Inside from book of photographs - The past becomes the future ©Nils Thies

Photo book on the Bundesbank’s architecture

Amid planning work for the new campus in Frankfurt am Main, the Deutsche Bundesbank has published an impressive and multifaceted book celebrating its main building. “The past becomes the future – the Bundesbank’s Central Office in Frankfurt am Main” takes a close look at the architecture of the building, setting it in historical context. New, expressive photographs show the building in many lights, both inside and out.

The publication also contains an extended essay by architect and architectural historian Werner Durth. Professor Durth lectured at various universities from 1981 to 2014, is the author of numerous publications and works as an appraiser and jury member. In his essay, Durth places the history of the building in the broader context of Frankfurt’s growth as an urban centre and architectural developments in the 20th century. He illuminates the historical backdrop against which the building’s appearance, and the rationale behind it, came about, and explains how it enriches the Frankfurt city skyline. His fascinating essay leaves no doubt that it was right to preserve this living testament to German post-war architecture and carry it forward into the future as a revitalised and fully refurbished structure, writes Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann in the foreword to this publication.

A symbol of Frankfurt

Durth writes that the Bundesbank’s main building quickly became a symbol of Frankfurt as a financial hub, yet a symbol that has always stood in the background – both in terms of location and architectural form – situated at a distance from the skyscrapers which dot the city centre. He believes that the building’s clear contours and solitary position in the urban fabric can be interpreted as a manifestation of the Bundesbank’s independence – independent of political sentiment, short-term decision-making processes and government directives.

In his essay, Durth also makes particular mention of the new buildings on the campus of Frankfurt’s Goethe University campus which adjoin the Grüneburg Park, located to the south. For him, the building complex, centring around the building which once housed the headquarters of the IG Farben chemical conglomerate, forms the urban design counterpart to the narrow wedge of the Bundesbank building in the north. He adds that the clear volumes of the new buildings, with well-proportioned spaces between them, create a striking picture of an inner-city campus that is remarkably urban. He considers the Westend campus, with its generous expanses of space and acclaimed architecture, to be a model for educational buildings elsewhere.

A forward-looking location

Starting with the Reichsbank, Durth takes the reader on a detailed tour of the Bundesbank’s architectural history up to the construction of the present Central Office complex on the Frankfurt campus, the result of a competition in 1961. He draws parallels to various buildings of the time and highlights how the unique architecture of the Bundesbank’s Central Office differs from other styles. In addition, he elaborates on the location and the restrictions that this brings with it for the ensemble of buildings. He notes that this choice of site on an elevation near the foot of the Taunus highland with far-reaching potential for future development has now proven to be quite fortuitous.

The architect also looks at the many facets of the building’s interior design, drawing attention to the character and creation of individual rooms, such as the lobby or the Vasarely Saal. He goes on to explain the background of individual architectural elements, such as the spiral staircase on the executive floors or the system of built-in cabinets in the offices.

Paradigm shift in building culture

Durth notes that the Bundesbank’s main building, which was completed in 1972, is now seen to bear proud witness to the brief era of brutalism in architecture. Characteristic features, such as the concrete skeleton and façade relief, justified its inclusion into this strand of architecture, named after “béton brut”, the term used to describe exposed raw concrete. Yet, Durth points out that other features common to the brutalist style, such as coarse and unfinished elements, have been omitted here in order to honour the precision and integrity of a central bank. He therefore concludes that a one-dimensional classification of the building as “brutalist” fails to do justice to the wide array of other aspects which, in their entirety, give this project its unique and special character. The building is “not only an outstanding document of architectural history but also, above all, a testimony to a brief period in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany which ended in around 1970 following profound political and economic upheaval”. A paradigm shift in building culture ensued – the optimism and belief in progress of the 1960s faded given the “limits to growth” and an increasing appreciation of traditional buildings. The “small is beautiful” movement was followed by a new phase of environmental design paying reverence to historical and ecological aspects.

Given the – often scorned – cultural heritage of post-war modernism, interest then began to grow – especially among the younger generation – in a style of architecture that was both original and authentic yet also allowed the energy and creativity of the designer to flow. What a relief that in this struggle for recognition the Bundesbank’s main building sets standards for appreciating the quality of buildings from this era and preserving them for the future, Durth writes. As the Bundesbank’s campus continues to evolve, the building will be a reference point and backbone, interacting with the architecture of our time.

More than meets the eye

The second part of the publication is dedicated to a visual examination of the main building in its present form. Photographs by Nils Thies show that there is much more to the main building, both inside and out, than meets the eye. The beauty of the main building at the Deutsche Bundesbank’s Central Office is not immediately apparent. It is hard to see from a distance, and cannot be appreciated as a whole at close range. Its interior remains completely hidden to most people, writes Mr Thies, a photo editor at the Bundesbank.

Over the past three years, he has taken more than one thousand photographs of the main building at the Central Office and the surrounding campus buildings. Some of his work can now be seen in this photo book. For President Weidmann, this makes it a document of contemporary history: Because the newly renovated ensemble will no longer look exactly like it does today, his images also bear testament to a familiar structure we have grown to love.