Heidelberg Castle Architectural Sculpture in Red Stone

Heidelberg castle is one of the most important Renaissance buildings in Germany. The celebrated Swiss architect Max Dudler has created a new visitors’ centre in this romantic location.

Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle | Photo: Stefan Müller The Swiss architect Max Dudler (born 1949) enjoys working with stone, as his father was a stone mason and awakened in him a love of this natural material. In particular, where historically significant tasks are involved, Dudler demonstrates his qualities as a professed master builder in stone. This is shown by the expansion of the “Hambacher Schloss,” a democratic commemorative site, and currently the new addition of the visitors’ centre at the romantic Heidelberg Castle.

Dudler did not set out “to invent any alternative worlds,” but rather “to develop something new from within history, thereby updating history into the current context…” with the material at hand. For Dudler, doing the new addition for Heidelberg Castle with natural stone was mandatory: “The ruin looks like a mountain chain of red sandstone, one can only add construction using the same material, although with a contemporary interpretation.”

From castle to palace ruin

With about 1.4 million visitors per year, Heidelberg Castle is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Germany. The new visitors’ centre was built to handle this onslaught and was opened in spring 2012. It is the first new construction in 400 years on the historic site, where a castle first stood around 1300. The process that formed Heidelberg castle into a massive monument to diverse interwoven style elements from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque took several centuries. The castle, built of red sandstone, served as the magnificent residence of the prince electors of the Palatine, until it was destroyed in 1693 during the War of the Palatinate Succession. The castle deteriorated until the Romantic Movement celebrated the ivy-covered idyll in poetry and painting. In the 19th century, heritage conservancy initiatives preserved Heidelberg Castle as a historic ruin. Only the Friedrichsbau was rebuilt in neo-Renaissance style. For today’s visitor, this charming ensemble high above Old Heidelberg offers a lovely image in remembrance of Romantic Germany.

Architectural sculpture of Neckar Valley sandstone

The elongated new visitors’ centre is located outside the old defensive ring at entrance portal to the castle and the garden (Hortus palatinus). It is flanked by an old gardener’s house and the historic Sattelkammer (tack room). At first glance, the new building looks like an enterable sculpture of red stone, in which deep recesses mark out windows and entrances. In spite of its very tranquil, purist appearance, this vertically staggered building fits in effortlessly with the historic ensemble. Max Dudler succeeds in this stratagem by referencing material, structural order and building elements from the castle area. This can be seen in numerous instances: thus Dudler chose the Neckar Valley sandstone typical of Heidelberg for the facade of the visitors’ centre, in allusion to the castle’s own red sandstone.

Schlossgasse at Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle Schlossgasse at Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle | Photo: Stefan Müller These mechanically rough-hewn stones seem almost seamlessly placed together like monolithic walls, alluding to the castle’s encircling defensive wall. And the new building’s massive, over two-metre deep-set windows concretely reference the similarly deeply recessed, large-scale openings in the neighbouring Sattelkammer. Also, the new building was deliberately placed in order to integrate it into the historical context: Dudler places the visitors’ centre directly in front of a supportive wall that is under conservancy protection, thus creating a small alleyway mediating between old and new. This romantic “Schlossgasse” leads directly to the roof terrace of the visitors’ centre from outside.

Southern accents

The building’s interior reveals that the thickness of the exterior walls is not just a historical reference, but also has practical reasons: technical rooms and staircases are discretely and invisibly concealed within these thick walls. The centre of the narrow building is the broad, light-filled visitors’ hall with shop and cash desk. Here, seating options specially designed in wood for this building invite one to linger for a while and relax. The organically flowing space which extends over almost the entirety of the building’s exterior length, is reserved, yet elegantly designed. White stuccoed walls, luminous ceilings, a shimmering, light-grey terrazzo and custom-made cherry-wood components convey an elegant lobby character.

Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle Visitors’ centre in Heidelberg castle | Photo: Stefan Müller In this clear space, the optical separation of the individual functional areas among which the visitor can wander about without constraint emerges as if automatically. The deeply recessed window openings provide ever-new, delightful views onto the spacious castle grounds with their abundant green in summer, as if framed like pictures. From this central area, the visitor arrives at the conference room - which is used for museum educational purposes and for castle tours - in the upper storey via a staircase or lift. Right next to it is the stone roof terrace, with which Dudler sets a decidedly southern accent. Up here, one sits surrounded by grand old treetops, rests and enjoys the mild Heidelberg climate far from the tourists’ hustle-and-bustle.

The German Museum of Architecture (Deutsches Architekturmuseum / DAM) in Frankfurt am Main is honouring Max Dudler with the 2012 DAM Prize for Architecture in Germany for his renovation and expansion of the Hambacher Schloss in line with historical preservation principles.

2012 DAM Prize for Architecture in Germany
The 22 best buildings in and from Germany
26 January – 21 April 2013
German Museum of Architecture (Deutsches Architekturmuseum)