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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

German Architecture in Baltimore

There was a time when Germans landed in Baltimore in such high numbers that they held four of the seven city council seats, had their own German language newspaper and represented one of the strongest ethnic groups. The days of German pride days came to an abrupt end with the Germany inflicted horrors of WWI and WWII. German Street became Read Street and the Hansa house with its fake half timbered and German Hanse shields a lone reminder of German architecture.

Today even Haussners, once the epicenter of German gastronomic Gemuetlichkeit is closed. What is left is an annual Oktoberfest that with its lederhosen and oompah music preserves the concept of Germany which historically is stuck in the unhappy fog between Wilhelm, the last emperor, and the post-war era of the Frauleinwunder and the Witschaftswunder. Geographically the US concept of Germany consists of not much more than Heidelberg, Bavaria, the Black Forest and Berlin. This curious map always forces me to locate my home-town of Stuttgart through its distance from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. Overall, the German image here could use a face lift.

It is with great relief and joy, then, that I am looking forward to a great piece of German Architecture being opened this month in Baltimore: The University of Baltimore's new Peter Angelos Law Center. LEED Platinum, double glass facades, light and bright, innovative and creative: no lederhosen or broodiness as far as the eye can see.

Stefan Behnisch of Stuttgart is the architect, son and heir of Guenter Behnisch who changed the face of German postwar architecture with his own type of modernism that took the Bauhaus to new levels. Behnisch, the elder came to international fame with his light and airy tent structures for the Munich Olympics in 1972. Behnisch who as a young man had become a U-boat commander at the end of WW II, became soon a devout critic of all the elements that had been the ingredients of Nazi Germany.  He countered pomposity, heaviness, authoritarian structures with his own brand of the "lightness of being", namely making buildings as light as possible by reducing materials to their absolute minimums. Transparency was one of his favorite words along with light and sun. He didn't see a building as a sculpture or as an art object but as a shell that needs to show what is going on inside. His energy went initially to making local and regional schools around his Stuttgart office less institutional and more joyous. From there he went on to museums, the Olympics and eventually a new Parliament building in Bonn which was unfortunately obsolete as soon as it was finished when Germany relocated its capital back to Berlin into the old Reichstag, of all places (although nicely refreshed by Norman Foster). 

I was taught the Behnisch canon of architecture in my formative years as a professional: In architecture school where Behnisch gave guest lectures and then on the first floor of his offices in Stuttgart Sillenbuch. There, among the typical south German settler houses, he had designed and constructed  a glass and metal structure for his studios that followed the massing of the neighbors but was decidedly different, derided by neighbors as the "tin shed". And I didn't even work for Behnisch, I had been hired by an offshoot and early adopter of his style that still operated from his building.  Thus, I breathed what was allowed and proper in architecture from my boss and the famous architect "above" whom I could see maneuver his car into the grass paver parking spot on a daily basis. So it came that soon I believed myself that architecture has to be lightweight, bright and happy to be any good.

All this rushed back into my head when I toured the new law school, the result of Baltimore architects Ayer Saint Gross inviting the Stuttgart based Stefan Behnisch to participate in a design competition held by the University for Baltimore in order to obtain the best design for their new Law Center. Against formidable competition from the US and abroad (Safdie, Foster, Perrault), Stefan Behnisch won (in spite or because) of a very low key heavy accented presentation of his design to the jury. ("Ah, those façade renderings really didn't come out right, I shouldn't have brought those")

Behnisch Junior has taken all the beliefs of his dad and intensified the always present streak of "sustainability" and mixed it up with the current state of innovation, and voila! Here, right in front of our good old historic Penn Station we see: transparency, lightness, glass, happy colors, all of it. Many of the Behnisch trademark designs are quite unheard of here but fairly common in Germany, such as poured concrete floors that are exposed top and bottom with all the electric and mechanical stuff embedded in the slab (a fete of logistical complexity). Or the ubiquity of stairs and walkways, not exactly typical for a country where any commercial building with more than one floor has an elevator because of ADA and the stairs hidden in safe exit-ways. Behnisch goes all the way with the stairs, one can walk up all 14 floors inside a soaring and winding atrium and allows maximum transparency and ease of orientation. Anybody who ever had to deal with the chapters of the locally adopted IBC building code that deal with atria knows, how hard it is to please the Fire Marshall with such a design.

