Frankfurt ivory tower goes poof


  • Living
  • Sunday, 09 Feb 2014

A tower both loathed and beloved recently went up in dust in the heart of Frankfurt.

IT IS rather surreal to sit back and watch a 116m tall building fall in a city of skyscrapers, to the cheers of an estimated 30,000 onlookers. Especially post-9/11.

But that was exactly what happened two Sundays ago here in downtown Frankfurt to the 32-storey AfE Tower (AfE is the acronym for Abteilung für Erziehungswissenschaft or Department of Pedagogy). Once part of the campus of the city’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University, it was reduced to rubble within 10 seconds using 950kg of explosives.

Touted as the largest ever controlled explosion in Europe, the entire undertaking involved precision planning, with weights, counts and measurements that would have thrilled a statistician!

Even the news reports that followed couldn’t resist spewing figures. The 50,000 ton building was brought down with explosives stuffed into 1,500 holes drilled into its walls. Given that it stood right smack in the centre of town, canisters containing 1,000 litres of water each, were also blown up with the building to help absorb as much dust as possible. Six-metre high barriers were erected around the skyscraper to prevent damage to nearby constructions.

With so much at risk, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the shoes of explosives expert Eduard Reisch, who had headed the mission.

“It is almost 100% impossible to blow up such a building without hurting people or neighbouring buildings,” he was reported to have said. Hence, footage of him clenching his fist and hooting in happiness right after the entire undertaking is understandable given that neither damage nor injury was reported.

Yet, it was an understandably bittersweet experience for former alumni (including my better half) who had studied in this building nicknamed the “Ivory Tower” – an ironic name for a building that was pretty much a white elephant from the time of its construction.

The planning and construction of the tower, which once briefly held the title of Frankfurt’s tallest building, began in the early 1960s and was completed in 1972. It housed the departments of Social Sciences and Education. Hence the “Ivory Tower” reference to the students who apparently devoted time here to deeper pursuits for humanity’s betterment instead of being distracted by more mundane matters.

However, its funky architecture which featured rooms of different heights on different wings, necessitated the construction of a complicated system of staircases and spilt levels that proved to be a nightmare for those lacking orientation.

For instance, if you needed to get to the 18th floor, you had to take the lift to the 20th and then walk down two flights of stairs. Yes, not the most efficient of designs.

While it was designed for 2,500 students, the actual numbers far surpassed that, resulting in long queues for the building’s seven lifts. Reports state that waiting periods for lifts averaged at 20 minutes: bad news for the tardy!

In August 2005, a University employee was killed when she tried to exit her lift that had gotten stuck between two floors. Questions remain if this was due to human error or a fundamental flaw in the building itself.

It steadily went into a state of disrepair over time and became known for its graffiti covered walls and overall appearance of a building unfit for human habitation, let alone study. Hence, the decision to demolish it.

Yet for all its faults, the tower came to represent the idealism of the young minds that came here full of hope to actually make the world a better place. It also became a symbol of student protests that often took place here, simply because the way it was built made it easy to be sealed off completely with little effort. Former alumni include journalists from several renowned German newspapers who reminisced about their time in the tower, describing it varyingly from “Tower of the Do-gooders” to the “place to love, fight, think and celebrate.”

My pensive husband simply stated, “It’s the end of an era.”

We had originally planned to go watch the implosion “live” with our neighbours upstairs, one of whom is a state architect. However, with talk of possible asbestos issues, my husband and I thought better of it and decided to watch the live stream from home.

Interestingly, one of the tower’s neighbouring buildings is the Senckenberg Museum, one of Germany’s largest natural history museums that features at its entrance a 4m tall and 13m long Tyrannosaurus rex (model, of course!). Shortly before the implosion, I had joked to my husband that the T-rex wouldn’t be too pleased to be smothered in dust! The critter eventually made the headlines of the local Frankfurter Rundschau’s coverage, which claimed the T-rex got the best view.

Regardless of vantage point though, the fall of the AfE Tower was nevertheless a white-knuckle experience. As the countdown began, we held our breath and then, poof went the Ivory Tower.

And amidst the cheers of the crowd in the live stream, I heard a soft sniffle beside me.

Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. Planes flying close to skyscrapers still freak her out.

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