01 | 2020

From colorful wallpaper to a construction in the real world

It all begins with the idea, the vision, the inspiration. Sometimes it’s only a sketch that might have been scribbled on a napkin before a computer program generates the initial graphics. Developing an architectonic fantasy into buildings that are technically extremely complex but fine for daily use; obeying the laws of nature, physics, statics, and mathematics; and fulfilling the requirements of monument conservation and fire protection—in many cases, this means the ideator and the implementer are traveling together on a long journey.

In addition, for star architects ego branding and their individual creative styles play a much bigger role within their architectural brands, and thus are a significant aspect of their ideas. Designs by star architects, such as Frank O. Gehry and Zaha Hadid, are always recognizable, whatever the function of the specific building might be. The vision of something extraordinary, an architectural work of art, something that’s never been seen before has consequences for the cooperation between the architect and a construction company, such as HOCHTIEF. The implementation of high-flying plans becomes a struggle between creative drive and constructional feasibility. “Art is beautiful, but it’s a lot of work,” wrote the Bavarian satirist Karl Valentin. The engineers at HOCHTIEF certainly agree. 


The Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, which was completed in 2016, is a striking example. Here the creative control of the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron came face to face with the engineering expertise of HOCHTIEF. “It was difficult, but we gradually came closer together,” says Beate Cornils, the Senior Project Manager responsible for the construction of the “Elphi’s” concert area. “The cooperation was characterized by the fact that many of the planned elements simply were not conventional items you could find on the market. They had to be researched, developed, and created as unique items,” she says, pointing out the 3,000 hand-blown glass light fixtures as an example. 

“Besides, stricter standards applied to the concert halls as they are places of public assembly requiring official authorization,” she adds. “On top of that, there are special fire-protection requirements for high-rise buildings. It would have been much easier to build the big concert hall down below in the original warehouse. And there were also strict requirements for the acoustics and the soundproofing. The white skin cladding of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall wasn’t available as a standard solution.” Cornils describes the long process leading to the final result as a case of two partners feeling their way forward together—and encountering the inevitable surprises. “The computers calculated that the joints between the panels, each of which weighed as much as 100 kilograms, should be four millimeters wide, with a tolerance of less than one millimeter,” she says. “Something like that can’t be built—at least not by human beings.”

As the saying goes, paper is patient. Beate Cornils has learned that CAD programs that ignore the human factor are patient, too. She says that it took a long time to get from the original idea of “colorful wallpaper”, to a construction in the real world with all of its constraints. Does she regard architects, and star architects in particular, as artists? “No,” she replies. “But you’re always striving to get ever closer to an artistic vision.” 

Of course it’s much more exciting than implementing conventional designs.” In her experience, Cornils has found that star architects, in particular, “want to see their models implemented as close to the original designs as possible. They don’t let go, and are less willing to make compromises. They don’t believe in ‘It can’t be done.’” Great architects’ obsession with details is legendary. The aim is to translate the spirit of a design into a physical structure down to the tiniest details. “Behind the scenes, things are not always easy,” but “it’s worth the effort,” Cornils concludes. She believes that the mix of specialists from every discipline in HOCHTIEF’s project teams guarantees the success of extremely ambitious projects. 

What conclusion does Cornils come to for other projects—especially as to staying within the planned costs? “As a general construction company, we can offer our services for such designs only after the detailed planning has been completed,” she says. However, clients want to see a price tag for their plans much earlier. This too is an area of tension that increases along with the size of the creative challenge, the materials to be developed, and the complexity of the building. “In the future, we may need new, supportive contract models,” she suggests.


Another milestone in HOCHTIEF’s history of successful cooperation with great master builders is the
Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt, which was planned by Lord Norman Foster. The construction of this centrally located skyscraper began in 1994. Opened in 1997, it is Germany’s tallest high-rise, with a height of 259 meters and 65 floors. It’s even one of Europe’s highest buildings.

