Legal / Illegal Architecture

A small building in a suburb of Cologne


Project Information


Architect: Mauel Herz Architects

Project Team: Manuel Herz Emmanuelle Raoul Sven Röttger

all photos: © Boris Becker











Bayenthal is a suburb in discontent. Located south of the medieval border of Cologne, it was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century and was incorporated into the district of Cologne in 80s of that same century in the wake of a large municipal reform. The foundation of Bayenthal and its primary source of development goes back to its first discontent, a very productive „industrial discontent.“


Germany: a developing nation?

While in England the steel was boiling, the furnaces were smoking, and the turbines where hammering it was still very serene in Prussia. Germany was a ‘third-world country’ in the global steel market, inefficient and inexperienced in the newest technology. Gustav Mevissen, a developer from Cologne, was about to change this. He founded the „Kölner Maschinenbau AG“ (the Cologne Machine Construction Company Ltd.) in 1856 to construct a factory with newest technology and production techniques outside the city limits of Cologne. Influential families secured the financing, enormous for that time, and managed to construct the factory on a huge site of 18.000m2 in no time, proving that the stock company as a financial instrument was the right tool to use. Profiting from the very strategic location at the river Rhine and from the „business angles“ in the board of supervisors, the company grew quickly to be the major player in the steel market of Germany. It was able to secure many prestige projects like bridges over the Rhine, the roof construction of the Cologne Cathedral for its completion in 1880s and of the „cathedral of technology“, the main trainstation during the same time. The factory which obviously went through many highs and lows in its more than hundred years of existence has shaped the suburb of Bayenthal and its urban fabric enormously.


Discontent Citizens

The miserable living and working conditions produced the second kind of discontent: the „architectural restlessness“. The conditions of the living quarters of the factory workers were characterized by lack and congestion. Appartments of average size of 30sqm were inhabited by 10 or more people, many of of a floating population. The city-internal migration was strong in Cologne at those times. In Bayenthal it was extreme: Half of all families moved houses at least once every year.The urban drifting workers moved regularly with all their belongings through the streets of Bayenthal on the lookout for the next miserable apartment.


The Artificial Housing Crisis

This condition could be traced back to certain financial speculations being conducted at that time. Only a few meters from those overcrowded houses was a wasteland area, originally intended to be used by the factory, but having always remained as unused land. In fact, Bayenthal was never really a suburb in the urban sense. It was rather always a great object of speculation. Only with this large empty site, the lack of reasonable housing and an artificial density was produced, triggering high levels of rent and a good turnover and profit for the corporate landlords. This privatised wasteland therefore had to adopt important urban functions, less in the sense of quality and empty space, but more in its task to produce an urban insufficiency, and to make this insufficiency economically productive.


The Master Plan as a tool for Speculation

The main investors realised that a large profitability lay in the conversion of wasteland into buildable property. A big increase of land value could be achieved by drawing up a master plan. Land and property thus turned into a very mobile object of trade, into merchandise. Empty sites were bought, master plans were initiated at the municipal planning department, and thereafter the sites could be sold off again with high profit. The interest did not lie in the urban development itself, but merely in the change of urban conditioning. The creation of potentiality produced an increase in value. The buildings themselves were in fact never constructed.


The Suburb without Qualities

Bayenthal has remained a suburb without character, neither industrial nor residential, neither shaped by the working class nor by affluence. Of all Cologne areas, Bayenthal is possibly the one with the least identity, the one that refuses classification and categorization most. Played upon by real estate speculators and urbanistically strangled by an oversized factory, it never had the possibility of establishing an identity. The factory closed its doors only in 1968 and was torn down. Germany’s biggest insurance company, Allianz AG, constructed a large housing development with over one thousand apartments on its site. Referencing the „genus loci“, those appartment buildings were clad with an imitation brick surface, alluding to its industrial past.


Bayenthal - A Shrinking City

Since the early sixties more and more families moved out of the city into rural areas and suburbs in order to fulfill their dreams of that uprising prosperous middle class: The own small house with garden and garage.

This dream of the young families was the nightmare of every city! Desperately needed tax income was dramatically reduced. Communal expenses though only climbed because of the rising traffic and pressure upon infrastructure. In the years from 1955 to 1970 Bayenthal’s population dropped by almost 25%. Cornered and under big financial pressure the city came up with a curious proposal: To prevent more families moving out to the countryside, the countryside has to come into the city. This proposal would be realised best with a municipal development plan for Bayenthal, the „Bebauungsplan Nr. 68419/02“ dated 17th August 1970.

