German University Study Center Named Best New Building In Europe

A lightweight university study centre designed to be easily disassembled has won the prize for the best building in Europe. Longevity, permanence and a sense of immutability might be the ambition of most architects, but Gustav Düsing and Max Hacke would be delighted to see their building adapted and reconfigured, or ultimately dismantled and moved somewhere else altogether.

“We imagined the project as a changeable system,” says Düsing, co-designer of the new study pavilion for the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, which has been named this year’s winner of the EU Mies award (formerly the Mies van der Rohe award), the biennial European Union prize for contemporary architecture. “We wanted it to be a counter model to the university’s high-rise building and its conventional one-sided lecture halls. It’s more like an extension of the landscape that can be forever modified, a non-hierarchical space that the students can make their own.”

A three-dimensional learning landscape … the Study Pavilion. Photograph: Iwan Baan

Standing as an elegant white steel and glass pavilion, nestled among trees on the edge of the university campus, the building houses an open-plan arrangement of flexible study spaces across two levels. From the outside, it seems impossibly slender, a thin sketch of a building formed by a rectangular framework of toothpick-thin columns and beams. Inside, it opens up as a three-dimensional learning landscape, a modular frame that invites different forms of inhabitation. Thick yellow curtains can be drawn to close off particular areas, creating ad hoc lecture rooms and quiet tutorial spaces, while the furniture can be moved outside on to balconies in the warmer months, providing outdoor study areas sheltered by a deep overhanging roof – which also shades the interior in summer.

The architects say they were inspired by the radical superstructures of the 1960s, including Cedric Price’s Fun Palace – a flexible “a university of the streets” once imagined for London – and Yona Friedman’s Ville Spatiale – a fantastical concept for a multilayered city-sized grid that could be constantly adapted. Neither of these came to pass, but some of their modular ambition lives on in Braunschweig’s 3 x 3-metre spaceframe.

Desks around the edge feel suspended in the trees. Photograph: Lemmart

While the ground floor is entirely open plan, the architects designed the first floor as a series of “islands” connected by bridges, creating separate study zones between lofty double-height volumes. Some are at the centre of it all, overlooking the action below, others are more removed and withdrawn, while desks around the edge feel almost suspended in the trees. Staircases link the different areas, inside and out, giving the sense of being inside a kind of climbing frame of learning. “It’s a bit like nesting,” says Düsing. “You offer a space that is very complex and has a lot of different qualities, then students can come in and find their spot.”

The architects describe the building as acting like a microchip on a circuit board, a central meeting point connected to all parts of the university campus. There is no front or back, but nine equal entrances all around the 1,000 square metre (10,760 sq ft) building, making it feel like an open hub, accessible from all directions – even from the footpath along the nearby river, welcome in members of the public, too. The students have already adopted the structure and started to add their own interventions: on the architects’ last visit, they found someone had even strung up a hammock from the steel frame. “It should feel like an extension of the living room,” says Hacke. “They come here to eat and play cards, as well as work.”

Thick yellow curtains can be drawn to close off particular areas, creating ad hoc lecture rooms and quiet tutorial spaces. Photograph: Iwan Baan

From a technical perspective, the building’s chief innovation is in its structural system. Inspired by Märklin construction sets (the German equivalent of Meccano), it is built from a prefabricated kit of parts that can be easily taken apart. Everything is bolted or screwed together, rather than welded or glued, in keeping with the wider movement towards circular construction, allowing entire building components to be reused. The slender frame is made of hollow steel sections that are just 10cm (4in) wide, and which also contain the electrical wiring, lighting and plug sockets, as well as housing drainage downpipes – doing away with the need for suspended ceilings and raised floors, where such services are usually housed.

The floors are made from prefabricated timber cassettes, slotted into place, while the ceilings are covered with perforated acoustic panelling which, along with the curtains and carpeted floors, creates a remarkably quiet environment. “It is a counter model to being in the library,” says Düsing. “There’s a background buzz, but it’s never overwhelming.”

The judges praised the rigour and precision of the project – which was selected from a longlist of 40 buildings across Europe – commenting on how it “has taken a clear architectural idea, scrutinised it and pushed it to the limit.” More than just a building, they added, “it could be understood as a versatile system, merging technological inventions with a flexible and reusable principle.”

The building has already won a national architecture prize in Germany. Photograph: Iwan Baan

The project has already garnered wide recognition in Germany, winning the national architecture prize from the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, and hailed by one newspaper critic as “what the future of German construction could look like”. In a time of scarce resources, it has been praised for being as lean and economical as possible: everything has been stripped back to the bare minimum, honed to its most essential elements to fit within the total €5.2m (£4.47m) budget (€3.2m for the construction).

The project is all the more impressive given that it is the architects’ first ever building. Düsing, 40, and Hacke, 38, entered the competition in 2015, just a couple of years after graduating from London’s Architectural Association, where they had met as students. They now both have independent offices in Berlin, but come together to collaborate with others when needs arise. “It’s a survival strategy,” says Hacke, of their loose network of seven. “We can work together when we need a bigger workforce, then go back to our smaller structures.” It is a nimble model of practice that is as agile, efficient and adaptable as the building itself.

The last winner of the EU Mies award, in 2022, was a similarly open-plan and adaptable building for Kingston University, the palatial Town House designed by Grafton Architects. Previous UK winners include Stansted Airport in 1990 and Waterloo Station in 1994, but there will be no more: since Brexit, British buildings are no longer eligible for the €60,000 EU prize.

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