Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne Day and Night are Home-Made

The new institute building does bring “2001, A Space Odyssey” to mind when the sun lights up the long white hexaeder with its enigmatic porthole perforations, a spaceship in cosmic light. It has landed in the midst of the expansive grounds of the German Centre for Aerospace at the southern edge of the Cologne/Bonn airport.

Institute of Aerospace Medicine :envihab Cologne Institute of Aerospace Medicine :envihab Cologne | Photo: Christian Gahl, Berlin The extension for the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (Institut für Luft- und Raumfahrtmedizin) was to stand out clearly and distinctly from the other, pretty boring office and laboratory buildings, thus the task put to the architects. And that it does indeed, more than literally, since this almost 100 metre long and 53 metre wide object seems to float above a sloping landscaped base since the fully glazed and recessed ground floor, functioning as a dark zone, is withdrawn from view.

Building-in-a-building principle

The Berlin architects Glass Kramer Löbbert, together with Uta Graff, who had previously distinguished themselves with impressive research buildings, decided to enter the architectural contest for the unconventional laboratory building. They succeeded in convincing the jury with their at first glance utterly simple concept: a flat structure, filled with the entire, extensive building and operational technology, floating above a hall, two-thirds of which sunken into the grounds, and in which eight independent modules stand according to the building-in-a-building principle. The intuitive and easily accessible architectural arrangement possesses an uncommon power and significance that one only rarely encounters in buildings of this kind.
 
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln Foto: Christian Gahl, Berlin
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln, Zentrifuge in Betrieb Foto: DLR
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln, Zentrifuge in Betrieb
  • Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln, MRT-Gerät Foto: DLR
    Forschungszentrum :envihab Köln, MRT-Gerät

The main entrance on the narrow side, a concrete-framed cut through the green slope, leads through the glass wall to an indoor stairway landing from which one can survey the entire building, the lower level and the modules faced with white panels. The ambient with its brightly shimmering terrazzo flooring, modules that also seem to float, and stairwell tower and maintenance shafts that pierce the ceiling in a corona of light, does have something unreal about it. To the left, the auditorium with seating for 150 opens up, and the visitor’s gaze falls directly onto one of three long, narrow atriums with granite boulders and gravel instead of plants, which are surely intended to suggest the surfaces of asteroids. When absolute darkness is required in the building, the atriums can be closed with cover plates. When the doors of the modules open, the intense colours of the rubber flooring and functional units shine - the stairwell in red, the lounges in green and the wet rooms in yellow.

Laboratories for different experimental purpose

The modules house a wide range of laboratories for researching the effects of extreme environmental conditions on human beings and possible countermeasures. They are to be furnished and equipped according to research focus, although the requirements are very different. Sometimes heavy radiation shielding is needed, or absolute gas proofness, a reinforced ceiling to counter low pressure in space. To be sure, the central circular module is very much a bespoke piece. The short-arm human centrifuge for studying the influence of increased gravity on the circulatory and loco-motor systems rotates inside it.

There is a sleep lab with twelve rooms for test persons, in which temperature, humidity, air composition, light intensity and light spectrum can be applied under controlled conditions. Here, day and night are homemade, in a manner of speaking, completely independently of the sunrise and sunset in Cologne. Next door, the effects of low pressure, oxygen super- or under-saturation and the like are studied. Test persons lie for up to five weeks in a bed tilted six degrees backwards, a way of simulating long-term weightlessness under terrestrial conditions. In the psychology lab, test persons are isolated, immobilised and subjected to stress, fort h purpose of simulating long space flights.

Extraterrestrial conditions

The research facility, entitled as a whole “envihab,” a coinage made up of “environment” and “habitat,” is designed to simulate extraterrestrial conditions, under which human beings and to a certain extent other organisms can be studied and trained to make them fit for aviation and space travel. To this end, the architects have created an atmospherically fitting ambient and an impressive architecture that in addition is highly aesthetically appealing and sets new standards in laboratory construction.