Renovations usually involve changes. This is also the case with the GSW high-rise building, more precisely with the new building, the high-rise building perpendicular to Kreuzberg’s Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse with its striking color pattern on the western facade facing Friedrichstrasse. And it is precisely this color pattern that is to be replaced in the course of the facade renovation, just as the facade is to be given a different structure. Instead of the metal panels, which can be folded vertically and are colored in various shades from pink to ocher to reddish-brown, there will be fabric blinds that naturally roll out horizontally and therefore result in a completely different façade structure. They are also to be replaced in different but much stronger colors according to a different scheme than the original one. This is now being protested by experts.

The fact that there was such a break in the design concept has to do with the history of the building. Because the high-rise built in 1999 no longer houses GSW’s administration, and it hasn’t been owned by them for a long time. Just as GSW is no longer the non-profit settlement and housing association of yore, but since the sale to investors in 2004 by the red-red Senate Klaus Wowereit, first a GmbH, then an AG and since 2013 part of the Deutsche Wohnen Group . GSW resold the building in 2005 and only stayed in the original building as a tenant for a limited period of ten years. After GSW moved out seven years ago, Rocket Internet SE is the main tenant, and Amazon has now also moved into parts of the building.

In the course of the change of ownership and legal form, all awareness of the identity of the building designed by the Berlin architects Sauerbruch Hutton and awarded several prizes has probably been lost. Because it’s not just about the external appearance of the panels. Behind it is a convection façade that draws warm air upwards through thermal uplift, while fresh air is supplied on the opposite side of the building. The concept was highly innovative in 1999, and the building received, among other things, the “German Facade Prize for curtain-type, rear-ventilated facades” in 2001.

In a letter to Hamburg-based Sienna Real Estate Property Management GmbH, which manages the building and is having the conversion work carried out, the architects Sauerbruch Hutton complained about “the problem of the color disappearing when the fabric (meaning: the blinds) is raised. The vertical metal slats remain visible or convey the varying colored appearance, even when they are in the parking position (…), this is completely lost with the fabric when the system is started up.” The Hamburg company, on the other hand, sees no perceptible difference: “With the roller blinds retracted or when moving the slats in the parking position, an overall restless picture emerges, which, however, is only visible as a change to an expert observer.” Sienna GmbH concludes: “A change in color can also achieve a positive effect. The Rocket Tower is getting a facelift.”

An open letter, so far signed by the former Senate building director Regula Lüscher as well as the architects Daniel Libeskind and HG Merz, among others, calls on Sienna GmbH to abandon their conversion plans: “The change to the facade represents a gross distortion of the building. We demand to abandon these plans, to repair the façade instead and to maintain the color scheme and, if necessary, to freshen it up with a color coating of the existing panels with a banal universal product brutally defaces the building. It denigrates the logic of an architecture designed entirely in response to the climate (wind, convection, cross-ventilation, position of the sun) and which seeks natural environmental comfort in the workplace and maximum flexibility in the individual light and view control without wasting eric energy expenditure achieved. (…)

Both the color and the functionality of these sun protection panels are an integral part of the architecture of the house. The change you are considering therefore represents a fundamental intervention (…) quite apart from the high costs that would be associated with replacing the existing system and the comparatively high amount of CO2 that would be emitted as a result of such a measure. Don’t encourage climate change, but instead send a contemporary signal of waste avoidance and resource conservation by repairing the facade!” The petition “Save the GSW facade” is collecting signatures against the renovation.

Matthias Sauerbruch, whose office established its international reputation with the GSW high-rise in the late 1990s, is dismayed by the conversion plans and adds the historical dimension of the building: “The GSW high-rise is a witness to the new era after reunification; a pioneer of sustainable construction and a plea for a swinging Berlin,” he explained to the Tagesspiegel: “To simply sacrifice this special architecture to the pragmatic considerations of a property manager would be a real crime.” However, the building is too young to be protected as a monument. This can only be announced after three decades at the earliest, while the GSW high-rise has only been 22 years old.

It owes its existence to a surprise coup. When the architects’ competition was advertised in 1990, the GSW management was looking for a roadside development, as the then managing director Hans Jörg Duvigneau explained: “The Sauerbruch office ignored everything. His design was cheeky – but the best.” Now it’s no longer good enough for the current owners.