MVRDV Designs a Giant O-Shaped Building

It revisits the question, should buildings be designed like letters?

MVRDV O building
The O building in Franklin Mitte neighborhood in Mannheim, Germany.


Years ago I believed architects should go back to the ABCs and design buildings that are shaped like letters. I wrote that before electricity, buildings were shaped like letters so everyone was close to a window. After decades of boxy buildings with huge floor plates, I suggested, "We have very good insulations now, and can perhaps afford a little more perimeter for a lot more natural light and air. There is probably a compromise to be found between filling our buildings with high-tech 'green gizmo' solutions and simply building with healthy materials, lots of light, and lots of fresh air."

I ate those words a few years later. In "Why Buildings Shouldn't be Shaped Like Letters," I quoted Frances Gannon of Make Architects: "The simplicity and efficiency of a building’s form is key, as increasing complexity almost always increases embodied carbon."

Franklin Mitte


And then we have the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV which takes the idea of buildings designed like letters to a whole new level with their new project in Mannheim, Germany, on the site of a former U.S. military base. According to a press release:

"The first apartment sales have been closed for the ‘O’, an MVRDV-designed high-rise that—as one of four letter-shaped apartment buildings that together spell out the word HOME—forms one of the standout elements of Mannheim’s Franklin Mitte neighbourhood. The 15-storey building mixes 120 apartments with ground-level commercial units and a bar and terrace. With its playful shape, the building also functions as a local landmark, and a key contributor to the character of the neighbourhood at large."

So we have an O building in the foreground, an E behind it designed by Albert Speer & Partner, an H to the right designed by haascookzemmrich STUDIO2050, and an M at the rear designed by MVRDV. And this is not even how you say "HOME" in German; it probably should spell out "HEIMAT," but then you couldn't have the grand stairway—an MVRDV trademark—and would need more architects.



"At the centre of the ‘O’ is a public terrace. Accessed by a public stairway, this terrace acts as a 'living room' for the area, offering views over the neighbourhood and providing a grand entrance route to the bar located inside the building’s 4th floor."
splash page MVRDV


On its splash page, the firm announces that it "[creates] happy and adventurous places." They always have made me smile many times and the O does it once again.

MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas notes: “By itself, the ‘O’ is an exciting and friendly building at the heart of Franklin Mitte, with terraces and plazas that embrace the liveliness that is coming to this area. But it is even more exciting in how it becomes a part of the city. Working with the H, M, and E buildings, it will give Franklin Mitte a strong, unique identity: Welcome!”

drawing of inhabited O building


One could get all serious about energy and carbon and complain about the extra structure and surface area that comes from turning a slab into an "O," but MVRDV counters that. It states: "Thanks to their balcony access, all apartments in the ‘O’ Highpoint are provided with ample natural ventilation, while the windows are set deep within the façade to reduce excess solar heating. Alongside the second barracks block, a 'forest plaza' contrasts the urban nature of the plazas around the high-rise, adding an oasis for biodiversity to the neighbourhood."

Tower covered in signs in Taipei
The Taipei Twin Towers in Taiwan are wrapped in interactive media facades. MVRDV

The work of MVRDV is always interesting and challenging, but it is sometimes a stretch to call it "sustainable" or "green." Its Taipei Twin Towers project is my poster child for wretched excess in the use of LED façades. It's not their only project to elicit the question, "Why is this on Treehugger?"

In such times, I fall back on the words of the late Lance Hosey from his classic book "The Shape of Green," where he writes: "We don't love something because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart." MVRDV has always moved me to think and to smile, and we could all use a bit more of that.

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  1. "Bringing a character to the neighbourhood: MVRDV's 'O' revealed in Franklin Mitte, Mannheim." MVRDV. 18 November 2021.