The residents of Ottensheim, a pretty little town on the Danube and the oldest chartered market town in the Mühlviertel region in Upper Austria, feel quite strongly about their new town council building – not surprisingly, perhaps, as many of them were actively involved in its development. While that might not have been the original plan it’s how things worked out – and the final result is all the stronger for it. It was even rewarded with the Österreichischer Bauherrenpreis (Austrian Clients’ Award) and the Aluminium-Architektur-Preis in 2010.
As architects, our primary focus is on the social needs of the people we build for; formal questions only come into play later. Now, the citizens of Ottensheim are used to having their say and playing an active role in their community – the first participatory projects were initiated here in the 1980s.
Our former architectural practice Sue had only recently been established; the ‘open forum on the square’ was one of its first competition entries. In 2005, an expert jury unanimously decided that this project best met the council’s goal to translate transparent municipal policy into a building. But this wasn’t to be. For all kinds of reasons, the free-standing glass structure met with fierce resistance from many citizens.
What makes this project special, however, is that the concept of an open town council was implemented nevertheless, though in a different way. At the end of the day it is now rooted more firmly in the town’s history than if the original design had been realised.
Identity = work
It was decided to revitalise the so-called Gusenleitnerhaus, a dilapidated listed building in the town centre. Hidden treasures came to light! A Baroque groin vault, old wooden ceilings, even a 19th-century painted ceiling. Old elements were carefully restored, additional parts were developed, usable components were reused, albeit in different places: It is hard work to shape an identity.
Merging inside and outside
There was no space for the function room either in the old building or, after the competition, on the market square; instead, it was relocated to a new extension which, when the façade is opened, merges inside and outside in the way historic buildings in southern Europe do: It becomes a covered public space, opening both towards Linzer Strasse at the front and the arcaded courtyard at the back.
In the old part of the complex the council staff can go about their work undisturbed, while in the function room people come together to see exhibitions, celebrate weddings, attend concerts, take part in discussions, and cast votes: in short, to do all the things that the people of Ottensheim enjoy doing together. Now it is they who continue writing the history of the house.