Considering the Public Space around M9 and Experimenta by Sauerbruch Hutton

From the book Libraries and Their Architecture in the 21st Century 
published by De Gruyter Saur, Berlin / Boston, 2021



With every new cultural building that is built in the city there is an opportunity to add a functioning public space that create a synergy with the functions and activities within the building. This space supports a public function as well as the city as a whole.

This essay will examine how one can exploit cultural buildings to create effective public space and how cities can benefit from using the architecture to activate and make a place out of the space. Space in the city is scarce and mostly subject to hard negotiation, therefore a public building is a possibility to achieve a valuable space enhanced by the programme in the building. The space can be situated in a tight urban context, embraced by the city’s buildings, creating a casual intimate atmosphere where people might accidentally pass by. A good example of this is the Seattle Library by OMA with its covered street square. A cultural building might equally be located near water or within a park, which would create a different kind of public space, influenced by nature. Contemporary examples might be the Art Museum Tate Modern by Herzog de Meuron by the River Themes in London or the Opera house by Snøhetta on Oslo’s waterfront. This view of the respective qualities of a dense urban situation on the one hand, and a plaza surrounded by nature on the other, is used to look at the design intentions behind two of Sauerbruch Hutton’s recent projects: the M9 Museum and Experimenta.

In 2010 the Fondazione di Venezia launched an international competition to design a new museum in Mestre, the M9 Museum. The allocated site is very central and, until recently, had been occupied by the Italian military and the whole quarter was inaccessible to the public. Sauerbruch Hutton won the competition with a proposal for an urban regeneration project that would use insertions and existing restored structures working together to create a newly permeable and sustainable urban quarter. The quarter has five buildings, two of which are newly built. The main new building is a large, near-triangular museum formed by the suggested pedestrian route into a new piazza at the centre of the quarter. On the other side of this route are small buildings containing storage facilities and a small café? To the north of the piazza is a former monastery, the Convento delle Grazie dating from the sixteenth century, which was renovated for shop and co-working use with its inner courtyard now enclosed by a facetted canopy.

Experimenta is the extension of a science centre in Heilbronn in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, which comprises spaces for exhibition, education, studios, restaurant dining and a 360° dome screen theatre. An ambitious project, singular in its goal, it is the creation of a private foundation. The commission was won by Sauerbruch Hutton in a two-phase competition and was completed in 2019. With the new addition, it is now one of the largest science centres in the south of Germany and the addition has increased the gross floor area by two thirds. It sits adjacent to the existing building, an old warehouse, on an island in the River Neckar. The aim was to create a new facility housing an interactive exhibition full of live experiments and audio-visual learning features, where visitors can spend an entire day.

On the Front Steps

Cultural and civic institutions have the ability to activate public space in the way that churches collected people on their front steps, as they often are social spaces outside and places for social encounter. One may visit a museum with the hope of being inspired but also often end up talking to, or even making, a friend. At a visit to a library one has the intention of learning but the best ideas might well come out of chance conversations with ones peers. If one instrumentalise a new piece of architecture to redefine the spaces that surround it, then one could reinforce and strengthen both the communal space and the nature of the building itself. A good design must allow for many different uses and sometimes the outcome is different from what was expected, for example the stairs outside Mies’ New National Gallery [1] from 1967 in
Berlin. These have been recently loved by skateboarders and on Mondays [2] they were literary adopted by large crowds on wheels skating the curbs and railings. Pedestrian routes change over time, thus a building interwoven into the urban tissue allows the spaces adjacent to it – and also within it – to take on a life of their own, not only for visitors to that building but also for local citizens and others who may just be passing through.

One might even argue that the most important consideration when designing public space is to discover the particular social activity that will potentially create success for that specific situation and act as a catalyst. The Project for Public Places (PPS) [3], claims that good quality public space should exhibit needs to have the following four qualities: the space must be easily accessible; public activities are to take place; it must be comfortable; and finally, it must be a  place that invites social encounter where people can meet each other and take their friends [4]. Activities spilling out of cultural buildings, such as performances or dancing, use the programme to strengthen its public space and offer a break from the busy city life. Accessibility is vital for public spaces especially those in a dense urban setting that might not be seen until one arrives and entices people passing by, allowing a stop for a quick lunch or steps to sit on for a break. Both public spaces in a dense urban sphere and more nature-based settings require the other two important properties: those of being both comfortable and sociable. Public space around cultural buildings live in symbiosis with the buildings themselves and it is important that the buildings and their public spaces are perceived as a unified entity that synergetically share activities and users. A library or a cultural institute could benefit from having public spaces not only outside the building but inside as well, for example whereas a space in front of a theatre or concert hall is able to host open-air performances and public receptions.

1. Accessible

For the M9 Museum, the associated public spaces are crucial as driving forces for the design. The scheme creates a series of informal piazzas and a main through-route that enables new flows and connections to take place. The M9 Museum functions as an agent of urban renewal whereby an educational institution and events venue is able to provide a point for local identification. The reshaped adjacent convent contains commercial units that generate revenue to provide financial support for the museum, also attracting a crowd that will spend their money, enliven the area and colour the atmosphere. As Mestre has no ambition to attract vast masses of tourists like Venice, this new cultural district is aimed very much at local inhabitants and thus must be easily accessible. The pedestrian route running from Piazza Erminia Ferretto to Via Cappuccina through the new museum quarter was therefore an idea that was conceived right from the competition stage, which then guided the project throughout the many years of design and construction. This and other new routes not only exert a positive impact on the local quarter itself but also help to animate the whole of central Mestre.

