Rising from the shell of a former granary warehouse, NRW Landesarchiv is a monument to the district’s industrial heritage and an icon of a new era. Designed by O&O Baukunst, and completed in 2014, the building consolidates the region’s state archive in the unassuming city of Duisburg.
The city is typical of the prosaic nature of the region. An uninterrupted, contiguous mat of power stations, roads and forlorn suburbs stretch from Essen and Mulheim in the east, to Duisburg and Dusseldorf in the west.
Located at the confluence of the Rhine and the Ruhr, Duisburg is home to the largest inland port in the word, handling over 130 million tonnes of goods per year. This statistic must not be confused with success: as heavy industry withered in the Ruhr Valley, so did Duisburg’s population, reducing by a sixth since the 1990s, with a quarter of its inhabitants now living below the poverty line. A common story of many post-industrial towns, the city is littered with derelict buildings and land.
It is apt, therefore, that the city’s most significant public building takes the form of a bricked-up, solemn carcass of a warehouse. The archive’s 70, tall tower is monolithic. As a tower filled with books, the building strikes a chord with a deep affinity of towers and knowledge. As an object, it takes the form of a memorial to the Ruhr’s long-gone zenith.
Extending away from the tower and along the harbour side is 160m tailpiece – affectionately referred to as the ‘pigs tail’ or ‘worm’ – amongst other more explicit analogies. The wiggle conceals an otherwise standard office. Nestled in its curves are small pockets of greenspace, towards the harbour side, whilst an impervious glazed barrier bounds the motorway to the opposite side.
Where the tailpiece meets the tower, vast circular cut-outs create views through into the tower of knowledge – reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library. This interplay of the old framed by the new is echoed in the façade of the building. The bricks used to infill the windows of the old granary and to clad the tower are identical, manufactured by the same firm, used to build the granary in 1936.
NRW Landesarchiv goes a long way to suggesting how a building, no longer required for its intended purpose, can be rehabilitated with a programme concerned with the balance of the future and the past. It is both monumental and iconic. However, it remains to be proven if the metaphor can be applied more widely, more generally, to the city of Duisburg.