Cathedral of the waves

Why the authors of the article in “Die Denkmalpflege” magazine of 2016 chose the first part of this title is understandable when you see this building.

The relevance of the second part of the title given by Axel Bröcker and Rupert Schreiber is only apparent when you learn about the purpose of this extraordinary building.

After the Second World War, radio stations in most European countries were public bodies, funded in whole or in part by public fees. Radio Luxembourg and Radio Monte Carlo on the other hand were fully commercial radio stations, possibly because the size of their countries made a public funding model very difficult. Both of these stations broadcast in French and could be heard across France. Their success encouraged some French entrepreneurs to try and create a third French-language commercial radio station in the early 1950s. The grandiose idea of a third French-language commercial radio station was only outdone by the grandiose building design in which its broadcasting technology was to be housed.

The challenge was where to locate it. The French government was not interested in providing a radio bandwidth to a commercial provider who may undermine the public radio. The ambiguous political situation of Saarland provided the answer. Being neither in France nor in Germany, neither government could prevent Europe 1 from using a bandwidth not being used by anyone else.

From 1955 to 2019, Europe 1 broadcast its French radio programme from this site which after 1957 was Germany.

The studios were in Paris and there was a direct feed from Paris to Berus for the onward broadcast. Having admired the amazing structure of the building from afar, I was even more surprised to find it only houses broadcasting equipment.

A technician sat at a central desk in the middle of this vast space and oversaw the correct operation of the broadcast.

The commercial nature of the station meant that it relied on listener numbers to sell advertising minutes. If it ever stopped broadcasting, the listener numbers would fall to zero and the value of a minute of airtime would also drop. There was therefore significant redundancy built into the technology. It had two direct sources of electricity, one from the (now closed) coal fired powerstation in Ensdorf, Saarland, another from the French power station in St Avold. There were two separate cables from the Paris studios and there were always two set of broadcasting technology available.

The unusual nature of this radio station meant that it became the test site for Thomson Houston’s (now Thomson Broadcast) transmitter equipment. The former Thomson Group transmitted television programmes from the Eiffel Tower in 1937 and having Europe 1 as a demonstration site meant they were able to invite potential customers (usually heads of postal services) to the Sendehalle to see it in operation.

The energy to broadcast medium and long wave radio generated so much heat that the building never required heating, snow never settled on its roof and a pond was installed in front of the building as a mechanism for transferring heat outside. Since there is no more broadcasting, the pond is empty too these days.

Why the founders of Europe 1 decided on such a building design remains unclear, although the construction was fraught with challenges.  What was intended to be a roof that resembled a scallop shell it more closely resembles a butterfly wing.  It is made of pre-stressed concrete which sits on a supporting ring which in turn rests on the top of the A at the front of the building and an equivalent at the back of the building with a lower apex.  

The roof was reinforced at a later time during which the white struts visible on the inside were installed to retain it. The weight remains on the circular ring anchored at the front and back of the building. The vertical pillars around the building merely hold the (at times dirty) window panes and are not weight bearing at all.

The architectural merit of the building has been recognised by a number of organisations, not least the Denkmalschutz, which has included it in its list of protected buildings but also the German Federal Chamber of Engineers. In 2016 Federal Funding under the “Nationale Projekte des Städtebaus”, which funds improvements for urban developments. Although this is more rural than urban, the building is hardly industrial.

After Europe1 ceased transmission, the local town bought the building although without a clear vision of what to do with it. It was motivated more by a desire to keep the building operational in some way and prevent it from decaying. Recently it has started hosting stage events in the building, one of which attended as an opportunity to see the building from the inside. The presence of the broadcasting equipment makes reduces the available space for activities and acoustics was not one of the key design requirements. A one-person show with microphones and speakers works fine, I’m less confident about an orchestra or choral event.

I will however aim to attend more events and get involved in some of them to enable continued use of this stunning building, set in the middle of nowhere!



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