The desire to keep things light both in terms of weight and brightness shines through (yes, shines!) on many levels from the railings to the fixed desk rows in the lecture rooms to the ample use of glass in partitions and transoms. Of course, these good old paternal stand byes are all good for LEED, the small ecological footprint. Stefan Behnisch adds the latest environmentally friendly technologies  such as hydronic piping in the concrete floors, a rain screen facade made entirely of glass, operable windows, stormwater management, a grey-water cistern,  automated exterior solar controls and sustainable forestry products throughout. Yes, light wood is widely in use, even for stair treads, doors and jambs. Whole walls are laminated with grooved wood for better acoustics. Entire floors consist of millions of little bamboo sticks forming a parquet pattern even across the complicated raised seating of the moot court room, the finest court room anywhere in the region.
Such extravagant and innovative technology and material choice certainly has a price and it may well be that the square foot construction cost is the highest of any comparable building in the region.  (Over $500/sf construction cost).

The pictures give a sneak preview of the building that will officially open on 4/15 when Vice President Biden will be there. These pictures hopefully convey why I feel such joy to see this building designed in Germany and born in my new home-town, Baltimore.

The main entrance of the new Behnisch designed UB Law Center is here on the corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, holding the street-edge in a good urban gesture. The façade design shows clearly the three program areas that are interlocked like a Rubric's Cube: The classrooms (left), the atrium (center) and the library segment (the checkerboard façade).

The law school is highly visible from all directions, facing Charles Street, Mount Royal Avenue and in the rear across the sunken Jones Falls Expressway the historic Penn Station and its male-female Borofsky sculpture. The interlocking Rubric's Cube concept works well close up and from afar. Clearly visible here the glass rain screen installed with an about 8" gap in front of the curtain wall.

Behnisch likes to design with the main construction materials on display. Clearly visible the underside of the concrete floor slabs and the concrete columns, the bones of the building. The scarcity of suspended ceilings forced the contractor to embed most of the 50 miles of hydronic tubing and even more miles of electric conduit in the slabs, a logistical feat considering that slabs get poured very early on when the heating/cooling and electric trades are usually not on the job yet. Many installation locations were determined using GPS (Trimble). The cascading lights are all energy saving LED lamps illuminating laminated plexi sheets

There is a dazzling array of stairs and catwalks traversing the 12 story atrium allowing fantastic views inside the building and out to Station North and Mount Vernon. This new UB Law Center is architecturally the opposite of its introverted windowless predecessor

Behnisch's "lightness of being" philosophy translates into details throughout the building, the thin steel tube railings and the blond wood applications like these creative "guard-rail shelves" inviting students and faculty to linger and muse with a cup of coffee and the elbows on the shelf.

Sur les toits de Mt Vernon, the view to the south, the glass shaded by large fixed louvers

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Occasionally Behnisch departs from exposing the raw material and chooses bright colors to jolt users and create fresh lively accents.

these classroom table illustrate the concept of de-materializing any structure to the minimum, something that Behnisch Senior had already made a Leitmotif of his work.

Attention to detail is given even to the hidden exit stairways which would typically be treated like step-children and be done in a bare and basic fashion.

Even the boiler and chiller rooms are wonders of precision and clean design. The large building with its LEED Platinum "green" design has extensive facilities devoted to water treatment and the heating and chilling of water that will be pumped to 50 miles of tubing throughout the building. There is little forced air heating and cooling.
Transparancy, another mantra of Gunter and Stefan Behnisch alike carries through from the façade to the interior walls, many of them glass as well.

This view to the north shows how the checkerboard effect is created with solid panels. The glass elements are fritted with white dots to soften the brightness. Many windows are operable for natural ventilation.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

All images copyright by author.

Thanks to Ayer Saint Gross architect Steve Eastwood who provided the tour in March 2013. ArchPlan has no role in this project other than initial discussions of the author with the Abell Foundation how to organize a design competition for the project. Abell sponsored the international design competition.

The author wrote also an architectural review in the Baltimore Business Journal.


  1. There certainly are some wonderfully refreshing details which, although it's always hard to tell from pictures, appear to be well executed?
    I'm confused about the rain screen. How is it's inner surface kept clean? I guess I have no idea how it functions...fItZ

  2. The purpose of the glass rain screen is to keep the wind away from operable windows and reduce the solar gains by creating a vented air space that acts a bit like a chimney pulling hot air up instead of into spaces. The cleaning of the exterior screens is done from above with cable supports as on regular curtain walls. The inner side is a bit more tricky. It has to occur through the operable openings the way I understand it. Not much grime or dirt is to be expected there, though.

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