Volksbank Vienna Headquarters

New build historic context - Austria, 2010

From Isabella Marboe

„The new clients’ centre of the Volksbank is located in the core of Vienna’s world cultural heritage area. Carsten Roth has responded to this situation in a masterly way. Together with the renovated existing building the new structure forms a classic block; its perforated façade offers a refined transformation of 19th century historicism. In the central courtyard, sheltered by a foil roof, textile-clad towers create an exclusive skyline.

History transformed
The 19th century Gründerzeit (literally Founder Epoch) was perhaps the most influential epoch in Vienna. But classic modernism also had a strong influence on the city’s view of itself in terms of architecture. The richly decorated historicist facades of the 19th century were followed by the sobriety of undisguised materials and the postulate of the legible flow of structural forces. Adolf Loos demanded that every change should bring with it an improvement. Carsten Roth’s conversion and extension of the headquarters of the Österreichische Volksbanken-AG is a contemporary response to this specifically Viennese constellation. In the new headquarters a reflective experience of the city is condensed into a piece of architecture that forms a symbiosis of past, present and future. The site of the Österreichische Volksbanken AG lies in the core area of the UNESCO world cultural heritage, in Vienna’s ninth district. The headquarters have been located in Peregringasse for over 50 years. They form the long, north-eastern side of a block whose short sides are defined by Kolingasse in the northwest and Maria-Theresien-Straße in the southeast. The south-western edge is along Liechtensteinstraße. A magnificent 19th century building that has a rusticated plinth with round arches, decorative balconies, cornices, lintels and a rooftop balustrade forms a U around the eastern half of the block, the western half was completed by two buildings dating from the 1970s and other extensions. The bank has many branches nearby.

Viennese solution
Clearly, the location in the world cultural heritage zone requires delicate handling. On this account, in cooperation with the city of Vienna and the local urban district, the Volksbanken AG set up a competition for the development of their headquarters, which Carsten Roth duly won. His project is highly sensitive. The Gründerzeit building – and therefore 51 % of the existing fabric – was preserved. The remainder was demolished and replaced by an addition with a sophisticated perforated façade, which also forms a “U” and completes the block to create a new entity. Together with the existing fabric, which was elaborately underpinned, carefully renovated and “purged”, the office levels of the new building form a coherent continuum that locks together at the joint centre of the phenomenally designed courtyard. “All banks want to be part of a sky-line”, says Carsten Roth. “But we didn’t want to be a high-rise building, or to place a glass palace in a UNESCO world cultural heritage area.” In addition to which Roth took as his goal an office concept that differs from the standard centre corridor type. Around 750 people work in the bank: the intention was that they should not sit around a courtyard but have windows to the street. All the staircases, sanitary facilities, ancillary spaces, tea kitchens and meeting boxes were, so to speak, “extracted” and stacked to form compact boxes in the courtyard.
These are docked to a corridor running around all sides and now form an exclusive skyline for the Volksbank in the atrium. This atmospherically dense, spatially spectacular solution liberates the offices from the servant functions. Strung out along the connecting communicative thread of the inner corridor, the offices are accommodated in open spaces flooded with light that offer a view of the city. The Viennese answer to the glittering office towers of the international banking world is a perfect illusion of infinity. In this 26-metre-high atrium one’s sense of scale is unsettled. The towers are veiled in white, non-flammable glass-fibre fabric stretched across frames. They seem bodiless, abstract and are reflected in the dark floor. This creates an intensive and expansive experience of space that is further strengthened by the roof of flame-retardant ETFE foil. The three-ply inflatable cushions on the delicate “V” shaped struts are self-cleansing and hang from steel cables stretched against a milky sky. “We thought it important to use soft materials in order to make the space seem diffuse and allow it to expand”, says Carsten Roth. This atrium serves as a place where people can meet and events can be efficiently organized. Franzobel wrote the play “Die Pappenheimer” for this space. Eva Schlegel had bands of the text printed across the glass doors of the offices in the old building. A competition held for the artistic design of the towers was won by Otto Zitko. He is currently engaged in covering them with abstract lines.

Gründerzeit reloaded
The addition, clearly separated from the old building by a glazed seam, is fitted harmoniously into the block; its facade is made of precisely worked exposed concrete whose marbled surface is suggestive of white travertine. In Carsten Roth’s office the term “artificial stone with travertine-like surface, direct from the shuttering” was coined for this. Concrete piers that project and recess in three depths, along with storey-height openings of different widths, translate the plasticity of the Gründerzeit into a present-day idiom. Anchored in the modern tradition their different sizes make the transfer of structural forces legible. The mass of this artificial stone wall is a structurally optimized, multi-storey perforated panel that hangs from a Vierendeel truss and is anchored to just a few bearing points in the reinforced concrete slabs of the new building. In visual terms it forms the lively centre zone of the classically composed façade, while at the top the recessed roof level with its angled glazing forms a connecting clasp between old and new. At night, when the lights are on, it extends like a glowing ring around the entire block.

Special from top to toe
In Kolingasse the glazed ground floor is dissolved, so to speak, in light and glass. Behind the draught lobby a view through the building opens up, allowing one to grasp its dimensions. Keeping the entire entrance front free of columns so that the facade appears to hover above the transparent base was the exceptional achievement of the office of Bollinger + Grohmann. The loads are transferred to reinforced concrete panels at the side flanks behind the glass layer. In the two-storey foyer a wall clad in cherry wood also has a load-bearing function. The text “eins durch unendlich – unendlich durch eins” by Brigitte Kowanz is reflected apparently endlessly in the black glass of the ceiling.
A cascading staircase with a landing and a bridge to the group of conference rooms on the first floor make a spatial experience out of the need to vault over the entrance to the garage. The atrium behind, raised one level higher, develops a fascinating effect. It leads into a bright, spacious canteen. All the offices in the new building have two part opening windows with black aluminium frames and blinds between the panes of glass. The concrete ceiling slabs are fitted with a capillary cooling ceiling and are rendered; there is a controlled ventilation and fresh air supply system. Glass fins lend a rhythm to the transparency of the sixth floor, take up the articulation of the facade and offer panoramic views in Cinemascope format. Above the artificial stone parapet that matches the level of the roof cornice in the old building one can even walk onto a balcony.
In this building even the underground garage with parking spaces for 140 cars is something special. Each member of staff named their three favourite books; the photos of the book spines make the parking level with its frog-green ceiling and light-coloured cast asphalt floor into a symbolic library, a literary portrait of the people who park their cars here.  

Reprinted with friendly permission from 
Isabella Marboe and Springer Publishing House, Vienna – New York
„Viennese sophistication”, published in “architektur.aktuell” Issue 03/2011