The Messel quarry is called “Paleontological Pompeii”. From the middle of the 19th century. at this place, brown coal and oil shale were mined, and in 1971–1991 they tried to adapt the quarry to a landfill. However, as a result of scientific excavations that have been carried out here since 1919, fossil finds dating back to the Eocene era, that is, to the period 56 - 37 million years ago, were discovered.
At that time, there was a volcano on the site of the quarry, in the crater lake of which, in a subtropical climate, various species of early mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects lived, and the flora was amazingly diverse. The remains of this vegetation, together with silt at the bottom of the lake, formed oil shales, which did not contain oxygen and, thanks to this, preserved the remains of animals in amazingly good condition: the fossils show not only skeletons, but also the structure of the skin, plumage and even the contents of the stomach. This is the world's largest fossil site from the Eocene era, providing invaluable scientific material, in particular, highlighting the early stages of mammalian evolution. In 1995, the Messel quarry as a natural site was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and in 1996 the authorities of the state of Hesse abandoned the idea of a landfill in favor of creating a museum.
However, the Visitor Information Center is not really a museum, since there are very few exhibits there, and those that exist have been taken for temporary storage from the Darmstadt Museum. Its task is to acquaint the visitor with the history of the place and excavations, demonstrate the results of research and methods of work of paleontologists, and also give the opportunity to see these excavations with their own eyes from the observation deck.
However, the architects landau + kindelbacher and the landscape bureau Keller Landschaftsarchitekten managed to do more. Their highly conceptual and even artistic project gives a sense of the significance of this place and its unique scientific and historical role.
The exterior of the visitor center is the epitome of genius loci, "the genius of the place." The shape of the building, which cuts into the relief of the quarry with the long sleeve of the viewing platform, reproduces the layered structure of the very oil shale, thanks to which the unique fossils have been preserved. This idea is realized in almost parallel rows of monolithic walls made of coarse-grained concrete, which form elongated rooms with asymmetric configuration and different heights. Window and door openings are located at the ends of the building, on its long, slightly curved sides there are almost none (the exception is the western wall, where the entrance is located, and on the second floor there is a narrow ribbon of windows of the administrative sector). Therefore, the building is devoid of facades in the usual sense of the word. The accent in its appearance is transferred to the overall silhouette: it resembles a gentle stone ridge that has grown out of the ground and merges with it.
This fusion is highlighted by the complex and varied connections between the building and the surrounding landscape. The concrete from which the center was built, its volumes deliberately avoiding right angles, the shadows cast by its facades and their protrusions seem to be a natural part of the natural space. Trees and clouds are reflected in the mirrored surfaces of doors and windows. Landscape architecture, whose role in the project is very important, strengthens this connection: terraces for compositions of stones and plants are arranged on the ceilings. Narrow strips of roofs, bounded by wall protrusions and lined with greenery, gradually drop to ground level and turn into a themed garden. All materials used are associated with the history of the quarry: slate shale, cinder blocks - by-products of shale oil production, plants that once grew here in a wild state. The apparent neutrality and naturalness of the external appearance gives the building a resemblance to a megalith, the man-made nature of which is not opposed to the natural environment. A restrained color scheme works for the same effect: gray concrete, on which all other colors leave reflections, dark mirrors of doors and windows, gray, pink and white gravel, greenery of plants.
The absolute naturalness of the exterior is contrasted with the sophistication of the interior. The exhibition space, as conceived by the architects, should not so much tell a person about the Eocene, excavations and fossils, but allow him to feel the uniqueness of Messel's quarry and the gifts that he presented to mankind, that is, give him the experience of Time in its colossal extent and an encounter with history. so distant that it is almost impossible to imagine it. Indeed, how can one imagine a time span of 47 million years? How to fully realize the significance of the fact that a person managed to get into the earth's womb and see there that which was clearly not intended for his eyes?
The architects landau + kindelbacher found an excellent answer to this question: what cannot be imagined can be experienced, having received a fundamentally new sensory experience. It is this task that the architecture of the interior space solves, which, working with the physical sensations of the visitor, seeks to free him from his usual notions and make him feel like a part of the Earth. The following halls, leading the viewer through the contrasts of oppression and space, darkness and light, symbolically lead him through the layers of the Earth - from traditional rooms to original, unusual spaces.
The neutral gray of the facades is replaced by intensely bright tones inside. The spacious 2-storey foyer guides the visitor to the cinema and the card room: in their ultramarine interior, you can watch an introductory film about the history of the quarry and giving an overview of the main finds. From the cold ultramarine, the visitor goes into a fiery red room, where the history of an ancient volcano and a crater lake is described. One of the long rooms imitates a mine, moving along which the visitor seems to plunge into the "bowels of the earth" - a closed and darkened black-brown room. Having made this path, he makes a symbolic leap back in time - forward by 47 million years and finds himself in a high, light-flooded hall, the walls of which are painted green. This hall recreates the atmosphere of the Eocene subtropics with acoustic and visual effects. The life that was in full swing at the site of the current quarry and around it becomes tangible through the use of images from modern jungles and lakes: images of animals are projected on the walls, sounds of the southern forest are heard from hidden speakers. In the next room, where calm blue surfaces alternate with orange, a laboratory is modeled, demonstrating the methods of work of paleontologists. They explain the complex process of extracting fragile fossils from the shale.
The exposition culminates in the last room, which is called the Treasury. Here, against the background of snow-white walls, in crystal showcases, like shrines in transparent reliquaries, authentic specimens of fossils frozen in epoxy resin are exhibited, highlighted with warm amber light (they were transferred to the center from the museum in Darmstadt). Showcases are built into the walls at different heights, including at eye level, so visitors find themselves literally face to face with paleontological "treasures" and can not only marvel at them, but also fully realize their significance for our history planets. The entire path they have traveled through the halls of the information center is an excellent preparation for this very experience - the experience of the uniqueness, fragility and incredible value of objects recovered from the ground in the Messel quarry.
In a place where until then there were only an old mine, an excavation and an unfinished garbage platform, architecture created an almost sacred space that reflected a reverent reverence for the wonders that hide the bowels of the earth. And it was architecture that became the main value of the information center of Messel's career: it accumulated and visualized the history and meanings of this amazing place, gathered the surrounding space around itself, concentrated the genius loci in itself and became a means of directing spectator experiences.