NRW State Archive in Duisburg Monument with Memory

A former grain warehouse in Duisburg’s docks is home to Europe’s largest archive, featuring 148 kilometres of shelving packed with history.

NRW State Archive Duisburg NRW State Archive Duisburg | Photo: O&O Baukunst The turnaround in goods transport that marks a shift to container transport has robbed the older city port facilities of their original purpose - whether in Hamburg on the river Elbe, in Berlin on the river Spree, or in Düsseldorf and Cologne on the river Rhine. This change, however, has also opened up tremendous development potential for these cities with harbour and industrial areas in the city centre. Old docks and imposing historic warehouse buildings are being converted into exceptional real estate projects that are steeped in history. To architects it is always an exciting challenge to reflect this history and the atmosphere of the harbour areas in their new designs. This has led to the development of original and characteristic urban neighbourhoods that way surpass the conventional new office and residential districts in terms of appeal and attractiveness.

In Duisburg, for the past twenty years the city has been converting the inner harbour - that branches off the Rhine - from a timber, coal and corn port into an office and residential area according to a framework development model prepared by Norman Foster. Today, twelve or more listed historic warehouses, silos and mills, and massive brick buildings are now used as offices that boast style and flair. Between these structures new buildings have been built, some having been designed by internationally renowned architects such as Norman Foster and Michael Grimshaw.

Monolithic Tower

The North Rhine Westphalia State Archive is one of the latest authorities to move to the inner harbour. From january 2014 until june 2015 15 furniture vans have been arriving every day with archive material from Düsseldorf and other former sites of the State Archive. The new home to this material is a remarkable structure: a brickwork tower that rises 76 metres. It is actually more the abstract sculpture of a warehouse. At a second glance one can identify an historic corn silo building with the windows filled in and a new block-like tower that rises up from the centre of the old warehouse. It is a monolithic tower with brick walls merging directly into the gable roof structure made of the same material. In their description of the monument journalists came up with a selection of metaphors: “Knowledge Warehouse”, “Memory Column”, “Fortress for files”, “Tower of Knowledge” (Turm des Wissens), “Tótem de Terracotta”, “Safe for history”.
 
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg, archive Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg, archive
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg, datail Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg, datail
  • NRW State Archive Duisburg Photo: O&O Baukunst
    NRW State Archive Duisburg
  • Corn silo building Duisburg, before renovation Photo: O&O Baukunst
    Corn silo building Duisburg, before renovation
Ortner & Ortner Baukunst is the name of the architects, with offices in Vienna, Berlin and Cologne, who turned the corn silo building - built in 1936 for the Reichsnährstandes - into a sculpture, and they have heightened it in more senses than one. Daylight is the archivist’s biggest adversary, and it was for this reason that the windows had to be filled in. The tower itself has been designed with no windows at all. But this was just too straightforward for Manfred and Laurids Ortner, who are both artists as well as architects. They therefore came up with a rhombic pattern in the form of a fine texture-like relief, covering the brickwork of the entire tower. Even the filled in windows feature this relief structure.

148 kilometres of shelving for files

The building accommodates stacks of unspectacular shelving that altogether adds up to a length of no less than 148 kilometres. A conveyor system is used to deliver the requested files to the users. The reading room and studies are, of course, not inside the windowless archive, but rather in a six-storey extension building with a brick-red façade. The office building, that stretches out along the harbour wall in a snake-like fashion, has until now been mostly rented out to other companies, and will accommodate the administration as well as the reception lobby and a lecture hall.

In the large hall, where the office building adjoins the archive building, the architects wanted to reveal the archive shelves through large portholes. The archivists, on the other hand, went ahead and ordered black curtains for reasons concerning conservation. This means that the only room in the archive that is open to the public is a small exhibition hall on the ground floor.

This is a shame, because when the warehouse was declared a listed building in 2008, the expertise explicitly underscored the genuine condition of the building, together with all its technical installations and conveyor systems, praising the spatial qualities - on the top floor, for instance, beneath the reinforced concrete roof structure, where there was an almost sacral atmosphere. These listed qualities of the corn silo have all been removed; only the shell of the building remains. Is this something we should now be complaining about? Or should we welcome the fact that a future-proof use has been found for this massive and important building, one that will guarantee the buildings existence as a landmark for a long time to come? It has at least acquired iconic status as an outstanding piece of architecture, according to several media publications in Germany and abroad.