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Reworking a hundred year old spa complex in Bad Elster, Germany Behnisch and Sabatke relate new and old, interior and exterior private and public spaces in a complicated weave.

Bad Elster is a small spa town on the fringe of Germany in mountainous country close to the Czech border. Springs were found a couple of centuries ago containing beneficial chemicals which could be ingested, absorbed by immersion or even applied as mud baths. As a place of cure and fashion, it developed rapidly in the late nineteenth century following approval by the Saxon kings. Various buildings for treatment and entertainment were erected, including a theatre. This building boom culminated in a huge symmetrical bath complex built just after the turn of the century on the east end of town, sandwiched between the small river Elster and the steep slope of the Brunnenberg. The baths stagnated under communism, requiring both refurbishment and reinvigoration to develop a role in the reunited Germany.

An architectural competition was held in 1994, won by Behnisch & Partners. Various new facilities were needed, particularly a new bathing hall, but above all the image of the place had to be transformed to attract new customers from the capitalist world. Spas have always been as much about recreation and socializing as about medical cure -- think of Bath. Even within the realm of medicine, the psychological is as important as the physical, and the placebo effect not to be sniffed at. The Jugendstil buildings in sandstone were not by nationally famous architects but are locally valued, and the main facade is a key monument reflecting the pride of Bad Elster's grandest years. This was obviously not to be touched, nor did the formally treated ends lend themselves to alteration, but behind the great show of the front wing was a dismal courtyard. Long treated as a back, it was full of coal stores and junk, and cluttered with a sprawl of buildings added piecemeal over the years.

Short of wholesale demolition and reconstruction, there was no way to produce the kind of symmetrical grandeur suggested by the overblown front, and even the back faces of the front block were formally inconsistent. So rather than trying to re-idealize the complex around an imaginary Baroque plan, Behnisch and his team decided to accept the better accretions within an asymmetrical collage-like composition. Three new buildings were added in a modern vocabulary to contrast starkly with the old. Square, glass-walled and flat-roofed, they were conceived as free-standing pavilions. To provide weather-tight connections to the older buildings, glass-sided corridors were added, and glazed galleries were tacked onto existing facades. To understand the formal and spatial arrangements from plans and views is not easy, but, on the spot, ambiguities are enriching and do not confuse, for spaces and routes are clear.

The two larger Behnisch additions are the square bathhouse at the centre of the northern court and the rectangular treatment pavilion at the south-east corner. A third smaller but spatially powerful new element is the reception pavilion set near the centre of the plan. Along with its glazed links, this square of glass with a slab roof both sets the boundary between the two main courts and marks the crossing point of the two principal routes. Approaching from the south end, you slip informally past the east of an existing facade to discover the larger of the two courts, which has been left open to the public. A pergola guides the path towards the entrance at the reception pavilion. Through glazed links tying this pavilion to the rest of the complex you see, but cannot enter, the bathing court beyond.

The primary entrance to the whole complex, however, is still the centre of the old west front, whose axis has been pulled on through. Entering the old doors, you pass through the lavishly decorated stair-hall to discover a new galleried foyer behind. Double-height glazing allows a view to the large court to right, while to left, set within an existing building, are changing rooms for the main bathing pools. Continuing through, a sidestep to right is prompted by the control desk, then the route passes through a glazed link to the reception pavilion with its circular desk. The route carries on along the same line, making another sidestep to right before terminating in the rear entrance. This occupies a small but self-important turret-like pavilion in the east side. Treatment rooms for massage and mud baths run around the east edge of the complex and the new pavilion at the southeast corner houses the doctors and their consulting rooms.

