Colorful Sustainability

Offices for the KfW banking Group, Frankfurt, 2004-2009 (Model Photograph: Lepkowski Studios, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)
KfW Office, Frankfurt (Model Photograph: Lepkowski Studios, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)

Sauerbruch Hutton are famous for their use of color and pioneering work in sustainable architecture. It was about these two subjects that Matthias Sauerbruch spoke in his lecture at the Netherlands Architecture Institute on Thursday 27 September 2007.

Sauerbruch Hutton designs buildings that are sustainable in three ways: socially, culturally, and in their energy consumption. The title of the lecture ‘Sustainability’ did not refer to what Americans call ‘Green Washing’; a couple of windmills on the roof of your building, and – voilà - your building is ‘sustainable’.

Sauerbruch started off with the project that meant the break-through of his office, the GSW-building in the center of Berlin, a building that has became an icon with its energy-saving double facade. Sauerbruch started however with an elaborate story on the history of Berlin, and the location of the project. The wall ran in the vicinity of the site, and when the ‘west’ during the cold war build a golden office slab (with an obvious meaning), the Soviet-Union answered by building four higher gray slabs. “We wanted to continue that story”, Sauerbruch said, and so a colorful slab appeared in the new ‘west’.

This creative form of cultural sustainability from his office was not welcomed by everybody. The chosen model of the ‘critical reconstruction’ of Berlin was the nineteenth century courtyard building block, not the twentieth century architecture. But: “You cannot reconstruct history.”

The double facade of the GSW was developed from a wish to let in a lot of light, and therefore make large surfaces of glass, but at the same time to save energy, and to ventilate the building naturally. In a ‘post-occupancy’ analysis Sauerbruch concluded that the building indeed has a light interior, that the cross-ventilation worked, and that the fresh air from outside is very much appreciated. He would however not design a building like this again with today’s knowledge. The double façade, at one side a meter deep, is a costly solution. And the large glass surfaces are quite a job to clean, as they all gets dirty so much faster with all the air that passes by to ventilate the building.

How things can be done different, was illustrated by Sauerbruch with a project that is currently being built in Frankfurt. There it was a matter of luck that the lens-shaped building was rightly situated to the dominant wind-current, to be able to use the pressure difference at each side to cross-ventilate the whole building. To open up the building towards the wind-current the architect designed facade paneling like scales, that open-up like gills. In the spring and summer, the building is supposed to work without air-conditioning or heating.

The large office building that Sauerbruch Hutton realized in Dessau even more than their other projects excels in pragmatism. And that was maybe the biggest lesson from this story on sustainability; work with the context, the history, the people, and the climate. Not a ‘form follows me’, that architects sometimes are blamed for, but a ‘form follows the context’. During the lecture Sauerbruch kept repeating the sentence ‘If you like’; not only the architect, but also the building is a chameleon that adapts to the location and its conditions.

To make room for a park the whole building is put at one side of the parcel. The building opens up towards the park, and the canteen is even taken out of the building and planted in the park. This restaurant free accessible for the inhabitants of the city. A magnificent example of public domain.

The snaking form of the building according to Sauerbruch was a pragmatic answer to the conditions: the depth of the office slab was given by regulations, the height of four stories tuned to the surrounding architecture, with this loop it was possible to make a (covered) courtyard, and a snaking building looks smaller in its surroundings as you can only perceive parts of the building at a time. He did not want to make a statement in this East-German city, because here in Dessau everything from the ‘west’ is suspect, also this government institute.

One can go too far in the celebration of history, which proved the case of the library building that is part of the complex. The plan was to build the building around an old wall, on which the traces of time were visible in different layers. When construction started, the weak wall collapsed, and a new ‘old’ wall had to be build instead. It looked horrible.

With a pipe in the ground with a length of five kilometers that cools the air, ventilation via the covered courtyard, and night-ventilation, the energy use would in theory be half of what is requested by law, Sauerbruch told proudly. But because of failing systems, and unwilling users, the energy consumption proved for now only somewhat better than the average office building. But it is being worked on, Sauerbruch promised.

Also in its coloring this building in Dessau is contextual. Greener at the side of the park, redder near a factory building, changing at the corners, lighter in the courtyard.

With this subject, Sauerbruch came upon the – strategically chosen – last part of his lecture. With words as ‘scale, presence, character, materiality’ he deliberately kept it somewhat vague. The part of the architecture he and his partner approached like a painter works on his painting, he kept repeating.

A building must be loved, in order to be kept by next generations, and a building is appreciated when it stimulates. It doesn’t have to be fashionable, but it has to be contemporary. A timeless architecture is worthless, was the theorem of Sauerbruch. At this part Sauerbruch clearly grew beyond his pragmatic attitude, towards a more offensive approach. Placing himself in the tradition of De Stijl and Le Corbusier, he called the most important virtue of color the visual effect on space.

With variations in color a building becomes plastic, three-dimensional. In the last design that he discussed, a museum-building with 36.000 colored ceramic sticks, he talked about a building that physically consists out of one piece, but because of its coloring seems to be made up out of three ‘volumes’. Color is also space.

Museum for the Brandhorst Collection, Munich, 2004-2010 (Model Photograph:, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)
Museum for the Brandhorst Collection, Munich (Model Photograph:, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)

ADAC Headquarters, Munich, 2002-2008 (Model Photograph: Simone Rosenberg, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)
ADAC Headquarters, Munich (Model Photograph: Simone Rosenberg, Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)

Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 2006-2008 (Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)
Jessop West, University of Sheffield (Copyright Sauerbruch Hutton)

This article has been published in Dutch on 5 October 2007 on  

Other lecture-reports on Eikongraphia: Dubai, Black City, Dubai, White City, ‘It makes a difference to make art’, Why Sylvia Sucks, Robert Somol 

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