Architect Wolf D. Prix in front of the new ECB building in Frankfurt in September, 2012.

The runaway architecture of the ECB

For the new building of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Vienna architect Wolf D. Prix sought inspiration in the fast-paced game of FC Barcelona. From two twisted, avant-garde office towers, the European Central Bank will soon be steering Europe through the crisis.

Published on 26 April 2013 at 14:18
Architect Wolf D. Prix in front of the new ECB building in Frankfurt in September, 2012.

Everything will turn out fine, everything is going beautifully, no one needs to worry any more on the euro’s account. [Argentine football star] Lionel Messi will clear up the crises, with one of those typical Messi moves, a surprising twist that leaves the opposition standing still.

And how will he pull that off? Because his spirit will shimmer through the new European Central Bank. The building is the brainchild of Wolf D. Prix, a native of Vienna and artful dodger of an architect, who "has built nothing” for many years, as he himself admits – and now the man toiling away at the European Union's most important building.

Last week, it was still a construction site in rainy Frankfurt am Main. Cranes loomed high over the frames of the two towers, which should stand 185 and 165 metres high, and which are still missing their cladding and interior furnishings. The Central Bank is moving in next year. That’s when we should be seeing some monetary policy à la Messi.

Inspired by sports

The offices of the architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au are in a former working-class neighborhood of Vienna – no luxury, no ostentation. Prix meets us wearing a quilted jacket and a scarf. In days gone by, he used to be a goalkeeper in street football matches, and he’s still eager for inspiration from sports. Barcelona is one team he follows regularly. He loves their short passing game: from Xavi to Iniesta, Iniesta to Xavi, Xavi to Fabregas, Fàbregas to Iniesta, Iniesta to Messi – and then Messi breaks out some fancy footwork to pull off something crazy, and the ball is in the back of the net.

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Prix admired the speed, the beauty, and the efficiency of these manoeuvres, and wondered why his office couldn’t work that way too. No more long decision-making processes: he was after the crisp, swift, short-pass game, followed by Messi footwork and the roar of the crowd.

An architect’s son, Prix was moulded by the 1960s, by counterculture, and personal liberation. In those days, everything in society was up for grabs: love, travel, architecture. In tune with the thinking of the time, Prix finally grapsed that society is not compartmentalised into separate spaces, but that all its parts rely on each other – like a football team, perhaps.

Prix is a big fan of Messi. Brainstorming over the concept for the European Central Bank, in a kind of short-passing game his office came up with its basic shape: a high rectangular form, twisted on its own axis. It needed only the moment of mania, the moment of absolute freedom of thought and play – the Messi moment.

Light-hearted architecture for the ECB

Someone had the idea of slashing the building diagonally from top to bottom. Then one half of the rectangular prism was, so to speak, hoisted over the other, twisted along the longitudinal axis and plunked back down. "A typical Messi move", says Prix.

Along with this fancy footwork of steel girders and glass, the ECB will have two towers connected by "hanging gardens" – something we saw already in Babylon. With its rectangular shape still apparent, the building looks suitably serious, as befits a European Central Bank. The slash and the twist also gets something playful across, something light-hearted.

Undoubtedly, Messi’s spirit will live on in the European Central Bank. It is, all the same, a spirit that emerged in Argentina of all countries: it takes its inspiration from the exotic terra of ramped-up public debt, hyperinflation and currency devaluations. It might have been better if the spirit of the building had left that at home, and and drawn its inspiration from precision kicking.

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