HOCHTIEF was the general contractor with overall responsibility for the project. A total of 18,800 tons of steel were used for the construction—twice as much as for the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Lord Norman Foster, who also designed the glass dome of the Reichstag building in Berlin, prioritizes the environmental aspects of buildings. Accordingly, the Commerzbank high-rise received the Green Building Award of the city of Frankfurt am Main in 2009 for its high-quality design and sustainable construction. What’s the biggest challenge for large-scale projects of this kind? Christoph Breimann answers this question, using as his example a project for the clothing company Peek & Cloppenburg (P&C) on the Schildergasse in Cologne, for which he was responsible as the Head of Planning in the Engineering/Property Planning department at HOCHTIEF. The client company itself calls this building, which opened in 2005, its fifth global-city department store. The design was created by the Italian star architect Renzo Piano.

By definition, an architect must take a holistic approach to a building, keeping in mind its design, form, and function. Today, this task is becoming ever more complex in terms of its technology and content. That’s why architects now need to integrate many specialist engineering services from a wide range of disciplines and types. “The challenge lies in coordinating these contributions and integrating them into the planning so as to create a complete result,” Breimann says. Both sides have to apply their specialized expertise and work on the implementation as equal partners.

“Specialized trades, such as building and facade technology, require precise planning of their work and assembly processes because of their complexity, dependencies, and prefabrication requirements,” Breimann explains. His assignment was to take Renzo Piano’s very demanding design with its unique geometry, planned materials, and technical challenges and develop it into a feasible set of plans capable of being built. According to Breimann, a top-class construction project of this kind can’t have any unknown variables. The architect’s vision on the one side and the construction company’s responsibility for turning it into a turnkey building on the other create areas of tension, for example with regard to buildability, costs, and schedules.


Arno Winterboer, an electrical engineer at HOCHTIEF, who was responsible for the building technology at the P&C project in Cologne, agrees with that. He confirms that this project too required close coordination and agreement and set the very highest standards. After all, P&C likes to plan its projects together with major architects. Each of its branches is special and different, each one is unique, and each one is a “global-city department store.”

Renzo Piano has become a legend because of buildings such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the London skyscraper The Shard. With his modern design for P&C, he promoted the “blob” style, which is expressed through bubble-like, organically shaped envelopes that are usually implemented in glass, steel, and wood. Its shape reminds some people of a ship and others of a stranded whale—so the quick-witted Cologne natives simply call it “The Whale.” 

The impressive glass facade with a total surface of 4,900 square meters was meticulously constructed from 6,800 panes of glass and 66 laminated wooden beams in different geometric shapes made of Siberian larch. The historical archetypes of such wood-and-glass constructions are the orangeries and steel-and-glass greenhouses of the 19th century. “For designs with such a strong structural identity, we often have to make the technical installations as inconspicuous as possible,” says Winterboer, the building technology expert. Conflicts between a star architect and the engineers implementing the architect’s design are, therefore, almost unavoidable. “Because of their respective approaches, both parties think very differently,” he says. “On the one hand, the design has to be optimally implemented; on the other, the legal and comfort-related requirements have to be fulfilled. The intersection of these factors is the finished building.”

Experienced world-class architects such as Helmut Jahn, who recently turned 80, see this process not as an insult to their royal status but as completely normal situation. “I’ve learned that as an architect you aren’t an artist—you’re a problem solver,” the German American Jahn recently said in a newspaper interview. “Costs and schedules have to be taken into account, constructive cooperation with the client has to lead to optimal results, and you can never be satisfied with what you have already achieved. That’s the only way to make visions reality.” 

Incidentally, HOCHTIEF worked together with Jahn to build the Sony Center on the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and the Messe­turm trade fair tower in Frankfurt. As a result, the company might have a claim on a share in the success of this star architect, who has said the following about his projects in Germany: “I’ve designed many important buildings in Germany that have excelled because of their newness, innovation, and efficiency in every respect. You can only do that in a technical paradise like Germany.”