Drab, functional, housing stressed-out and overworked bureaucrats in pin-striped suits are the usual images one associates with the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt, a less than hip institution with little international glamour. Nonetheless, the design selected for the new bank by Coop Himmelb(l)au, a Viennese architectural firm, is sophisticated and provocative - the kind of cool abstraction that is the home of corporate power and symbolizes Europe's growing financial stature in an emerging globalized world - one portending dynamic things to come.
After a dramatic year-long competition that tempted some of the biggest names in architecture to submit their designs, the prize went to the most ambitious and costly of the three finalists, Coop Himmelb(l)au. Translated literally, without the (l), the firm's name means 'building into the sky' and with the (l), 'sky-blue.' When judging from its other spectacular architectural icons throughout Europe and the U.S., its designs are just that - soaring skyscrapers into the outer blue.
The striking design for the new European Central Bank in Frankfurt is dominated by two asymmetrical and slightly twisted glass towers that will house the high-tech corporate offices with floor-to-ceiling windows. The towers frame a soaring atrium where rows of enclosed-glass elevators shoot up to the corporate offices left and right, and greenhouses, public lounges, meeting rooms and a restaurant provide for the ultimate in urban experience. "Our design is not only functional, it is an emotional skyscraper," claimed the firm's managing partner, Wolf Prix. "It will be an icon for the European community in the new century." With a striking view of Frankfurt's skyline, it is a design that surely promises to make the new ECB one of the most original and monumental new buildings in Europe.
Founded in Vienna, Austria, in 1968 by Wolf D. Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, Coop Himmelb(l)au has made spectacular contributions within the fields of urbanism, architecture, design and art. In 1998, a subsidiary office was opened in Los Angeles, California and in 2000, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The Viennese firm has realized projects ranging from remodelling in Vienna to city planning in France. Among the most widely recognized projects are the BMW World in Munich, the UFA Cinema Palace in Dresden, the Musée des Confluences in Lyon and the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. It is working on projects throughout the world: Europe, the United States, Japan and Mexico.
In the meantime, Coop Himmelb(l)au has continuewere always against the world as it is, demanding another in its stead - namely, the impossible. Germinating in the 1960s, when the "Austrian Phenomenon" movement rose up against the dull and tired post-war architecture calling for a new world utopia, Coop Himmelb(l)au envisioned architecture no longer as only functional but rather as artistic. The firm inaugurated the 1980s with the claim: "Architecture must burn." And since then, their designs stand at the cutting edge of the international architectural scene.
Today times appear decidedly ripe for the fruits of decade-long designs depicting the unimaginable and the unreasonable. The world today demands sparkling diamonds, spectacular tokens of forms and spaces never seen before ... Coop Himmelb(l)au delivers.
Akron Art Museum, Ohio
The Austrian weekly, Profil, states: "Arrogant, provocative and excessive describes Coop Himmelb(l)au - or is that a description of Wolf D. Prix himself?, the flashier of the two architects behind the firm's success." The extroverted Prix contrasts strongly to his more quiet, reserved and gemütliche partner, Helmut Swiczinsky. Together, the duo has performed miracles on the international architectural scene.
Helmut Swiczinsky, born 1944 in Poznan, Poland, was raised in Vienna and educated at its Technische Universität as well as the Architectural Association of London, where he spent time as visiting professor.
Wolf D. Prix was born in Vienna in 1942 and also educated at its Technische Universität as well as the Architectural Association of London, followed by a long stint at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in L.A.