A Gem on Main Isle

A Gem on Main Isle

New Portikus

Looking like a small, red witches’ house, New Portikus, exhibition hall of Frankfurt college of applied art, stands right in the river Main.

Portikus Frankfurt was founded in 1987 aspart of Frankfurt Städel school aiming at establishing an exhibition hall for contemporary art. The name goes back to the exhibition hall’s first domicile, which used to be where the old city library once stood, destroyed during WW II. The hall touched the only library fragment still standing: the neo-classical entrance portal.

Since the old city library was planned to be reconstructed, a new home had to be found for the  Portikus. In 2006, the today worldwide acknowledged institution moved into its new home at the Alte Brücke (old bridge) in Frankfurt.

On historical Ground

The new Portikus on Frankfurt’s Main isle was planned by Frankfurt architect Christoph Mäckler. The Alte Brücke, crossing river Main at this point, has quite an important role in the history of the city of Frankfurt, and its restoration is closely tied to the concept of the new Portikus.

For centuries, the Alte Brücke was part of the important connection between northern Italy and the  Hanseatic cities in the North of Germany. The first time it was mentioned in an official written document was in 1222. Time left its mark on the bridge as well as numerous wars. Due to increased traffic the bridge has been expanded step by step, however, repairs were done only on a provisional level.

Christoph Mäcklerhad won a contest launched in 2001 regarding an overhaul of the Alte Brücke.  The competition also dealt with a new building for the Portikus on the Main isle, as a new interpretation of historical bridge buildings, having occupied the Alte Brücke during the course of time.

A small Treasure Chest

The plain, almost archaic cubature of the building with the extremely steep pitched roof looks like a witches’ house. According to architect Christoph Mäckler, the design is based on the typology of Frankfurt’s medieval buildings.

The building has a base area of only 17x9 meters. Since the functions are arranged vertically, a tower-like character has been created. Remains of the building of Frankfurt’s rowing club from 1926 have been left the way they are, they surround the building’s base with a wreath of reddish Main sandstone.

Due to reasons of environmental protection, the isle is not accessible. This is why the entrance has been placed at a height of four meters via a bridge on street level. Through a small area in the front you get into the only exhibition hall with a floor area of 120 square meters. The eight meters high exhibition room of new Portikus is subdivided towards the top through a non-public gallery running all around. Up to that height the room is designed as a closed white box. A few window openings can be seen where the gallery is.

The pitched roof’s Northern side is almost completely glazed and lets glare-free, even light from the Northern side inside. This light is additionally filtered through glass components in the ceiling between the exhibition room and the truss. This way an intimately looking, appealingly lit room is created, providing a suitable backdrop for art through its unobtrusive design.

On the lower floor you will find the administration department with offices, warehouse and rest rooms. Since the new Portikus is located right in the river Main’s flood area, the useable levels need to be above the flood stage. This is why there is an additional level below the administrative level, which can be completely flooded by high water. This way it is prevented that the building is lifted up in the worst case by high water.

For the glazed roof towards the North the artistOlafur Eliasson has designed a light installation which will change the building’s appearance over and over again.

Oxblood red

According to Christoph Mäckler, the striking, red coloring of the Portikus is based on the historical coloring of the Römer. Here, ox’s blood is said to have been used for producing paint, with the Portikus it is a special silicon resin paint called Pompeji Red.

The chalk concrete finish coating on a 49 cm thick poroton brick wall has been applied as a zacken plaster, resulting in a filigree, geometrical texture, giving the façade a noble surface and a refreshing vividness. Especially the change of day times and seasons creates interesting effects on the façade and changes its appearance.

As a finish the façade has received a coating of silicone resin paint with AmphiSilan, making the façade more stable against environmental influences such as carbon dioxide. It is supposed to provide good protection and is said to be diffusible and gentle to the environment. The coloring goes well with the reddish Main sandstone of the Alte Brücke, but still clearly marks the Portikus as a new building.

A special Request of the Frankfurt Locals

Remarkable are the appreciation and the public perception of the Portikus. Apart from the amount paid by the principal Carlo Giersch the building was also financed from donations. The construction services were mainly donated by the executing companies, among them work made by the Frankfurt architects and engineers just as the bricks, the glass and the office furniture used.

Instead of reconstructing the building based on historical findings – as it was done with the old city library, for instance – the decision here was made in favor of a re-interpretation of the bridge’s historical structure. The concept of the living bridge – once populated by mills, a jail and towers – is supposed to be revived, however, with modern functions. Another building is planned on the Main isle east of Alte Brücke.

The way the new building is integrated into the situation at hand shows the sensitive handling with what’s already there along with a well-made connection of old and new. Although the new Portikus accepts a subordinate role to the Alte Brücke, the little building does not step back at all, but catches the eye through its striking shape. Especially the peculiar façade is a remarkable element, since it connect traditional artisan processing with a modern architectural language and state-of-the-art materials.


Principal: Stiftung Giersch
Architect: Christoph Mäckler Architekten
Status: Completion: 2006
Size: 920 Quadratmeter
Companies involved in the project:
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Manufacturer: Caparol
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Contact: [email protected]
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Product class: Silicone resin emulsion paints (SREPs)
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