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Rhythm in architecture: Museum Ludwig | Photo: Thomas Robbin
Rhythm in architecture: Museum Ludwig | Photo: Thomas Robbin / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Lively chaos

created by Hans-Christoph Zimmermann | |   urban culture

Cologne might not always be easy on the eye, but its wide range of architectural gems and monstrosities is what makes it so vibrant

You won’t find any buildings by historical architects like Francesco Borromini, Karl Friedrich Schinkel or Gottfried Semper here in Cologne. There was no call for fancy mansions and palaces in this people’s city. And very few of the classic modernist architecture buildings by Bruno Paul, Dominikus Böhm or Paul Bonatz survived the widespread destruction of the city during the Second World War. Which means that any big names in Cologne’s architectural who’s who invariably come after 1945. One of these great architects was Wilhelm Riphahn, who was born in 1889. Among his most prominent works was the Opera House on Offenbachplatz, built between 1954 and 1957. Very few buildings convey their function to the outside world as clearly as this one: the polygonal auditorium towers over the cubic foyer area with its five windows, and above the auditorium is a blunted pyramid housing the stage area and workshops. As prestigious as the Opera House may look, Wilhelm Riphahn had other strings to his bow as well. By 1945, he had already been commissioned by the City of Cologne to redesign the east-west axis that the Nazis had originally envisaged on a gigantic scale running through the city, a project that only the outbreak of war had scuppered. Instead of this, Riphahn built a stunning series of single-storey structures with a delicate yet rigorous elegance along Hahnenstrasse, complete with pavilions. This includes what may well be the most attractive of Riphahn’s buildings in Cologne: Die Brücke, consisting of two flat structures and a two-storey main building with an overhanging roof and bay windows. Today, it is home to the Kölnische Kunstverein (Cologne Art Association).

Even though Cologne’s architecture is contemporary for the most part, most of its street layout harks back to medieval times. Which is why the city centre still boasts an enormous density of residential houses to this day. Of these, two of the most attractive specimens could well be twins: Haus Wefers at the old city wall (1956) and Haus König on Ehrenstrasse (1980/81). Haus Wefers has no fewer than three completely different façades: a closed brick wall, the main façade with spacious window fronts and the rather intricate north façade. The recessed entrance to the shop on the ground floor includes a prominent sculptural pylon in its design. The corner of Haus König is also set back with a variety of façades: the ground floor is either open and the upper floors closed, or the other way around. And where Haus Wefers has a pylon, Haus König – as befits a bookshop – has a sculpture of books “tumbling” down its outside wall.

However, Cologne’s urban density has also forced even Brutalist structures with their striking exposed concrete surfaces and sculptural shape to fit into inner-city ensembles. Built between 1962 and 1965 to the designs of Gottfried Böhm, the St. Gertrud church on Krefelder Strasse is a veritable masterpiece wedged in between two residential houses. The three chapel buildings with pointed gables and the slim church tower with a pointed cap give the façade its own distinct rhythm. In the interior, the walls run directly into the roof to form a cavernous space. And the Cologne University of Music and Dance in the nearby Kunibertsviertel district also adapts perfectly to its surroundings. Although the architecture offices Werkraum7 and Bauturm had an entire block to build on, they still took on board the patchwork feel of the district when designing the rhythmised façades. The colourful abandon and open spatial design of the interior very clearly reflect the spirit of the 1970s. Just a few minutes’ walk away is the third Brutalist specimen, Ebertplatz, the square that bookends the inner-city ring road to the north of Cologne. Having been largely destroyed in the Second World War, it was opened again in 1977. Engulfed by a pair of two-lane roads, the square itself is below street level and has a water fountain. The design is rounded off by pavilions on one side and an entrance to the underground station on the other. General neglect and a lack of appreciation for 1970s aesthetics led the square to be rejected by the locals – even now, this unloved city landmark is still the subject of contentious debates about how to preserve or redesign it.

By contrast, Museum Ludwig, which opened its doors in 1986 with the subterranean Philharmonie concert hall, was welcomed with open arms. However, the assignment to build on the sloping area between the cathedral and the Rhine couldn’t have been more complex for architectural firm Busmann+Haberer. This gave rise to an impressively rhythmised building landscape, whose elaborate saw-tooth roof construction not only reflects the patchwork nature of the Old Town but also creates fascinating light effects. In stark contrast to this is the Maternushaus complex, a conference centre for the Archdiocese of Cologne, designed by architects Hans Schilling and Peter Kulka. Here, the shapes of the individual buildings vary almost as if for the sheer fun of it: The Maternussaal hall is octagonal, the guest house is cuboid, the terrace construction is half-round, the chapel is a cube and the staircases are designed in cylindrical form. The same diversity can also be found in the roof designs, tempered only by the dark-red brick common to the outer surface of all the roofs. “A city cannot be a work of art”, wrote Jane Jacobs, the grande dame of American urban research, who firmly rejected any attempts to homogenise urban planning. After all, the heterogeneity of usage and forms is what makes a city come alive. And what better example of this than ­Cologne?

(by Hans-Christoph Zimmermann )