In ECB future, a new home to reflect all of Europe

FRANKFURT: Over the next five years, a building will rise on the banks of the Main River that could become the most potent new architectural symbol of Europe.

Corporate chieftains and currency traders will no doubt quickly come to treat the European Central Bank's new headquarters as a shrine to finance. But most Europeans, too, will probably take notice, for this bank oversees the currency that courses through their daily lives.

On Nov. 18, the ECB will reveal the winner of a two-year contest to design its new headquarters and lend architectural form to an institution that is barely six years old. By 2009, the guardians of the euro, currently used by 12 nations, will abandon their crowded headquarters in central Frankfurt and move into a thoroughly modern edifice on the city's eastern fringes.

As they do with their much-anticipated decisions about interest rates, the central bankers are staying tight-lipped, offering no hint as to which of the three design finalists, announced in February, will tackle the mammoth undertaking.

But the three competing architectural firms, based in Vienna, Hamburg and Darmstadt, a short hop away from Germany's banking capital, have already made one decision for the ECB: They will try to reflect what Europe is — a whole, but still very much a tapestry of nations.

"I found it very exciting to work on creating a symbol for Europe," said Wolf Prix, an architect with Coop Himmelblau of Vienna, which grabbed the top ranking of the three finalists competing for the project. The ECB competition gives rankings to the three finalists.

The new headquarters will replace an unremarkable, rented office building in central Frankfurt, known locally as the Eurotower, that jostles with neighboring bank high-rises.

The new building will also contain space for at least 2,500 employees — nearly double the 1,300 who currently work at the bank — as the ECB anticipates the day when the euro's reach has expanded to Eastern Europe, all of Scandinavia and perhaps even Britain.

Prix, along with his competitors, believes that the ECB headquarters has a shot at becoming — like the White House in Washington, D.C., or the Reichstag in Berlin — an icon of a particular kind of power. With its decisions every two weeks on interest rates broadcast real-time around the world, they are convinced that the new building could outstrip the European Parliament and the European Commission as the architectural symbol that the world most associates with Europe.

"The symbolic power of this building will be enormous," said Johann Eisele of the Darmstadt-based firm 54f, whose proposed project ranked third among the three finalists.

Each firm has embedded a unity-in-diversity theme in its proposal, with individual elements combining to form a whole.

Coop Himmelblau wrapped two 150-meter, or almost 500-foot, high-rises around a glass atrium and bound the two buildings together with catwalk-like bridges that will offer vertiginous views of Frankfurt if the project is realized.

The main towers straddle a flat structure that, thanks to the columns that support it, seems to float over the new ECB grounds, which lie directly on the northern bank of the Main.

"The goal was to make it look different, but recognizable, from every angle," Prix said.

Hamburg-based ASP Schweger Associates, which claimed second place behind Coop Himmelblau, sought to define Europe with a box-like collection of different-sized towers that appear almost as a perfect rectangle from above because they are topped by a horizontal strip, also containing offices and conference rooms.

This design, said a partner, Peter Schweger, also offers unique views from different directions, a pointed contrast to the banks that loom over central Frankfurt.

"When you look at the silhouette of Frankfurt, there are lots of towers that try to outdo each other, saying 'I'm higher than you,"' Schweger said.

The firm 54f, which competed jointly with the Malaysian firm T. R. Hamzah & Yeang, came to much the same conclusion: No skyscraping. Instead, 54f planted four glass-encased buildings on the riverbank, the largest roughly twice the size of the smallest. With Mediterranean fruit trees planted at the end of every fourth floor, the firm sought to create a contrast between the ECB and the city's private bank towers, particularly for passengers landing at the nearby Frankfurt airport.

"We wanted this small cluster of high-rises to be the focal point of people arriving by air," Eisele said.

Beyond the riddle of how to stamp a European identity onto the building, the architects also had to grapple with the specific, but abstract, demands of the central bank, which swears allegiance to two values: stability and transparency.

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