The Garden of Mammon

At the heart of Frankfurt's Commerzbank, the tallest building in Europe, is a series of 'sky gardens' planted with olive trees and acacias, enabling German bankers to commune with Nature while making their piles of money grow. By Jonathan Glancey

The tallest building in Europe is now the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, designed by the British architects Foster & Partners and very nearly complete. It is 185ft taller than the previous title-holder, Canary Wharf Tower in London's Docklands (an 800ft behemoth by the American architect Cesar Pelli), but still some 450ft shorter than the grimly vertiginous Sears Tower, Chicago (Skidmore Owings Merrill). End of story.

It would be the end of the story if the 60-storey Commerzbank were simply another corporate filing cabinet in the sky sheathed in a shiny skin of stainless steel or clad portentously in marble. It would the end of the story, too, if this were purely another exercise in corporate one-upmanship: my prestigious headquarters is more prestigious than yours. After all, there is nothing new or daring in constructing buildings that scrape the sky. The reverse if often the norm: most high-rise offices built over the past 30 years are lacklustre, missing the Olympian quality of Manhattan's Empire State Building or the cinematic charisma of its eternal rival, the Chrysler Building.

The Commerzbank, however, is different, and, if this doesn't sound silly given its Brobdingnagian scale, a small step forwards towards a new generation of skyscrapers. Foster has designed the tower from the inside out, so that unlike 99 per cent of skyscrapers that consist solely of identical floors stacked one above another and linked by an eerily viewless lift, the Commerzbank boasts a fairly complex interior and one much to the benefit of the 2,400 Deutsche-suits who will amass towering piles of money here.

It differs from the archetypal filing cabinet in the sky because its tall triangular core is punctuated by internal hanging gardens that spiral up and around it. These sky gardens, one for each floor, have been planted initially with mature olive trees and acacias, and will mature into lush aerial groves, bringing Nature and softened sunlight into the heart of this steely money machine. Staff will be able to open windows (yes, opening windows, an astonishing late 20th-century achievement) and look out through a green veil to the city beyond their computer screens.

Foster has long talked of overthrowing the tyranny of high-rise office blocks by creating "sky lobbies". The hanging gardens in the Commerzbank take the idea a stage further. Why should those working to make huge profits for banks be denied plants and flowers? Or fresh air?

This is what makes the Commerzbank almost special. Otherwise, it is a fairly routine job for Fosters and Ove Arup & Partners, the engineers. In fact, in certain ways the tower is a bit of a disappointment. Its facades, although well finished, are routine; unlike, for example, Foster's superb headquarters for the Hongkong & Shanghai bank (1979-86). The way the Frankfurt tower meets the street is also a little hackneyed, crash-landing in an awkward stone-clad podium block designed to respect the existing street (but more to comply with the dictates of the city's planning authorities), without conviction or panache. The building comes into its own only as it reaches above the existing city roofscape.

From Taunusanlage or Gallusanlage, the two parkland walks that follow the line of Frankfurt's medieval walls, the Commerzbank is undoubtedly the finest of the city's all but anonymous towers. These walks are not much fun at night, by the way; they are haunted by outsized German junkies, and best avoided. Yet, from these vantage points, Foster's articulated tower goes a long way towards redeeming the skyline of the city Germans like to call Bankfurt, or, with a nod to its underlying architectural conceit, Mainhattan; the city straddles the River Main, which feeds into the Rhine.

Yet, compared to Manhattan, Frankfurt seems anodine and tame. Part of the problem (if it is a problem) is the fact that planners insist on having new developments follow the old street layout. As this was destroyed (as was half the city) by bombing in two tumultuous air raids in 1944, its ghostly, yet insistent presence is evoked more by nostalgia than common sense. This nostalgia appears to have grown with the years, so that although Frankfurt's "South Bank" boasts a string of smart new museums, the old centre has seen the reconstruction of schmaltzy Hansel-and-Gretel timber buildings in the shadow of the priapic, yet unfeeling banks. If a city wants these money machines, it should let rip with them, confining them to a particular quarter without hemming them in by a corset of planning restrictions rooted in a misplaced nostalgia.

Easy to say, perhaps, when you live in London, a city that was badly bombed but nothing like half-destroyed. Yet despite Frankfurt's celebrated museums, its lively drinking hausen (where off-duty bankers get sozzled on jugs of ebbelwei - apple wine), its upbeat club culture and fondness for all things American, the city's reason-to-be at the end of the 20th century is money. Germany's first stock exchange opened here in 1585, and this is where Mayer Amschel Rothschild founded his pan-European financial empire. Today the city is host to somewhere between (depending on who you listen to) between 388 and 426 banks.

At the time the stock exchange was founded, the city walls were punctuated by no fewer than 42 towers. They have long gone, to be replaced by what seems like (I forgot to count them) an equal number of "Mainhattan" skyscrapers. The Commerzbank is the best of them.

With luck, the principles informing this new building will gradually feed their way into the minds of British developers and planners. In terms of ecological thinking, the Germans are a long way ahead of us determinedly dirty Brits, who like nothing more than to spend our working days cooped up in energy-guzzling buildings, remote from Nature and safe in the knowledge that we are doing our bit to help global warming. The Commerzbank shows that big may not be especially beautiful, but it can be responsible. What we need now is to see the same or similar principles applied to a corporate headquarters without compromise, and see how far it is possible to create an ecologically sound skyscrapern

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea