Originally created to house the workers of Volkswagen Works, and once called “Stadt des KdF-Wagens”, the city of Wolfsburg is a typical example of planned urban development driven by the economic impetus of a thriving automotive industry. Still closely connected to the company, Wolfsburg’s cultural identity today is geared to integrating different cultures and providing state-of-the-art services and leisure amenities.
The urban axis that departs from the castle of Klieversberg is punctuated by important buildings by Alvar Aalto, Hans Sharoun, and Peter Schweger, vividly illustrating successive urban-planning developments. EXPO 2000, held in nearby Hannover just to the north, led Volkswagen to create another landmark building, the “Autostadt”, a compact thematic area at its Wolfsburg headquarters to show the company’s entire range of cars.
Today, the new city bridge blurs the former divide between factory and city, and calls for an urban counterweight on the station square. This will be the new Phaeno Science Centre. Zaha Hadid’s prize-winning design with its elevated, 6.5 m exhibition floor, creates an urban landmark that dialogues directly with the city centre. Set on a newly landscaped site on a major intersection, as well as the museum, the building will also headquarter several public functions, thus making it a key regional focus. In keeping with its innovative architecture, the centre departs from traditional museum configurations with its interactive information systems.
The Phaeno Science Centre is a deliberately mysterious object arousing curiosity and a sense of discovery. There is, however, an inherent order to the complexity and strangeness that greet visitors. The sweeping scale of the exterior setting continues into the interior where an extensive, “porous” visual axis dispels any sense of being surrounded by a massive, enclosed volume.
The volumetric structural logic is highly unusual. Floors are not stacked one on top of the other nor does the building have a typical central hall with a roof winging out on each side. The huge volume is supported and structured by funnel-shaped cones that seem to have fallen out of the upper box-like volume. The cones are positioned along the major axes provided by the surrounding urban landscape. Their shape and development relate directly to the functions going on inside. So one funnel becomes the main entrance, another a lecture hall, while others act as lightwells or house equipment and plant. Three others fuse to become a large exhibition space underneath the main concourse level. The result is an alien but coherent crater landscape.
The same interpenetration achieved at ground level between the open interior and exterior spaces also operates at the closed upper level, with the public bridge penetrating the building like a wormhole. The blend of strangeness and fusion is reinforced by the choice of materials. Smooth, porous, acoustically-damped materials and contrasting surfaces create a virgin territory, an unknown world to be discovered.
The lighting will be also be an architectural tool. Designed to meet exhibition flexibility and signposting requirements, darkness will be a key feature. Careful juxtaposition of light and shadow will highlight the circulation routes throughout the building and create focal points of interest. Inside, light will be muted in dynamic contrast to the spot-lit exhibits, creating an atmosphere that lends itself to astonishment and curiosity. The lighting installed on the various approaches - pedestrian walkways, road or railway - will also be in keeping with their scale and speed. The façades will act as gigantic screen projecting images of activities going on inside.
Reinforced concrete has been chosen for the structure since it can be easily adapted to the building’s free-flowing forms. The long spans of roof and main exhibition level require the structure to be supported on piled foundations. The slabs are supported by reinforced-concrete shear walls that enclose the workshops, auditorium, main entrance and administrative areas. Their regular grid will ensure smooth continuity of formwork and reinforcement. Intermediate concrete ribs intersect at an acute angle, following the visual axis of the building.