Bundesbank Brutalism Goes Back to the Future in Frankfurt Revamp

  • Officials to renovate concrete citadel in city's outer quarter
  • Decisions awaited on rehousing staff during construction

A spiral staircase in the foyer of the convention area inside the Bundesbank.

Photographer: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

For more than four decades, the guardians of Germany’s postwar economy have watched from the top floors of their concrete citadel as Frankfurt’s modern skyline has grown.

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann might soon gaze over a different view as his institution’s main building -- constructed in the avant-garde Brutalist style of the 1960s -- gets a revamp. Officials will decide before the end of the year on how to preserve the landmark in Frankfurt’s northern quarter of Ginnheim, and also how to manage the resulting disruption.

The Bundesbank facade

Photographer: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

The home of Germany’s central bank is part of its identity as the custodian of Europe’s biggest economy, so its renovation is a sensitive matter. Even the choice to retain the building is loaded with symbolism, contrasting with the European Central Bank’s relocation of key departments last year to a purpose-built skyscraper in Frankfurt’s east end.

“The Bundesbank is aware of the treasure it has in its building,” said Oliver Elser, curator of a Brutalism exhibition at the German Architecture Museum set to open in Frankfurt in 2017. “It’s from a time when architects focused on solidity, intrinsic value and sustainability -- very symbolic characteristics for a central bank.”

Le Corbusier Inspiration

The Bundesbank approach parallels that of another national symbol: Deutsche Bank AG, the country’s biggest bank, which spent 200 million euros ($215 million) remodeling its twin towers in central Frankfurt between 2007 and 2010. It also defies a tendency to demolish buildings from a sometimes unloved period of architecture that worshiped concrete. That was the fate of the city’s AfE Tower, for example.

Building on the Bundesbank site started in 1967 and finished in 1972. The architects, Hannsgeorg Beckert and Gilbert Becker, took inspiration from the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, whose use of beton brut -- raw concrete -- made him the father of Brutalism. Buildings it inspired include Boston’s City Hall, the National Theatre in London and the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.

Bundesbank conference room

Photographer: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

The finished result -- more than 200 meters in length but less than 20 meters in width -- is one of Frankfurt’s most imposing structures. Its facade, occasionally a feature of the central bank’s Christmas cards, is vertically divided by two elevator shafts. The rest of the front has a narrow concrete grid and set-back windows that change its spatial impact depending on the light of day. The 54-meter high building is surrounded by smaller ones added over the years and, fittingly, a money museum.

The Bundesbank has never undergone major renovation; the facade has hardly been touched, and the interior, while fully functioning, doesn’t have state-of-the-art technology. For Reiner Bruckhaus, an architect who manages the Bundesbank’s inhouse construction team, the lack of significant changes is a tribute to the builders’ craftsmanship.

“The architects were well ahead of their time,” he said. “They constructed a high-quality building that can be retrofitted. Else, we wouldn’t be able to operate it any more.”

ECB’s Eurotower

Other counterparts haven’t been so lucky. Ireland’s central bank has outgrown its brutalist headquarters in central Dublin and is now devising a strategy to sell the building. It plans to move next year to a dockland site once earmarked for Anglo Irish Bank Corp before that lender triggered the collapse of the Irish banking system in 2009. Back in Frankfurt, the ECB’s former headquarters, the Eurotower, is now undergoing a refit before being redeployed to house its banking supervisors.

If the strategy Deutsche Bank employed during its refurbishment is any guide, the Bundesbank will vacate its main building for two to three years and move the 1,500 staff it houses to a different site.

With 1.2 million square meters of vacant office space, the most among German cities, securing a temporary home shouldn’t be too much trouble, according to Ralf Froeba, head of office markets at research firm Bulwiengesa. A single location in central Frankfurt with the 30,000-plus square meters needed may be a bigger challenge, raising the prospect of relocation to another suburb such as Eschborn, Mertonviertel or Niederrad, where availability exceeds 100,000 square meters each.

“The building has a strong historic relevance for the Bundesbank,” said Michael Best, Weidmann’s spokesman. “We are committed to making the building future-proof for the next decades.”

Pragmatic Resilience

That involves a complete overhaul, with construction envisaged to commence in 2018. As part of the project, officials are looking into how to cool the southern side of the building, where temperatures often rise above 30 degrees Celsius in the summer. There are no current plans to expand air conditioning from the 12th and 13th floors, where the board has its offices and meeting rooms, to the entire building.

Not everyone in the general public is convinced by the architecture. Birgit Blume, who first saw the central bank on a trip to Frankfurt in the early 1990s, not long after its deutsche Mark became legal tender in her native East Germany, still remembers a feeling of cheerlessness.

“The Bundesbank building gives an impression of pragmatic resilience,” she said on a gloomy November day. “But architecture shouldn’t only be pragmatic. It should also be easy on the eye and at least a bit attractive.”

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