The historic centre of Kassel was almost completely obliterated by Allied bombing in the course of the Second World War and reconstructed in the 1950s on the basis of a decidedly arid Modernist urban plan.
This territory forms the context for Johannes Busch and Patrick Schürmann’s joint project, an archive building for the city’s pentannual visual arts festival, Documenta.
Of elemental form and constructed entirely in in-situ concrete, their building differentiates itself forcibly from the commercial buildings that dominate its surroundings. It seeks a relationship rather with the few surviving older public monuments in the area, most notably the 17th-century Karlskirche. Like that building it stands as a solitaire − within what is currently a vacant lot − and frames a series of compressed pedestrian spaces around it. In taking up this position, it cultivates an urban grain markedly different from the perforate character of much of the city centre.
Its autonomy is further asserted through its designers’ Beaux Arts-like attachment to the symmetry of its plan. A considerable amount of spatial superfluity results: there are entrances at either end while the building’s three floors are served by two very closely related public stairs.
And yet, much as this could hardly be claimed as a functionalist proposition, it accommodates its intended use well enough.
The large and repetitively deployed glazed openings have been lent particularity by pendant-like extensions of the wall surface in front of the glass, a motif that carries a strong Mannerist association. The same arrowhead geometry informs both the line that the principal elevation follows in plan and the shallow gable that surmounts it.
It would be wrong to suggest that Busch and Schürmann have been inattentive to issues of programme or context. However, their aim has clearly been to develop a design that transcends such contingencies, maintaining instead a commitment to one all-governing formal concept.
A project that is both autonomous and engaged with its context. It plays with oppositional qualities: blankness and expression, monolithic solidity and punctuation, abstraction and historical reference. These tensions create an unlikely kind of richness, the kind seen, for example, in the odd cow-horn fenestration to its rear elevation. These feel more like an absence of window rather than an absence of wall − a void that itself is missing rather than the subtraction of substance that usually characterises a window. It’s in this mode − subtle but sharply intelligent moves − that the project’s real quality lies.