The most remarkable space is the new bathing hall, a square glazed enclosure with a glass roof and white tiled floors which seems bright and cheerful even on a dull day, and makes accurate photographs look contrived. In both wall and roof, glass is double layered with a large buffer space to serve for insulation and for passive climatic control. The inner ceiling layer is made of variable glass louvres, the upper side coated to be partially reflective, the underside printed with spots of colour in reds, blues, greens and yellows according to a scheme devised by artist Erich Wiesner. [1] This gives a new interpretation to the ancient idea of the sky ceiling, [2] for the blue parts suggest a cloudy sky, the yellow parts sunlight. Whatever the real grey of the clouds beyond, one is taken in by the sheer brightness, persuaded into cheerfulness despite knowing it to be artificial. Technically it is clever, for in winter and at night the louvres are closed to increase insulation, while in high summer their upper s urface reflects solar glare while the buffer space is ventilated. At other times the louvres can be opened and adjusted to suit available light. The metre-wide buffer between the glass walls contributes to this control system. With insulating glass on the outside and single glass within, it provides a high standard of insulation. Critical for the comfort of the semi-naked clients is that, with freezing external conditions, cold air does not fall off the walls across the surface of the pools, as it would with a simpler glass wall. Although the bathing pavilion is precisely square with a regular supporting structural grid in the roof, the pools with their various depths and water movements are round and kidney-shaped, so the main supporting steel columns are irregularly distributed to accommodate them. With slightly heftier structure these columns could presumably have been restricted to the perimeter, but Behnisch welcomed their irregularity as another layer of his collage. [3] It means that the regulating geo metry is not overplayed; that there is no classical homotopia in the Miesian sense. This weakens the sense of the pavilion as a structural entity and as a square platonic body in favour of the pools within it. The high transparency of the walls all around also means that the final visual boundary is more the outside court, so it feels as if the pools were set within the court then lightly enclosed. The deliberate continuity of inside and outside pools, achieved physically through a watergate at the south-east corner which enables bathers to progress from one to the other, strengthens this impression.

The other new pavilions are variations on a theme. Though smallest of the three, the reception pavilion is the most prominently placed. The thinnest possible roof-slab on thin steel and concrete columns, again irregularly placed, oversails the glass walls for shade. Irregularly placed circular rooflights complement the eccentric circular desk. The third of the new pavilions, though largest in area, is least prominent, since it forms part of the perimeter of the large court and therefore reads as a flat background element rather than a freestanding piece. The reticence is appropriate, for the medical consultations carried on inside require privacy. Long and low with a very plain glass wall and slightly projecting roof, it has a central waiting area that is brightly toplit.

A further visually important element of the collage is the landscape treatment of the courts. Most of the area is paved in concrete slabs on a square grid, but the pattern is broken by curving swathes of hedge which make it visually less rigid, limit pedestrian movement, and provide some privacy at ground level. The use of wooden bridges to provide crossing points for these hedge-bands makes them seem like meandering brooks.

Behnisch's collage-like layering of elements successfully disguises the fragmented nature of the back court that has been taken over. The choice of glass and steel pavilions, at first sight so completely at odds with the loadbearing old structures, ends up complementing them brilliantly. We are forcibly reminded once again that designing 'in keeping' is far from being the only answer for historically delicate interventions, if it is any answer at all. [4] The glass links and adjuncts allow connections to be made and privacies preserved without breaking visual continuity, and start a new game of solid void unthinkable a century earlier. The unexpectedly strong use of colour, not only in the bathing hall but throughout the new works and even in the linking parts, is one of the hallmarks of Gunter Behnisch's latest work and has received much attention within the Behnisch office.[5] So successful is it here that it is hard to imagine the place without, or to contemplate publishing it in black and white. Why have we been so afraid of colour, one wonders, why did we neglect it for so long?

(1.) Previous Behnisch works with Wiesner included the schools at Ohringen and Dresden.

(2.) An idea memorably explored by W. R. Lethaby in his book Architecture Mysticism and Myth (1891), which appeared revised under the title Architecture Nature and Magic (1956).

(3.) After early experience of the rigours of prefabrication, Bennisch reacted against the idea that structural and constructive disciplines should be allowed to dominate a building. Typical of this reaction is the deliberate omission of a column in a regular series from the main entrance hall of the Bonn Parliament (AR March 1993), simply because it got in the way. The converse of thin is the example of Mien's New National Gallery in Berlin, where the structure stands on eight and only eight perimeter columns although permanent vertical ducts near the centre of the plan could easily have concealed further columns to reduce the span. For Mies this was of course ideologically unthinkable.

(4.) It still seems to be widely assumed that sympathy to historic settings should simply provoke new work in imitation of an existing style. I challenged this notion in AR more than ten years ago and have had no reason to change position since. For a critical view of Richmond Riverside as fake history see AR November 1988, pp86-90 . For a positive view of a conversion by Schattner of an old building which leaves visible three historical layers see the same issue pp51-62.

(5.) See Behnisch's book Uber das Farbliche/On colour, Anglo-German text, Hatje 1993.
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Title Annotation:Bad Elster, Germany spa renovation
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Apr 1, 2001

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