Demolition of the AfE-Tower

For over forty years, the 116-meter AfE-Tower stood on the Bockenheim Campus of the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-University in Frankfurt.

For the first three years of its existence, from 1972-1975, it was the tallest building in Frankfurt. For its last few years it was the 21st tallest, before it was finally demolished through a series of controlled explosions at 10:00 am on Sunday, February 2, 2014.

That morning I had a small, inexpensive camera with me, a Canon PowerShot A710, and by pushing the button as fast as I could, I succeeded in getting a series of four photos (above) as the building collapsed in a cloud of dust.

The Ivory Tower

Several months before the demolition, some enterprising street artists went to the trouble of spraying the word Elfenbein in large letters across the top of the building. Elfenbein means ivory, so this university building was unofficially christened The Ivory Tower.

In the 1970s, when the building was “new”, I used to go there to attend sociolinguistics seminars on the tenth or eleventh floor. I put “new” in quotation marks because it never seemed new even when it was. It had a unique built-in Shabbiness Factor right from the start.

A fire in 1997 destroyed part of the 29th floor. The Frankfurt fire department tried repeatedly to have the whole building closed down as a fire hazard, which necessitated a number of expensive stopgap measures to keep it open a while longer.

The AfE-Tower in 2004

This is what the AfE-Tower used to look like in its prime. Well, it never really had a prime, but you know what I mean.

The abbreviation AfE, by the way, stood for Abteilung für Erziehungswissenschaft (Department of Education Science), but that department never used the building because it ceased to exist (in its old form as a department) before the building was even finished. Instead, the faculties of social sciences, education and psychology had the misfortune of being quartered there.

Coming to see the explosion

On that Sunday morning in February 2014, lots of folks came out to see the explosion. Quite a few came by bicycle, so for a few hours Frankfurt felt almost like Copenhagen. But only almost. (The black “Oper” posters in my photo were advertising the revival of the opera Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi, staged by David Bösch and conducted by Felice Venanzoni.)

Looking down Schwindstraße towards the AfE-Tower

The danger zone around the building, with a radius of about 600 meters, was closed off on the morning of the demolition, and the people living there had to leave their homes. My vantage point was at the corner of Bockenheimer Landstraße, Mendelsohnstraße and Schwindstraße, by the Swiss consulate.

Three hours later

Three hours after the explosion, this was all that was left of the AfE-Tower, just a surprisingly orderly pile of rubble. Apparently the building had collapsed straight downwards, just as planned. The neighboring buildings did not appear to have been damaged, though there were reports that three windows had been broken in a nearby hotel.

According to the building industry website, the demolition of the AfE-Tower was “the largest inner-city controlled blasting Europe has ever seen,” and “the high-rise was destroyed in a matter of seconds.”

The Observatory wrapped up for protection

Across the street, the Observatory on the roof of the Old Physics Building was wrapped in a big black plastic tarp, to protect it from the huge clouds of dust and from any bits of flying rubble that might have been produced by the explosion.

The new tower “One Forty West”, under construction in 2020

As of 2020, three new buildings are under construction at the site of the old AfE-Tower, at the corner of Senckenberganlage and Robert-Mayer-Straße. The tallest of these is One Forty West, so called because its height was given in the building permit as 140 meters, which would have made it the 21st tallest building in Frankfurt. (By coincidence the AfE-Tower was also the 21st tallest before it was demolished in 2014, but there has been considerable construction in the city since then.)

Locally, One Forty West is not a popular project. As the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau (the most progressive of the city’s three daily papers) pointed out on September 24, 2019: “Thousands are looking for an affordable apartment in Frankfurt. But the new high-rise on the old university site offers expensive square meter prices and a luxury hotel.” The paper’s reporter Claus-Jürgen Göpfert pointed out that many of the courses taught in the old AfE-Tower dealt with critical social theory, but now One Forty West “is demonstrating capitalist economics in practice”, which “seems like a cynical comment.”

A four-star hotel is planned for the lower floors, and the upper floors will consist of 193 apartments, 99 for sale and 94 for rent. Prices for the condominiums start at 13,000 Euros per square meter, and go up from there.

Construction on Robert-Mayer-Straße in 2020

Two smaller buildings are also being constructed on the site, but they aren’t as far along. These are also named after their originally-planned heights in meters, 99 West and 21 West.

Confusingly, 99 West is now going to be 106 meters tall, and One Forty West turns out to be 145 meters tall, but apparently the names will not be changed and the extra few meters will be grudgingly accepted by the city’s building authorities. (The German language has a nice word for grudgingly, namely zähneknirschend, which is literally ‘teethgrindingly’.)

This is something of a tradition in Frankfurt. For instance, there is a building in Frankfurt called Tower 185 which is actually 204 meters tall. In this case, the extra nineteen meters at the top of the building were not exactly legal, since city zoning regulations only allowed for a height of 185 meters on that particular street, but the city seems to have given in and changed the regulations to match the building. Nobody made a big issue of this, but in retrospect it makes you wonder who is actually running the city, the elected officials or the big corporations.

My photos in this post are from 2004, 2013, 2014 and 2020. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on the city of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
See more posts on European universities.

7 thoughts on “Demolition of the AfE-Tower”

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for your comment. Too bad you missed the demolition — it went off perfectly, just as planned.
      In fact, looking back I would say the best thing about this building was the way it ended.

  1. ‘teethgrindingly’ is a great way to put it. When my husband was studying German (many many years ago), we were fascinated by the way they put words together.

    All the buildings are amazingly ugly. Not sure I’d want to pay that amount to live in a building that looked like that. I guess the inside will be nice.

  2. 13k per sqm is damm expensive. Such a shame, people are wanting to buy houses but can’t afford luxury. Real state companies don’t care about the real needs of people.

    Before starting to read the blog, i was captivated to the cover image like always it had some hidden story. You were so lucky to get 4 sequential frames with your canon a710. Coincidentally, i too have a silver color canon powershot which is jobless as 100% of tasks are fulfilled with smartphone.

    Very interesting blog.

    1. Thanks, Vijay. I now carry both a Canon and a smartphone. The Canon is easier and faster to use, but the phone is better when I need a wide-angle lens. Also the Canon gives better results at night or indoors when the lighting is poor.

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