The History of the Building

A perfect example of the “Darmstadt Building System:” The architecture department building

Sandra Wagner-Conzelmann, Fachgebiet GTA
The building of the Faculty of Architecture is located on the southern periphery of the city of Darmstadt, around two kilometres away from the university quarter in the city centre. It was the first building to be constructed as part of a comprehensive plan for the “greenfield” expansion of the TU Darmstadt.
From a distance, the building evokes the impression of an amorphous angular concrete block. On closer examination, however, its appearance becomes more diversified and a number of different structures can be identified, i.e. the main building, the library building and the lecture theatres. Concrete parapets and ribbon windows provide an external indication of the subdivision of the main building into six floors and lend a horizontal articulation to the façade. In contrast to this, vertical emphasis is created by the recessed staircase tower. A striking feature is the repeated dimension which defines the proportions of the entire complex as well as the design of the façades, glass and open areas. This repeated dimension can be found as a structural and design element in all of the faculty buildings on the Lichtwiese that originate from the same period. This comprehensive expansion is based on a development plan formulated in 1964 in conjunction with the Darmstädter Bausystem, i.e. “Darmstadt Building System”.

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The History of the Building

The architecture department building

The laying of the foundation stone for the architecture department in July 1967 marked the start of the development plan for the Lichtwiese. The building was intended to be a perfect example of the “Darmstadt Building System”.

The other departmental buildings in the “Darmstadt System” on the Lichtwiese then appeared gradually, the civil engineering building (a row type, 1968-70), organic chemistry (a group type, 1969-74), physical chemistry (a row type, 1970-73) and mechanical engineering (1st phase 1970-72, 2nd phase 1974).
The architecture department building was of the stackable multi-storey type, with a roofed atrium. Following the “Darmstadt Building System”, the basic statical framework is a reinforced concrete skeleton, working to the basic column spacing dimensions laid down for the departmental buildings on the Lichtwiese. The reinforced concrete skeleton is assembled in the main from just four different parts, coffered ceiling unit, binding joist, column and façade element. The staircases and lift shafts in cast-in-situ concrete reinforce the structure and stabilize it against wind load.
The roofed atrium marks the geometrical centre of the building, with the galleries of the five storeys arranged around it. Thus each storey is similarly structured: the rooms for the individual specialisms are in the corners, with the students' workrooms in between.
The principle of flexible room division is put into practice in the specialist areas: here only the boundary walls are in limestone masonry, all the internal structuring is managed with non-loadbearing dividing walls made up of prefabricated elements. The possibility of varying the room divisions is still frequently used today.
The atrium itself now houses the cafeteria, appropriately called “Die Kuhle” (The Hollow), in a sunken area. It was designed by students, and is the most important meeting place and communication area in the building.
The ground floor of the main building was brought forward by one module, so that it encloses the main building. It opens up into a courtyard on the east side, and connects the main building with the section housing the library and the lecture rooms.
In the mean time, teachers and students have made this building their own over many generations, redesigned it to meet their needs and thus always adapted it to meet the needs of current higher education practice. The building is still “available” like a working instrument, i.e. the basic idea of the “Darmstadt Building System” has thoroughly proved its worth.

TU Darmstadt's “green field” expansion plans

In the 1960s, rising student numbers in Germany led to the foundation of many new universities and to expansion for old ones. The Science Council also recommended additional space of at least 120,000 sq m for the Darmstadt institution, more than double the area available for higher education in the city centre. A possible expansion by 100% was also to be borne in mind. This ambitious project needed entirely new planning outside the inner city university campus, which was already very cramped.

After long discussions about a site for the expansion programme, development on the Lichtwiese finally became possible in 1963, as a result of a land swap between the state of Hesse and the city of Darmstadt. Higher education facilities had been establishing themselves here since the 1920s, like for example the university institute by the Botanical Gardens, the university stadium and the university swimming complex. Now other departments were to also to be moved out: civil engineering, mechanical engineering and parts of the architecture and chemistry departments. Here the strategically favourable situation of the Lichtwiese was a key consideration: it is only two kilometres away from the university area in the city centre, so it is easily reached on foot as well.

But as the Lichtwiese was also an important easily accessible recreation area for Darmstadt, the city imposed the condition that a 200 metre wide green strip parallel with the existing residential buildings. This green strip was afforested, and is popular with walkers.

The 1964 development plan

The development plan for the new university complex was based on doing justice to the university's constantly changing demands and developments. Here above all it was important that the individual departments should have guaranteed expansion possibilities. These demands were met by comprehensive plans for the Darmstadt university building department: the whole area to be developed on the Lichtwiese was split up into departmental quarters (then called “faculty areas”), within which the individual buildings could be varied on the basis of a common dimensional module. This meant that each department could expand as needed within its quarter, in a row pattern, in tower form or with a number of complementary halls. The building volume could in fact have been increased by 100% without throwing the basic composition of the entire university area off balance.

The departmental quarters were separated from each other by green areas that opened up the whole complex and tied it in with the nature around it. At the same time, the green areas thrust right into the centre of the university complex. Here the intention was to build a forum with facilities to meet the needs of the university population, e.g. a refectory and several shops, but also inter-faculty buildings, e.g. a large lecture theatre and a library. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic were to be separated from each other on different levels. This B level was intended to link the departmental buildings with each other and with the central forum. But realization of these buildings was postponed, for financial reasons, and also because university development changed. The refectory was not completed until 1975, so only then did the site acquire an architectural and communicative centre, though this was no substitute for the planned central forum. The B level was simply abandoned entirely as an idea.

The “Darmstadt Building System”

The Hesse State Building Office commissioned the State University Building Department to develop a prefabricated component system that offered great flexibility and expansion possibilities in the micro and macro areas, intended at the same time to guarantee economical building to a very great extent.

To meet these requirements, the University Building Department architects planned so-called “Verfügungsgebäude” – buildings that could be created as needed on the basis of industrial series production. These were planned to be as neutral as possible in terms of function, so that each particular user could implement a specific spatial programme. Two building types were developed, a stackable multi-storey structure and a hall structure.

Studies of the space needed for a workstation with desk or a lab place led to basic dimension of 1.25 metres or 1.875 metres, which was binding on all departments. This has subsequently been switched to the European dimensions, with a preferred grid of 1.2 metres or 2.4 metres.

Industrial series production for shell and finishing work guaranteed the financial viability needed for the project. To shorten building times, columns, binding joists, coffered ceilings and façade elements were made on the spot in a field factory and used immediately. The prefabricated part system and the fact that building components were manufactured on site meant that the buildings came into being at record speed: the shells were completed so quickly that that money granted for the building work ran out! Hence the speed of building was slowed down, which caused higher costs in its turn.

The University of Marburg's expansion on the Lahnberge provided a model for the Darmstadt Building System. The so-called “Marburg System” was developed here from 1961, a flexible and variable building method that was also the first example of standardized building in German universities (implemented from 1964).