Rasmus Willumsen House

Technical Centre – A glimpse behind the scenes of scientific operations

Across the harbour from the AWI Campus (Klußmannstraße 1), a new technical centre for polar and marine research is being erected. In the near future, it’s where the Alfred Wegener Institute will test and develop new equipment for use in the polar regions and the deep sea.

The new building will be located along the marina; its elongated façade with clean-cut edges and dark brown brick cladding will connect the office and workshop areas with the large preparation bay and the high-bay storage area. This creates a unity of design, whereby the technical centre can be perceived as a large sculpture.

The communications and break rooms will face the marina, creating a vibrant dialogue between Bremerhaven’s citizens and AWI staff. On the ground floor, a glass façade made of   industrial glass allows a glimpse of scientific operations in some areas.

At the new technical centre, researchers and engineers will be able to test and develop e.g. ice-core drills in a 15-metre-tall tower, or to assess the reliability of measuring equipment at extremely low temperatures; for this purpose, the building will include cold chambers with temperatures down to -80 °C and a testing basin filled with seawater. These tests are important for preparing expeditions, since the measuring instruments to be used must withstand extreme conditions and function reliably in the most remote regions of the Earth – for example, for use in the Antarctic and Arctic deep sea at a pressure of over 500 bar. Over a long period of time without service or maintenance, they have to be capable of autonomously recording data and to subsequently transmit or store the data gathered.

There will also be a container storage area for expedition preparation, where some of the containers will be visible behind industrial glass, offering insights into the use of ports and harbours (“Geestemünde….”). Thanks to a 20-metric-ton crane, it will be possible to directly transport containers from the external storage area to the preparation bay, where they can be packed for expeditions before beginning their voyage to the Antarctic or Arctic – Expedition Tomorrow.

The story behind the centre’s namesake

Support and technical staff have a proud history in German research; many of them have dedicated their lives to the noble pursuit of new knowledge. A 22-year-old man from Greenland chose to dedicate his life to supporting the great Alfred Wegener on his research expeditions to the Arctic.

“...and make sure that one watch is set aside for Rasmus, who will be accompanying us.”
Alfred Wegener, 6 October 1930

Rasmus Willumsen from Ukkusissat was one of the Greenlanders who provided support on Wegener’s ill-fated 1930 expedition. To resupply his colleagues at the overwintering station “Eismitte”, Wegener took 15 dog sledges, Dr Fritz Lowe and 13 Greenlanders with him, including the young Willumsen. But as weather conditions steadily worsened, everyone except for Wegener, Lowe and Willumsen was forced to turn back. Despite the adverse conditions, the three finally reached "Eismitte", where they delivered the desperately needed provisions and equipment. Wegener was aware that there wouldn’t be enough provisions at the station for all of the men; accordingly, after just two days of rest, he and Willumsen began the return trek to their other base of operations, the "Weststation". He left Lowe, who had suffered frostbite, behind at "Eismitte" to recover.

On the way back, Wegener died, most likely from a heart attack caused by overexertion due to the still extremely difficult conditions. When his body was discovered six months later, the rescue team found Wegener fully clothed, lying on a reindeer hide, and enclosed in two sleeping bag cases, sewn together: Willumsen had buried him with great care, dignity and respect. After Wegener’s death, Willumsen’s soon followed, though we’ll never know exactly how or when he passed, since the search party was unable to find his body.

Video: kister scheithauer gross architekten und stadtplaner GmbH

Steidle Building

A research institute wrapped in a veil

The annex at “Am Handelshafen”, completed in 2004, is located ca. 500 metres as the crow flies from the Ungers Building: apparently suspended on delicate stilts, its robust, blocky structures and distinctive façade rise above the Doppelschleuse (new shipping lock). The building’s geometry echoes its position between the harbour’s edge, embankment, and other buildings. Three towers boldly rise like spires from the shimmering lower sections: home to shared spaces like conference rooms and the canteen, they offer an impressive view of the harbour, the Weser estuary, and the North Sea.

Integrating ecological aspects in construction

The institute was designed by Otto Steidle, one of the most famous German architects of his day. His goal in Bremerhaven: to design a building that was perfectly tailored to scientific research, while also forging a link to the environmentally and climate-oriented works of Alfred Wegener. Since constructing and operating buildings have considerable influences on the environment, Steidle made a clear choice for an ecological, healthy and sustainable construction approach. Today, the institute is characterised by an extremely low overall energy budget: a combined heat and power unit, absorption refrigerator unit, harbour-water activated concrete, heat recovery, and natural lighting and ventilation ensure a pleasant climate in the building in summer and winter alike. In addition, all of the finishing materials were carefully chosen for their ecological qualities.

