The dining hall (Mensa) for the new Vienna University of Economics and Business, designed by Tzou Lubroth Architekten, occupies a large, ground floor space in the Hörsaalzentrum – a Corten steel clad building that houses the main lecture halls and seminar rooms. The design is based on an idea of spatial autonomy.
Although connected to the life of the campus, the Mensa is its own separate environment, a place where students can find respite from their academic activities. To accentuate the break from the classroom and lecture hall, the Mensa references the natural world beyond the brand new campus. The design is equally influenced by the need to cater to a young, technologically savvy student body. The Mensa is organized to maximize the independence of the diner: queues, bottlenecks, and buffets are replaced by complete freedom of movement.
The conceptual springboard for a design that aims to reference the natural world both atmospherically and in the sense of spatial freedom was an image of a vintage Airstream camper in the forest, surrounded by trees. The camper represents the social activities that bring people to the dining hall. It also references the complex mechanical elements that allow such activities to happen. The forest, meanwhile, is the vast space surrounding it, to be explored. The image of the streamlined camper in the forest allows the design to play with the contrast between mechanical and natural references. Here, the idea of nature is not a literal reference to an actual plant, but rather an opportunity to create the perception of environmental change.
Nearly all of the opaque walls in the space, roughly 300 m2, are clad floor to ceiling in glass panels with a printed panorama of an abstracted forest landscape. The panorama was commissioned to the Austrian artist, Markus Leitsch, who rendered an image recognizable as a forest yet strangely suspended between graphic and realistic states. The glass panels are back-lit with programmed LED strips that change in tone and intensity during the course of the day, reflecting changes in daylight and seasonal conditions. A student that enters the Mensa in the morning will encounter a different environment in the afternoon. The atmospheric changes are not perceptible over the course of minutes but over the course of hours.
To emphasize the light qualities of the wall panelling, the ceiling, columns, and floor surfaces are black, grey, and unadorned. The dining area is divided into four zones, each characterized by a separate seating type that corresponds to particular uses and lighting conditions. High seating with long tables surround the meal stations. An array of picnic tables and benches in the centre, turns into bistro-style tables and chairs near the facade, spilling onto the terrace.
Large tables and pendant lights are arranged in a grid at the far end of the hall, where the surrounding printed glass panels create an intimate space. A large cubic wooden group houses a cafe counter and visually divides two of the dining zones. A similar cubic counter which functions as an information booth greets students from the main entrance. The tables and cubic counters are all solid wood and are stained in different colours depending on the various dining zones.
In contrast to the wooden surfaces, the meal stations are all concentrated in a curved group, clad in anodized aluminum panels. The group operates like a large market stall where each meal station has a separate opening. The stations face the hall and are meant to be approached freely by the students. When the stations are not in use, large mechanical panels slide over the openings creating a taut metallic object. Each sliding panel has a back-lit number perforated in the aluminum that designates the different meal stations.
The Mensa is fully digitised and paperless. Students use their ID cards to pay at each of the meal counters. The flexibility of the payment system allows for a space that is absent of long lines and enclosed serving areas. Students are free to move at will from station to station and have a choice of dining areas to populate, while being surrounded by a space that is constantly shifting and changing its atmospheric qualities.
Images © Stefan Zenzmaier