In May 2005, the city of Herford, Germany, inaugurated its new MARTa Museum designed by Frank O. Gehry. As the city is the centre of an important furniture, industry and craft manufacturing region, the client, Herford’s city and regional authorities, wanted the museum to interface between architecture, contemporary arts and design (MARTa stands for Furniture, Art and Environment).
The enveloping, sculptured architecture reflects this intent. A short distance from the railroad station and overlooking a small river (the Aa), the complex embraces an existing building: a stark, compact parallelepiped, a former 1950s factory. This now serves as a sort of hinge for the functional development of the whole museum. Gehry gave it a wrap-around staircase with wooden treads and made it the entrance and focal point for visitors. It now contains the reception, teaching workshops, conference rooms, and offices of the museum and local association of wood and furniture manufacturers.
The façade of the former factory bears a huge landmark grid sign indicating the entrance. The curvilinear roof is in steel. The new museum buildings extend naturally from both ends of the core façade, curving round to create an enclosed parvis and short passage leading to the entrance. On one side is the Forum, a meeting and cultural centre, a curvilinear environment lit by a rooflight. On the opposite side are the exhibition rooms, all on the same floor, clustered around the central hall whose large skylight is cut into the highest external volume. The dynamic imparted by the curving gypsum board walls, the variable height ceilings and natural lighting from truncated cone-shaped rooflights are key features of the interior exhibition spaces.
Neither neutral or overwhelming, light is as tangible a construction element as the curving walls and ceilings, an active element of Gehry’s signature. The building has a reinforced concrete structural frame. The curving walls – windowless along the whole exhibition side – are clad in klinker, a traditional material in the area. The satin-finish stainless steel roofing in some places cantilevers out over the façade. The museum’s profile clearly evidences the placement of the rooflights, also in klinker and satin-finish stainless steel. The cafeteria is in the pre-existing building. Its steel-frame glazed façade overlooks the stream. Inside, the lattice beams supporting the roof are visible while the serving counter in amber-coloured metal alloy is lit by a row of recessed floorlights.