2. Active

The square in front of the Experimenta in Heilbronn is scaled to allow for activities to spill out of the science centre, as well as to allow guests to sit down to rest and enjoy the surrounding  nature. The design is conceived as a sequence of spaces offering an experience finely choreographed between the building’s interior and the surrounding landscape. Views into its interior, especially in the evening, ensure that the spaces within the building are on clear display to those outside. It therefore becomes a juxtaposed public space, seen up-close and from afar. The sitting area by the water allows people to meet without having to purchase entry. The closeness to water offers an activity in its own right – to watch the birds, to play, or merely to enjoy the tranquil setting.


Irrespective of whether a public space is set in an urban or quasi natural setting, it must, above all, to be comfortable. In this its microclimate is key, and so one must ensure that nurturing and protective areas that invite people to spend time. If designed well, the public space can become an important area in its own right, triggered by the cultural or educational function adjacent. In the more informal case of the M9 Museum these qualities were achieved by designing narrow lanes and a covered courtyard for the southern European climate. The space is also, quite literally, coloured by a rich variety of colours and materials. The coloured ceramic tiles are in 13 hues of red, sand and whites that are inspired by the local urban fabric of Mestre, and which give the piazza a real warmth and intimacy. Glazed surfaces on the tiles make the volumes welcoming and light. The adjacent convent has a deep red colour for its
exterior and the courtyard is painted in a soft sandy tone, thereby strengthening the unique visual identity of the square also within the convent. In the museum building, the rough haptic texture of exposed concrete offers a fine contrast to the smoothness of the ceramic tiles, creating a memorable ensemble that is ever-changing because of the fluctuating intensity and nuance of sunlight in Mestre.

In Experimenta, by contrast, its particular island location, the presence of water determines the quality of the microclimate to a large degree. The square is beautifully situated centrally on the island and address the river. It forms an open and inviting space that acts both as an external foyer to the museum, whose generosity is duly proportional to the large structure that enclose it. The ground floor contains public activities that synergetically support the use of the square, while a series of bridges connect the latter to the city across the water. The café is situated such that it catches the sun both from south and west. The generous outdoor seating area offers plentiful views over the River Neckar; indeed the entire ground-floor façade is glazed so as to allow for maximum visual permeability both to and from the square. The space is arranged around a ramp that starts outside and take the visitor in-side and up through the building offering different views along the way as well as place to rest between the various exhibition halls. These spaces are large and light filled spaces to have a public character and give the possibility for children to run, rest and play.

4. Social

In the M9 Museum quarter, as mentioned, a new pedestrian connection across this new museum quarter links Mestre’s main square to a busy shopping street in the south. All public activities in the museum – such as the restaurant and bookshop, media library and public lecture hall – are situated adjacent to this new public route, and therefore service the new civic spaces as much as the museum itself. The piazza thus creates an urban situation between the cultural/educational programmes and the shops and cafes located around the courtyard of the restored sixteenth-century convent. This revitalized city quarter has allowed the previous inaccessible part of Mestre to be transformed into a lively and comfortable addition throughout the day. In providing a welcoming social location, the development as a whole gives Mestre a
new injection of life and offers an important local economic stimulus.

The new square in front of Experimenta invites visitors and locals alike to stop before or after visiting the science centre, at the same time it offers space of rest and reflection for others who may just be en route across the island. The square – and the steps leading down to the water’s edge – creates a natural stop. The square itself acts as an extension to the science centre, allowing for events and gatherings to take place on its doorstep. A golden pattern in the ground divides this space into different areas, while trees have been planted to provide a shady canopy over the seating area. The café spills out on the square, adding social independent from the science centre. The landscape architect [5] has worked with “green islands” bringing nature onto the cobblestone plaza. The island is well connected by pedestrian bridges to the city centre and indeed connects the western part Heilbronn with its railway station to the park and leisure area on its north-eastern side.

5. Atmospheric

Both projects mentioned in this essay have one thing in common – the exterior space is influenced by the architecture and there is an attempt to allow the building bleed out on to the street. Through material, space, light and colour an atmosphere is created that create a special atmosphere and is site specific and related to the synergy between build and open space and hope to be a destination of its own over time due to the specific atmosphere created.

Activation through Culture

If carefully conceived and designed well, a public space can have a positive effect on the city that stretches far beyond its physical borders. Following the logic envisaged by the black-and-white Nolli map [6], in which public space within a buildings carry the same importance as open communal space and enables physical meetings in a world with increasing dependence on social media. One might imagine the city as a colouring book for which one is given the pens in order to add some colour to special areas of the city, to attract people to gather, to experience, to learn, or simply enjoy while walking through. Over time, this patch of colour then bleeds and makes the city’s coloured-in area ever larger, melting together into a polychromatic jigsaw multiple of multiple civic interventions.

A public space can benefit from the adjacent cultural institution to activate the space. To allow for meetings between people, planned or spontaneous, to take place. When the atmosphere inside the building is encouraged to spill outside, these magic moments experienced inside are transferred into the public and, as such, can be used to re-invigorate and reinvent the contemporary and democratic city. Then one will have created a cultural place out of the urban space.


[1] Neue National Gallerie was drawn by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1968
[2] Public museums in Germany are generally closed on Mondays
[3] Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a non-profit organisation based in New York dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities
[4] quoting William H. Whyte
[5] Landscape architect Hager Partner AG