A brief history
Wolfsburg in Germany, a city of 120,000 inhabitants between Berlin and Hanover was entirely built by the automobile mogul Volkswagen in 1938. The city was built to house the workers of the Volkswagen factory, which is still accounted as the biggest car plant in the world.
In 1998, Volkswagen launched a new concept “the Autostadt”, the city of the car. The idea was to make the buying of a new car into a fun ceremony like a family outing. The Autostadt complex features several activities like pavilions for the automobile brands in the Volkswagen Group, museums, shopping plazas consisting of a customer centre where customers can pick up new cars and take a tour through the factory as well as games for the children. A million and a half visitors make this place a success every year.
In 2005, the city completed the construction of a new addition, a science centre which is now famously known as Phæno Science Center. It was built as an identity statement in front of the already existing institutions of the city.
A canal and rail track separates the factory and the Autostadt, that is where Wolfsburg chose to site its symbolic building, the Phæno Science Center. It is in the heart of the city in an area between the commercial area and offices. It is a strategic site between the entrance to the station through which most of the Autostadt visitors pass and the new footbridge they cross to connect the north bank of MittellandKanal.
As stated by the architects, the concept and design of the building were inspired from a ‘magic box’- an object capable of awakening curiosity and the desire for discovery in all who open or enter it. The Phæno represents the new image of the city. Aligned with the railway track it is a singular triangular concrete block, with no monumental façade without a break in concrete. Phæno looks like nothing else known.
It is impossible to think what it houses, what draws the eye are the curious bases made of concrete and glass rounded forms rising from the ground. Zaha Hadid prefers to call these cones. Cones with point buried in the ground and widening as they rise upwards, leaning almost ready to topple.
There are 10 cones, each unique either by shape, inclination, or curvature. These shapes are possible due to careful shuttering of concrete that shapes and marks the cones during pouring emphasizing the geometry and the tension of the volumes.
The visitor’s movement both pedestrian or vehicular passes over an artificial landscape and then into the building. The building is raised to 8 meters using concrete and glass cones rising from the ground. This increases the transparency and porosity on the ground and the structure acts as a covering over the artificial landscape underneath. The main volume houses the exhibition space, and the commercial and cultural functions are placed within the supporting concrete cones.
The main volume or exhibition area is also known as the ‘architectural adventure playground’ comes off as a bit surprising like ‘a wonderland’ containing 250 experimental stations showcasing concepts like vision, energy, matter, movement, and information each experiment being autonomous. These exhibits are focused on creating an interactive and fun way to enhance learning for children and adults.
Inspired by the natural landscape, Zaha Hadid wanted to mimic nature by using elements such as craters, slopes, and canyons.
The architect uses the lines of the five truncated cones appearing on the surface of the exhibition floor to invent new figures that structure a landscape and continuing her quest for complexity she doubles the part of the main area which she refers to as the pocket. This doubles the exhibition space. She creates a new complex with multiple paths and perspectives, an imaginary landscape to excite the curiosity of the visitor.
Galleries open to the lower level of the pocket whereas a sunken valley, a volcanic crater becomes a conference venue.
The exhibition space is a large open space for visitors to wander at will. It is punctuated by slope galleries, openings, and prospects. In true Zaha Hadid fashion, the space is free-flowing, with no start or top. It is completely up to the user to organize their own choice of experiment and observation. Everything is an invitation to move from one viewpoint to the next without any hindrance.
The only point of reference is the cones. They pass through the whole of the upper volume and carry the metallic roofing. 10 cones are required to carry the weight of the main floor and only 5 are required to support the roof framing.
In one of the cones, the architect doubles up the load-bearing structure. The largest cone springs from the ground and stops at the first level. In the middle, a narrow blind concrete shaft pierces the hole of the floor that carries the roofing. A cone within a cone.
The cones carry the upper level, they free the ground but unlike the traditional piles- these are inhabited with windows, display panels, or sliding glass doors. Each of them houses necessities pertinent to the exhibition area while also supporting the vertical circulation. This showcases Hadid’s intention of unifying form, function, and shape all in one.
Phæno is made of reinforced concrete. The southern façade has several small openings that fragment the view of the city but protects the experiments from the harsh light. While the north side facing the VW, the factory has a large glazed curtain façade letting that diffused light come into space and giving a view of the Autostadt. A double metallic steel lattice is used in the roofing structure supported by concrete columns.
Large vaults supporting the upper part include an alignment of jutting diamond shapes prefabricated in concrete and accommodating lighting the same sculptural intention affects the cones, the curves of the vaulting and the diamond patterning.
Phæno has a unique location, it is in front of the industrial zone and opens to the main city street. Therefore, it is one in the center and the edge of the city. Zaha Hadid cleverly sought out a solution for this situation. Phæno is presented as a porous urban mass, lifted from the ground, the building frames the view of the factory and lets pedestrians flow by. It has become a crossroad rather than a barrier. The cones lifting the main volume also creates a public space underneath where the interpretation of its use is left to the user.
Before its opening, Zaha Hadid described it as ‘the most ambitious and complete statement of our quest for complex, dynamic and fluid spaces.’ Phæno is a marvel of its own. It stands proudly as the identity of the city and describes a solid and bold image of its creator.