The medium is the message
Media and architecture meet at the AG4 Mediatecture Company in Cologne, Germany
Otto Pohl -- Interior Design, 7/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
The AG4 Mediatecture Company building in Cologne, Germany, looks like a pair of huge orange-framed television screens. For a concern dedicated to merging media and architecture, the symbolism might seem a little obvious.
Christoph Kronhagel doesn't have a problem with that.
"Most people think that clichés are cliché," says Kronhagel, AG4's chief architect and the designer of the building. "Ridiculous. A cliché is a symbol that has immediacy. Use it."
AG4 helps companies showcase their identities via the built environment, and Kronhagel and AG4's other principal, Ralf Müller, aren't afraid to state the obvious—as long as it's underpinned by clever twists. For a travel-technology client, the logical focal point for the foyer was a globe. So how about a digital one that twirls to project destinations across the walls? At the Coca-Cola Company's new headquarters in Berlin, the unmistakable Coke logo defines the facade. But the surface of the ribbon motif is actually a screen that fizzes with electronic bubbles while morphing through the trademark colors of various company beverages.
For AG4's very own three-story building, Kronhagel tweaked the basic symbolism of the facade's twin "televisions" by playing with the movement of data and people inside. Carrying power, phone, and network cables, for example, are blue acrylic ceiling-mounted cases that owe their glow to strings of lights snaked among the cables. In the stairwell, Kronhagel hooked up a motion detector to colored LED panels that shift to white when anyone passes, creating swaths of light traveling up and down. And the facade's translucent skin allows passersby to observe employees' shadowy figures after dark.
Starting on the exterior, Kronhagel took advantage of low-cost, high-impact off-the-rack supplies. He covered side and back elevations in transparent acrylic, running strips of semitransparent copper-colored plastic through the siding's horizontal troughs. Window blinds, in an identical treatment, blend into the wall when they're down; when raised, they fold in half above the window. The front facade's "televisions" combine orange canvas-covered frames with 21-foot-square "screens" of industrial glass sandwiching semitransparent insulation.
Throughout the 5,000-square-foot interior, Kronhagel based his cost-conscious approach on making a big impression. "I go for the statement. That way, I can save money on details," he explains. In the first-floor conference room, bright orange padded doors close to form the back wall. When they swing open to an adjacent kitchen, the conference room becomes a dining room.
For the freshness of an open-plan interior without the usual drawbacks of noise and lack of privacy, Kronhagel placed two glass-enclosed offices at the center of the lower two floors. (The principals and two assistants work here.) In open areas, custom birch acoustical screens shield the workstations. Vertical cabinets, next to each desk, incorporate orange and brown pyramids of polypropylene-foam—they're both a noise-reduction device and a retro, 1960s element.
Linoleum-topped steel tables and blue lacquered wood shelving were all built in-house—AG4 purchased virtually nothing but seating. Bombo stools by Stefano Giovannoni enliven the kitchen. In the third-floor presentation room, the firm's clients sit on yellow Swan lounge chairs by Arne Jacobsen or gray Toribio armchairs by Lievore Altherr Molina, using Gnome stools by Philippe Starck as either tables or additional places to perch.
And what if Jacobsen or Starck ever goes out of style? Kronhagel understands the contradiction presented by the permanence of architecture and the impermanence of media-driven tastes. "A lot of people get scared about building something lasting, so they go simple," he says. Instead, he made sure that key design elements are replaceable. The foam pyramids can easily pop out of their steel framework if the look gets stale; the facade's orange canvas frames allow for an inexpensive color change should the mood strike.
What won't change is Kronhagel's creative resolution of the conflict between hip architecture and mundane functionality. Consider the ceiling lights' remote-control switches, scattered about on tables and desks. The choice seems odd at first. If visitors ask, secretary Ulrike Breer gestures to the glass walls of her office and shrugs. "Well," she asks, "where would you mount them?"