of the courtyard, were separately commissioned. Side walls of the courtyard are clad in horizontal strips of timber. Animated by the gentle rustle of leaves and daylight patterns moving across the various surfaces (brick, timber, bamboo sun blinds, roof glazing, stone and water), this restfulness contrasts with the hard-edged and highly ordered design of the external envelope. Transparency, with u ninterrupted views through laboratory areas on the ground level and up to the sky, forms a further contrast with the solidity of enclosed laboratories and cellular administration spaces.

With a tight budget (37 million DM for 8000 sq m), the building relies for its effect on starkly simple finishes and basic building methods. Based on its experience of precast concrete unit production, a local Thuringer construction firm suggested manufacturing precast sandwich units. The distinctive yellow-flecked cladding brick (coke-fired in Munsterland), is a mix of two parts yellow and one part red and recalls the traditional bricks of the area, which are no longer available. Internal fair-faced concrete walls have been polished without attempting to correct irregularities. Vertical circulation within the two institutes, which are mirror images of each other, is by means of two internal halls. Mortadella patterned terrazzo or black tiled floors, flanked by straight flights of black steel open-tread stairways and discreetly lit with wall mounted downlighters, impart a monastic asceticism to the interior. Corridors are floored with black linoleum, which deadens noise and adds to the devout atmosphere, as if science were some kind of holy order. Eyelevel porthole windows in doors avoid collisions between whiteoveralled technicians carrying test-tube racks, and rooms are graphically distinguished by superscale floor-to-ceiling typography in blue or green institute colours.

Black concrete planes frame direct views into the practical rooms on the outer face of the building and extend to form a cantilevered canopy and apron terrace. Letterbox slits and horizontal window bands punctuate the building block facing the road and the office windows have black metal protruding cowls which, because of their deeper reveals, help protect the internal space from glare.

Imbued with clarity and rigour, this is a decidedly antiseptic architectural language, catering for a specialist group of scientists chiefly concerned with the functional efficiency of their working environment. In its supporting role for the pharmaceutical and nutritional sciences, the Biologicum does not have to console the sick; yet, as if to reflect on the relationship between science and nature, its severe outer crust houses a softer centre.


Kister Scheithauer Gross Architekten, Cologne

Structural engineer

W. Naumann

Services engineer

Hofman + Mittnenzweig

Electrical engineer

Buro Knipping

Landscape architect

Hegelmann + Dutt


Christian Richters
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Article Details
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Author:Dawson, Layla
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:May 1, 2002
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