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Tyrolean transformation: a new town hall forms the fulcrum of this civic development in the heart of Innsbruck, which suggests a bolder approach to regional design.

Innsbruck is Austria at its picture postcard Tyrolean best--trim, kitsch and gemutlich, with a skyline of pepper pot campaniles framed by the hulking Alps. Not generally considered a crucible for architectural experimentation (being overshadowed by activities to the east in Graz and Vienna), the hitherto unfashionable Tyrol is currently having a moment (as Daniel Fugenschuh describes in this issue, p34).

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One obvious manifestation of this is Dominique Perrault's redevelopment of the town hall in Innsbruck, the winning outcome of a competition held in 1996 that attracted such luminaries as Gunther Domenig and Massimiliano Fuksas. In conjunction with a group of local private developers, the city drew up a brief for a mixed-use civic and commercial complex in Innsbruck's historic heart, focused around a new town hall, with the Altes Rathaus (the original town hall) retained and refurbished.

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Though Perrault's scheme casts itself as a sympathetic piece of urban repair that responds to the texture of the city by creating new through routes and public squares, it announces its credentials with a formal and material boldness typical of previous projects such as the Lyons mediatheque (AR July 2002) and the perversely iconic Tres Grande Bibiliotheque in Paris (AR July 1995). Here, tautly orthogonal volumes clad in layers of glass and lightweight metal mesh, like fine chain mail, are surprising, almost abrupt, interlopers in Innsbruck's historic core of wedding cake baroque, their ultra crisp geometries creating an invigorating tension between old and new.

The main elements in this urban nougat (old town hall, new town hall and new hotel) are linked by shopping mall which forms an L-shaped spinal route at street level, funnelling people through the complex. Perrault's model is clearly the traditional European galleria and en route along this internal street Innsbruck's furcoated flaneurs can shop, take Kaffee und Kuchen, pay their bills at the town hall, or simply sit and contemplate in a series of new public spaces. Among these is a formerly external courtyard behind the Altes Rathaus, now enclosed by a glazed roof interspersed with panels of delicately coloured glass by French artist Daniel Buren, which cast shimmering rainbow shadows. Parking is sensibly relegated to two subterranean levels below.

At the heart of the development is a new seven-storey town hall that provides offices in one centralized location for various local government departments that had previously been dispersed around the city. Office accommodation in the Altes Rathaus has also been refurbished. In the new block, with its regimented chequerboard facades of opaque and clear glass, four floors of cellular offices are topped by a debating chamber that overlooks the city, symbolically overseeing the citizens it serves. The glazed roof of the chamber is enclosed by a tented metal mesh roof, like a mini aviary on top of the building. Designed to withstand heavy snowloads (it can withstand 300mm of winter sag), the roof is held in place by a Heath Robinsonian confection of steel props, springs and tensile wires. In different lighting conditions, the stainless-steel mesh acts as a scintillating, solar screen. Perrault enjoys experimenting with materials and the layering of facades, describing the mesh as a contemporary form of bambou, in its resemblance to the woven bamboo sunshades characteristic of the Caribbean (notwithstanding the obvious regional differences between the tropics and the Tyrol). The same material is used in the external sliding screens on the east and west sides of the hotel, the movements of the brisesoleil generating random patterns over the chequered glass curtain-wall grid underneath.

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The irregular roofscape of terraces and mesh tents is dominated by a modern version of a campanile, a glazed tower 37m high that enters into a dialogue with Innsbruck's existing bell towers. Though purely symbolic as a campanile (lacking bells), the square tower rises through the new town hall block, bringing visitors into the building from the mall below. It is also a public viewpoint, with panoramic vistas of the city and the Alps. On the south side, its translucent glazed skin is embellished with a dramatic screenprinted design by artist Peter Kogler.

In integrating civic functions with ordinary daily commerce, Perrault's aim was to demystify the workings of local authority and make the town hall more accessible, both physically and conceptually. The resulting amalgamation of sleek new blocks and bustling malls is worlds away from the conventional image of porticoes, pediments and municipal chest puffing. Here the town hall and its attendant buildings are very much part of the Innsbruck scene, and the complex has become a popular meeting place. Orchestrating such clearly contemporary expressions of urban life within the corset of history is never easy, but Perrault has responded to the challenge with tenacity and imagination, that are encouraging indications of a wider Tyrolean transformation.
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Article Details
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Author:Kugel, Claudia
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:800
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