Planning for a specific site means thinking about the distinctive. This aphorism, which (in German) was also the title of a book about the architecture firm Betz Architekten (1), could not be more aptly worded. It reflects the philosophy and mission that each new commission means for the firm: to find that special distinctive something, and then translate it into architecture.
In 1969, when the competition to build the new headquarters for the then Hypo-Bank was put out to tender, the initial result of this thought process looked nothing like the tower block that dominates Munich’s skyline to this day.
Walther and Bea Betz won the competition, but with a design for a cubist, significantly smaller building. In 1972, before the subsequent planning phase even ended, the bank realised that it would need more space than originally specified. Furthermore, the client had very specific ideas concerning the building’s economic efficiency, flexibility and long-term use. It should enable a variety of individual and open-plan offices, with maximum flexibility as well as daylight in every office – ideally with a view for every employee.
This gave rise to the idea of taking a completely new approach: A literally “outstanding” tower, something spectacular and unprecedented. “The building was designed to demonstrate the vibrancy of architecture,” says Oliver Betz, CEO of Betz Architekten, looking back.
The eaves height in Munich (with the exception of the television tower) had previously been limited to 99 metres, so that the towers of the city’s Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), would remain the highest points in the city’s skyline. Betz designed a 114-metre building – any lower and the sculptural profile and proportions would not have had the desired effect. “The then city administration under Mayor Georg Kronawitter reviewed the model, were convinced and approved it,” Betz recounts. In return, Hypo-Bank agreed to cover the cost of the section of the new underground railway to Arabellapark.
In 1974 a foundation pit the size of three football fields was excavated and the foundation, which was 26 metres thick and would need to support a 275,000-tonne building, was cast. The four stair towers were erected up to the tenth storey, reaching a height of 42 metres, above which a load-bearing frame weighing 3,800 tons gradually rose heavenwards with the help of 13 hydraulic presses. The floors above this are borne by the load-bearing frame, those below it are suspended from it, in order to keep the column cross-sections low and economical.
The construction of the underground was also a technical and structural engineering challenge. Not only was this the first time that an underground tunnel was being built directly under a new building, but it was also necessary to prevent the foundations of the two buildings from coming into contact anywhere, meaning that a solid reinforced concrete frame was built to separate the tunnel from the building.
Instead of the usual solid square or round tower block, with limited flexibility due to its central core, the architects built a sculptured, extroverted building on stilts. The client’s stipulations of lots of daylight in the workplace and maximum versatility in terms of office layout were met by the layout of the floor plan and a large façade surface area.
Walther and Bea Betz lifted the structure over the base into the Munich sky on four pylons of varying height, giving the high-rise building a decidedly light and airy feel despite its uniform, closed skin, as if it had been released from its weight and mass,(2) The windows and aluminium panels on the façade share the same silver hue and reflect the colours of the sky, so that the building’s appearance changes with the weather and the seasons and blends in with its surroundings, rather than being an intrusive foreign object.
So the shapes of the base construction and the tapering floors above it, which at first glance appear capricious, were actually designed to facilitate the function of the offices behind the façade (3) and ‘are still just as up-to-date and modern as they were when construction began’, says Oliver Betz.
At the building’s opening ceremony on 16th November 1981, the then Chairman of the Board of Hypo-Bank, Dr. Wilhelm Arendts, said: ‘Our new head office is an expression of business operations focused on continuity.’
To this day, the tower is a significant part of the Hypo-Vereinsbank identity. For the people of Munich it has become a modern-day monument, a building that reflects the aesthetics of the ‘80s in a way that is unique and remains contemporary to this day.
(1) Gottfried Knapp: Planning for a specific site means thinking about the distinctive. “Bauten der Betz Architekten” (Buildings by Betz Architekten), Ernst Wasmuth Verlag
(2) Aedes: Betz Architekten, HypoVereinsbank Arabellapark Munich, 1999
(3) Gottfried Knapp (Pub.): “Betz Architekten”, Ernst Wasmuth Verlag, 2004