Axel Springer Campus by OMA: Trendsetter or Anachronism?
Location: Axel-Springer-Straße 58, 10117 Berlin (DE)
Good architecture can be read at various levels and can evoke many images and associations. The new building by Rem Koolhaas and Chris van Duijn certainly fulfils these criteria. Concentrating a diverse range of media and locations of the Axel Springer Group in a shared building is meant to bring about what is the main task of a headquarters like this: to create synergy effects, ensure short pathways, foster employee identification with the brand and promote the image of a future-oriented enterprise. Particularly in the age of digitization, it is important for a company to characterize itself as an indispensable partner for promotional messages in all communication channels.
In their 2013 competition submission, Rem Koolhaas and Chris van Duijn wanted to reinvent the office as workplace with their proposal for a valley landscape of terraced platforms. The area beneath the ceiling of each storey would offer more conventional spaces for work requiring concentration; on the terraces, various furniture typologies would stimulate various forms of collaboration. Even at the time, this concept was not new. Google and Co. had already mixed up the classic typologies of the cubicle, combined and open-plan office with colourful hammocks, foosball tables and cosy corners. In comparison, the Springer version of New Work seems rather staid.
The “Valley of the Reporters” dissects the rectangular building on the diagonal and focuses on the Axel Springer Building through glazed façades in a nod to Munich’s BMW Welt building, which features a slit in the roof that allows a view of BMW’s four-cylinder HQ. The concept carried the day with the clients and the jury chaired by Friedrich von Borries; it won out against designs by Bjarke Ingels and Ole Scheren.
In its completed form, this large gesture, set against the context of the Kreuzberg district, seems questionable. In terms of urban planning, the project is quite self-absorbed: fuck the context − we, the Axel Springer Campus, are the context. Corrections to the building volume in the revision phase addressed this problem to a certain extent, but did not solve it. After complaints from the neighbours, the topmost storeys were leant backwards. Furthermore, the building’s program was opened up with a glazed visitor’s bridge that spans the Valley of the Reporters, as well as a skybar that is open to the public.
The building is intended to evoke the history of the Axel Springer publishing house as a proponent of freedom of opinion in the era of socialist dictatorship. At the same time, it represents an attempt to shake off the dark side of its own story.
13 August 1961: Five months after breaking ground for the gold-coloured Springer building, the Berlin Wall was erected in direct proximity to the land that would become the future home of the Axel Springer headquarters. For 22 years, the wall separated freedom of opinion in the West from the muzzle of the Warsaw Pact, which punished any consumption of Western television or journalism. Above the Wall, clearly visible from the east by the citizens of the GDR, the Springer building became a symbol of freedom of opinion and the hope for reunification.
In West Germany, above all in left-leaning circles, the “Springer Press” has a rather dubious reputation: Rudi Dutschke held it responsible for the attempt on his life due to the company’s smear campaign against the 1968 student movement. In 2008, with strong support from the left-wing daily Taz, which is the rival paper to Springer’s Bild, Kochstrasse was renamed Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse. As street signs, the names of Rudi Dutschke and Axel Springer now permanently collide at the corner.
Media buildings around the world: elegant and bold
The new building by OMA may be acontextual and laden with meaning, but is it beautiful as well? Publishing houses have long lay particular value on representing the currency and stylistic perfection of their content with outstanding architecture that is ahead of its time. The 1922 international competition to design a skyscraper for the Chicago Tribune, a contest which received submissions from more than 260 studios around the world, including pioneers of modernism such as Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, is the stuff of legend. Indeed, the briefing read: “the most beautiful and eyecatching building in the world”. In 1927, an equivalent was created in the form of the Stuttgart Tagblatt Tower, designed in the Bauhaus/modern style of the Weissenhofsiedlung. Since 1932, the elegant, art-deco Daily Express building by Ellis and Clark, which features rounded, black glass façades, has graced London’s Fleet Street with a timeless dynamic and distinction. For the New York Times, Renzo Piano created a 52-storey skyscraper with a translucent façade of ceramic rods − a pinstriped suit of earnestness. For this year, the new Le Monde HQ is slated for completion in the centre of Paris. The architects from Snøhetta intend the building’s pixellated façade as a reference to digitization, while the structure itself will be a bridge drawing an elegant curve between readers and publishing house.
Not beautiful, but singular
In this context, where does the new Axel Springer building stand?
Berlin’s pithy colloquial language has yet to introduce a nickname. Is the angular, somewhat aggressive expression of the sombre building meant to remind us of the bulldog from the 1920s-era satirical magazine Simplicissimus?
The building will most likely not count among the city’s new landmarks. Compared to the hype surrounding the new Embassy of the Netherlands in Berlin, designed by OMA in 2000, the media echo has thus far been quiet. However, Rem Koolhaas and Chris van Duijn have achieved one thing: with the Axel Springer building, they have defied all conventional typologies.
After the Trump era, their windows into the newsrooms have taken on new currency, such as the value of transparency in research instead of fake news concocted in back rooms. We can only hope that the 3,500 employees, despite or after covid-19, will be able to occupy their new working world and not have to work from home for any longer period. If they cannot earn their living in the new building, the showcase project for digitization in journalism could well become a dinosaur of the communications job world. Digitization remains a significant challenge for media houses facing competition from Twitter and other services. Using robots to assemble text components into new texts is already standard practice at news agencies. Robots need neither daylight nor terraces with extensive overhead space - and they certainly do not need a rooftop terrace with a skybar.