The Countryside moves into the City

Represented in its local bureaucratical method and formulated  in view of the german petit-bourgeois, it was possibly the most radical vision that Bayenthal should ever be faced with. The main street of Bayenthal, Goltsteinstraße, was supposed to lose its tramline, which ever since the late nineteenth century had connected the southern suburbs with the inner city, and it was then supposed to be converted completely. The width of the street to be doubled, the density of construction was supposed to be cut in half with a predominance of fully detached buildings. Any commercial use, restaurants, trade or small scale industrial use was forbidden and the maximum building height was practically  limited to two floors. With these new sets of regulations the rural was to move into the urban, so that the families would not move into the rural anymore.


The Master Plan as a Stillborn

This development plan has never been applied a single time, even though it is binding law since 1970. The low density level prohibits any financially viable development, and the fully detached housing style that it proposes is incompatible with the, by now, historical context and would seem bizarre if implemented. A master plan as a stillborn. Property prices received a dramatic blow. The Bayenthal bubble had burst!

The Discontent Investor

Located in the middle of the area affected by the development plan is a site occupied by a storage space and facing the street with a large entrance gate, a historical landmark. The investor who owns the site is a small-scale real-estate developer who, having studied and worked for a few years in the field mathematics, is now building and selling appartments to make a living. Having had previously received a standard design proposal from large general contractor, he could easily calculate that the expected construction costs plus land price would be higher than the anticipated sales price for average appartments. In other words: the site was commercially not viable.


Architecture as Salvation?

Only one possibility remained, as much as the investor was sceptical about it: Architecture! If the developer would, as he calculated, invest a certain amount of money in „interesting architecture“, he could possibly receive a higher than proportional increase in the salesprice and therefore finish off the project without a deficit. This decision, arising purely from a cost-benefit calculation, without any emotional commitment, resulted in the best prerequisite of the project. The second one being the fact that the investor specifically said that he did not want to be an architect and  had no interest in acting like one. Therefore the tasks were ideally devided and the work could commence.


Legal / Illegal

The 5.50m wide and 25m deep site, in combination with all norms, rules, fire regulations, building laws, municipal development plan and rules for „construction near landmark buildings“ result in a very clearly defined and geometrically simple volume. Form follows Law!

It represents the first volume of the building: a transparent (as transparent as the law, as Kafka once said) and orthogonal volume, that out of respect, or for safety reasons, steps back from history by one meter. All set-backs are respected creating terraces on each level. It is the proper volume of the building. Law turned into space. The „legal“ volume.


Legal / Illegal

How many rules can be disregarded in a place dominated and strangled by rules? The volume as a whole is not allowed to exist at all in the first place, as its complete floor area exceeds the maximum area permitted in the development plan. Hence, the volume in itself is illegal. Being a non-orthogonal, free-formed body, it is mainly opaque and traces a path from streetlevel through the gate, moving up the floors, piercing through them, and facing with its main mass at the upper levels back down upon the street, thereby realising a loop around that gate, the historical monument. Its windows, goggle-eyed, look into the sky, onto the terraces and down on the street. Every single surface of its faceted volume throws a „shadow-area“ onto one of the neighboring sites, something forbidden by german planning law. The fire-regulations are partially disregarded and the main mass of the volume crosses the municipal building line. The differentiation between wall, roof and floor, the main categories of building elements in architecture,  is disolved. It is covered with a bright red polyurethan coating which forms a continuous skin over all surfaces. Being disrespectful to the german building code and the  laws and regulations of that site in particular, it is the „illegal“ volume. Both combined, they form the building.


Can a Planning Application be part of the Design Concept?

After 18 months of processing time, the planning application was finally accepted without objections. It thereby exceeded the official maximum processing time for planning applications sixfold. Instead of approaching the planning department with a way of hiding the irregularities, all rule breaks were explicitly laid open from the very start. Even the project’s title ‘Legal / Illegal’ adorned the various forms and plans for the planning application. The means of dealing with the authorities, their means (and limits) of reacting, therefore became an integral part of the concept and the design scheme.


Architecture in Bayenthal

What does this architecture want in Bayenthal. The building is an expression and reacts to the urban condition of that part of Cologne. Having always been the toy of the real-estate investors and speculators, the building introduces a foreign body into the urban fabric, which is very receptible for that. The building moves right up to the limits of the site, or rather, exceeds them, in its ratio of massing, in its measurements, in its complexity and its materiality. It overloads or strains the site, and is in a certain way ruthless to it. Maybe it is one of these architectural interventions which are not in the interest of the suburb. Maybe it has a self-sufficiency. But in all these examinations, it expresses the economic situation, the constellation of laws and rules to form, and the sociocultural condition of the suburb in a built form. As foreign as the building might seem in the context of the area, as more it acts upon the history, the state of the urban fabric, and attempts to formulate an enrichment out of this immediate context. And attempts of course, as Bayenthal is used to, to view the context as its capital.