Tweed pattern and shadow play

At first glance, the building seems to shimmer like a mirage: the research centre is covered in a tweed pattern that seems to wind around it like a giant veil. The façade is decorated with glazed tiles in white, grey and black. Square windows are arrayed in staggered patterns, some flush with the cladding, others indented. Each of these box-type windows is actually two windows in one: the metal-framed outer window, which is single-pane and manually opening, protects the sun shades in the interstitial space from the wind and rain. Deeper within, the insulated wooden-framed window can be individually adjusted for virtually any weather conditions. As such, the office spaces need no air conditioning. The unique optical effect: thanks to the windows’ configuration, direct sunlight produces a shadow play in which the façade’s uniformity is broken up and the building’s “textile cladding” can appear massive or feather-light, depending on whether it is viewed from above or below.

Inside, an urban role model

Yet, no matter how dense this matrix might seem from the outside, inside the complex boasts an open and diverse design: alleys, plazas, niches and courtyards, not to mention stairs, bridges and terraces offering various perspectives and relaxing gardens can be found within. Here, Otto Steidle realised his central motif once again: using urban streets and alleys as an inspiration for shaping public interior spaces. In addition, each tower and each courtyard has a different colour: yellow, green, black, and white. But that’s not all: the use of plants native to the region in the courtyards and on the rooftops mirrors Steidle’s architectural principles, while also botanically symbolising the building’s proximity to the coast.

The rectangular external areas offer a pleasant complement to the working areas for researchers. But the staff’s favourite location is the canteen with roof terrace in the tallest of the three towers: from here, they can enjoy an impressive 360-degree view of the urban landscape on the riverside.

Recommended reading

For further information on architecture in polar and marine research conducted in Bremerhaven, we recommend the handbook “New Architecture in Bremen (Neue Architektur in Bremen)” by Ingo Hemesath and the Bremen Centre for Building Culture, published in December 2006 by Aschenbeck & Holstein; ISBN: 978-3-93-9401-13-1.

Ungers Building

A ship of stone, on dry land

Polar and marine research is also an important topic in architecture: since 1986 the Alfred Wegener Institute has called a stately building that symbolises seafaring, water and the ocean its home. For visitors to Bremerhaven heading downtown, the building looms like a mountainous ship sailing on the pavement – though it still lacks an afterdeck to this day. The building, located across from the “Alter Hafen” (old harbour) and the German Maritime Museum, was designed by Oswald Mathias Ungers, who was one of the most popular and significant architects in the world. His creations helped shape the architecture of the second half of the 20th century. For the Alfred Wegener Institute building in Bremerhaven’s Columbusstraße, he received e.g. an award from the Association of German Architects in Bremen (Bund Deutscher Architekten (BDA) Bremen).

Elementary forms

Unger had a penchant for strictly geometrical designs: elementary forms like squares and circles, cubes and spheres are fundamental elements of his works, variations and transformations of which he also employed in the Alfred Wegener Institute building. The façade is characterised by dark red brick masonry and a grid of square white windows. Thanks to the earthy brick-red tone and dark jointing, it makes a smooth and homogenous impression. But the details are what make the ocean steamer imagery perfect: viewed from afar, the building’s outer grounds become railings and its chimneys become smokestacks, while sections of the roof become bulkheads. The latter, designed with a wraparound balcony, offers an expansive view of the Weser estuary and the North Sea.

Drawing on classical architecture

Arguably more than any other architect, Ungers faithfully implemented his distinct use of forms for decades. He was one of the central theoreticians of what has been dubbed the Second Modern: in terms of his use of forms, he tended to employ elementary and timeless architectural design elements. To do so, he drew on historical precedents reaching back to Greco-Roman architecture. As a result, the interior of the Alfred Wegener Institute building contains e.g. a two-storey hall featuring square pillars; two semi-circular common rooms, one situated above the other; and a sun-filled atrium.

Only a few years later, Ungers would present a design for the AWI’s Potsdam facilities. This design was also approved, and the new building was inaugurated on the “Telegrafenberg” in 1999.