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Area in front of Bonn train station: “You can’t call that a city entrance”

Area in front of Bonn train station : “You can’t call that a city entrance”

The area in front of Bonn’s railway station with the Maximilian Center and Urban Soul is the new gateway to the city. We spoke about it with architect Ines Knye, urban planner Sigurd Trommer and art historian and monument conservationist Martin Bredenbeck.

A mind game: Let’s say I was travelling abroad for five years. I arrive back at the central railway station in Bonn from Cologne. I stand bleary eyed on the steps. My first thought is that I’ve got off at the wrong stop, this is not my Bonn. I see two fairly anonymous blocks, boring pedestrian zone architecture that could be in any other city. The lowest common denominator when it comes to building. Quadratic, practical, fine. The fortress-like southern superstructure is gone, the late-nineteenth century houses in Maximilianstraße are hardly visible, the Bonner Loch and the car park have disappeared. Not bad, actually. But is this really supposed to be the new entrance portal to the city?

Ines Knye criticises a “certain sobriety”

I ask an expert for advice on the Maximilian Center/Urban Soul ensemble. Ines Knye, architect and chairwoman of the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg Association of German Architects (BDA), who passes the ensemble every day on her way to work, starts off with praise. “From an urban planning point of view, this is a gain,” she says, also with regard to the disappearance of the Bonner Loch, “the new, advanced edge to the city opposite the main railway station is a gain, especially the new square in Maximilianstraße”.

But when looking at the architecture, a “certain sobriety” sets in. Knye finds it “absolutely regrettable and incomprehensible” that attention was paid solely to functionality, while the design was rather loveless: no projections or recesses in the façade, no accentuation of the entrances, no visually set-off upper floor.

The “leap in scale was not achieved”, the process from a good spatial, urban figure to the adequate design of the façade. Architectural details are particularly important in a pedestrian zone, where passers-by come within a few metres of the façade. “The buildings are very undifferentiated, just typical inner-city retail buildings, simple cubes,” says Knye.

Non-design of open space

Although she finds the light travertine on the Maximiliancenter very pleasant, the contrast with the dark clinker brick on the Urban Soul façade is much too harsh. Which brings us to the whole ensemble. “What bothers me is the non-design of the open space and the ugly, functional wall at the end of the staircase - that’s a disaster,” complains the architect. Her conclusion: “You can’t call that a city entrance.”

“With regard to the Maximilian Centre and Urban Soul, I can understand the accusation that architects always just put shoe boxes in the cityscape,” says Knye, “but it doesn’t have to be that way.” The architect demands that a higher value be placed on design, structural details, material issues and the building culture dimension at an early planning phase. “We have to afford ourselves this, because these buildings will be there for the next 50 years.” Knye wants decision-makers who value architecture and influence the building contractors, and she calls for more architects to sit on the city’s design advisory board.

Esprit is missing for Sigurd Trommer

Urban planner Sigurd Trommer, my second interviewee, is also disappointed with the new city entrance. Trommer was head of the municipal planning and building control office in Bonn for 16 years, and later became President of the Federal Chamber of Architects. “This does not meet the standards for Bonn’s city centre,” he says politely, but then becomes more explicit: “This is not cultural building quality, I see banal architecture, awkward large-scale forms - no pizzazz or esprit,” he criticises.

As a detail he cites Urban Soul’s encounter with the late-nineteenth century houses on Maximilianstraße. “Huge horizontal windows contradict the slender vertical structure of the buildings opposite, and then there is the dark stone, which creates narrowness and is problematic for climatic reasons, as the walls heat up and radiate heat,” says Trommer. “Urban Soul’s buildings have too little design ambition, the architects should have used lighter stone to take the impact away from the blocks.”

Politicians should have done more

Trommer regrets the “missed opportunity” that politicians did not insist on a “first-class use of the urban space” at this important location in the city. This applies not only to the building plots sold by the city, but also to public space. Here the city authorities and politicians must apply high quality standards for function and design, he says.

Trommer sees a positive aspect that the railway station, which used to be rather isolated from the city, is now more integrated into the built-up city structure. This applies to the new setting with the Maximilian Centre and Urban Soul in the north-east, as well as to the development in the south-west on Quantiusstrasse. Trommer finds the “mobility link from the Urban Soul car park to the train station through a small bridge charming - this way, large structures gain a certain permeability”.

Deficits in traffic design

The urban planner still sees deficits in the design of the traffic in the entire area. For example, the private car traffic between the railway station and the new entrance to the city is no longer in keeping with the times. He envisages a design solution combining trams/buses and a bicycle lane, which should at least extend from the central bus station to Thomas-Mann-Strasse. Here, too, it is not only a question of good functionality, but also first-class design, which should also deal with the “rancid corners” along the station building and in the north subway.

Martin Bredenbeck misses originality

My third interviewee, the art historian Martin Bredenbeck, who is a monument conservationist and member of the Werkstatt Baukultur Bonn, begins by looking back: “When I spoke at the 2011 Art Historians’ Conference in Würzburg about the modernist cityscape in Bonn and its ongoing conversions, there still seemed to be hope for the area in front of the main train station.” At the time, he explained how the conditions in the 1960s and 70s had been a child of the time and what the planners back then had been concerned with: all functions, from the underground to the pathways and public spaces to flats and shops, had been part of a well thought-out overall design.

A lot of pathos with ‘Urban Soul’

“Südüberbauung” (southern superstructure), “Nordfeld” (north field) and “Bonner Loch” (literally Bonn hole) were nicknames in common parlance, he says. “Ten years later, I see a new setting being completed on this site that has given itself its own names with a lot of pathos, including ‘Urban Soul’,” says Bredenbeck. “I’m not convinced about the new design. What’s there now I think I’ve seen a hundred times elsewhere.”

It is quite possible that his opinion will change after ten, 20 or 30 years, “but at the moment it all seems interchangeable, too dense, too high, far too grey.” The architecture itself is straightforward and rational to the last, “due to the surfaces it will reflect heat radiation and contribute to heating up the city, the routing is adventurous in places, and what appears to be the design of a square on the Maximilianstraße side is only a residual area that will be filled with colourful furniture in no time.”

Bredenbeck is also critical of the vertical green space on the new south building: “In view of climate change and the serious approaches to vertical gardens that we see in Paris or Asia, for example, this is somewhere between cute and ridiculous.”

Missed opportunity

Monument conservationist Bredenbeck looks back professionally on the late modernism in the Rhineland, on the approaches of the 1970s to re-accentuate the body of the city and create public space. His conclusion: “I think that Bonn missed an opportunity to further develop the existing buildings in front of the main station. I don’t believe that the current situation will prove itself in the long run. Let’s see!”

Architects chat online

Three sobering statements that underpin the initial feelings when exiting the train station. Since 2003 similar voices can be found about the area in front of the station on a fantastic, detailed internet chat run by the German Architecture Forum.

More should have happened at this neuralgic location than merely consensus architecture. Who is to blame for this? The investors? The city with its design advisory board? The architects? They can also do things differently, if they are allowed to. A few clicks on the internet and you can see what Markus Sporer and Cornelius Wens from Cross Architecture are capable of, what they have built in Utrecht, for example. Anything but boring. The same goes for Louis de Jager’s (Forum Architects) buildings in Amsterdam.

(Original text: Thomas Kliemann, Translation: Caroline Kusch)