Behind the Building: Axel Springer Campus

OMA Architects’ Chris van Duijn on Berlin’s iconic construction

Words By Jonny Tiernan
Photos By Marko Seifert

If you’ve traveled down Axel-Springer Straße in Berlin over the past two years, you’ve either twisted your head sharply when passing the new Axel Springer Campus, or stopped to take a photo of it. Or both. Since its completion in 2020, the breathtaking assembly of offices has achieved an iconic status that few buildings in the city attain so quickly or at all.

Berliners are known to be territorial of their landscape and quick to hate on a building that messes with the city’s unique rhythm, however the Axel Springer Campus has been welcomed by seasoned dwellers and tourists alike, all on account of its outstanding design. The building is centred by a striking atrium that bisects its offices and symbolises the company’s fierce reputation as a pillar in the publishing world. We spoke with Chris van Duijn, partner at OMA and one of the key architects behind the project, to find out more about this extraordinary construction.

In the conception of the project, did OMA draw on any aspects of Berlin’s history, or use the history of the city as a way to set the tone for the future?

I think that the Axel Springer Neubau is one of our most contextual projects; it incorporates many aspects relating to Berlin – the former Berlin Wall dividing East and West and to the existing Axel Springer Tower.

The site is located at the former Todesstreifen. After World War II, the site remained unbuilt with the former Berlin Wall crossing it diagonally. That emptiness, but also the polarity between East and West, informed the shape of the valley and the atrium, creating at the same time a space that links the Springer golden tower with the Axel Springer Strasse on the east side.

The polarity of East and West has been integrated in the interior of the project through the selection of colors and furniture – a way to provide orientation and identity throughout the building. The large atrium columns in the West are all painted black, while the one in the East are white. The visitor chairs in the West are Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, while for the Eastern half of the building we have selected an East German variation designed by Rudolph Horn.

Mies van der Rohe has also been a source of inspiration for the main office façade. We took his charcoal illustration of his tower design at the Friedrichsstrasse from 1929 and abstracted it into a silk screen pattern on the black glass. The contrast of black glass and the white, stripy pattern also illustrates Berlin’s obsession with its history and future. The black glass emulates the heaviness and seriousness of the conservative Berlin block, while the white pattern on it tries to liberate it from this context and reflects the city’s hope for transformation.

The contrast of black glass and the white, stripy pattern also illustrates Berlin’s obsession with its history and future.
When you are working on the conceptualization of new projects, how much do you take into account the culture of the place in which it is being built?

With every project we are looking for opportunities that make it specific to its place. That can be the site itself, the city, the client, the local culture or climate. Often it is a combination of these. On the other hand, clients select us because we are an international architecture firm and expect us to bring in new ideas to the local environment, so we need to combine both perspectives. Working with both the local and global contexts allows us to develop buildings that have many layers. Axel Springer for instance can be seen as our response to how working environments have developed in the tech and media industry, starting in Silicon Valley with Apple Garage, the Facebook Campus, the Google HQ and finally the Apple HQ by Foster + Partners. Our project is an addition to this sequence, but it is also very much a Berlin building, designed for this specific site and for this city only.

In other projects, such as the new masterplan projects in China, we try to find solutions that challenge planning stereotypes and look for inspiration in the local or regional elements. In our masterplan for the Future Science and Technology City in Chengdu we discard the grid and propose a series of clusters based on the local village typology. Each cluster is designed to engage with the existing topography, the water system and the green areas. Yet the final design does not look vernacular at all.

That is why having a design office in the region is really important; it allows you to be closer to the local culture, which is so much more interesting than relying on the information Google provides you with.

The Axel Springer Campus is intended to establish the company’s move into the digital age. How did you set about reflecting this with the building?

When the competition was initiated, the Axel Springer company was in the middle of the transition from ‘old’ media to ‘new’ media, basically transforming from a company where once the revenue was made by pipe-smoking-journalists to a company of digital media platforms and start-ups, which were hidden in Berlin’s basements. The challenge was to create a working environment which was able to lure these new companies out of their Kreuzberg office into this new building.

Any traditional office building with cellular offices and long, boring hallways would be associated with the conservative Springer mentality; that is why we wanted to create an energetic workspace in which collective production is key. After all, the majority of breakthrough innovations do not happen behind the typical work desk or in a meeting room; they happen through chance conversations and spontaneous interactions.

The paradox of the new media is that it is omnipresent in our daily lives, yet it has absolutely no physical presence. Where old newspapers have newsrooms, rolls of paper, large printing machines and kiosks on the street, new media is produced in co-working cafes and consumed on our phones.

We therefore introduced an atrium with a ‘valley’ in the center of the building. Different from other atriums you know from other buildings, this space is a real office space, not an oversized entrance hall. All companies in the building share this single, central production space, which provides an inspiring and experimental workspace for each company, but also allows them to connect to each other and to broadcast their energy to Springer golden tower on the one side of the building and to Axel Springer Strasse on the other.

We took care to relate the building to many aspects of Berlin and hope that this is how it will be appreciated by the people of the city.
Do you think the architecture of the Axel Springer Campus has the potential to impact the output that comes from there, and if so in what way? 

While the general consensus at the beginning of the Covid pandemic was that offices would soon be redundant, it is clear that home working also has its limitations. The primary function of an office is no longer to house your workstation but to provide an inspiring environment for people to work both alone and in groups.

All companies in the building make use of a combination of a typical office space along the street facades and the flexible atrium workspace. The space in between these two conditions is flexible, so over time, companies may decide to open up more floor area towards the atrium or vice versa depending on their preferences.

Now that people are returning to their office space we see that the atrium areas are the first places being used, which immediately brings so much life and energy back to the building. So yes, we are hopeful that the energy of the atrium space will be a positive contribution to its users.

Are there any aspects of the process or final product of which you are particularly proud, or feel are very memorable?

My responsibility for the project started once we had won the competition and were given a short design period and strict budget to realize our proposal.

Our daily client was the maintenance department of Axel Springer, a team of people who were used to working with very conventional office spaces and who were extremely skeptical of many of the unconventional aspects in our design. Our design team had to constantly convince the client that the atrium workspace could comply with the same DIN-norms and Springer standards as any typical cell office, that all windows can be cleaned for competitive prices and that the secretaries will not start complaining about a little draft. This task was a paradox, since the atrium space is anything but a typical office space, but in the end I feel confident we achieved what we had promised in our competition proposal.

This building is now considered a real landmark for Berlin. How does it feel to know that people stop in their tracks to appreciate (and most often photograph!) your work, every single day? 

When a project is finally completed one can only hope that the project will be appreciated by its daily users, but also by everyone passing by every day or occasionally. We took care to relate the building to many aspects of Berlin and hope that this is how it will be appreciated by the people of the city.

This feature was produced in collaboration with St Oberholz for Next Generation Living, the online magazine focused on the people and organisations working at the intersection of change and who are helping shape the conversations of the future

To learn more about Chris van Duijin and OMA Architects, read the full Next Generation Living feature.