The architectural park at the Campus in Weil am Rhein is as characteristic of Vitra as the home and office furniture that it produces. In 1981, after a major fire destroyed most of the factory buildings built in the 1950s, this site was developed into a heterogeneous ensemble of contemporary architecture. The architecture critic Philip Johnson once wrote: “Not since the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927 has there been a gathering in a single place of a group of buildings designed by the most distinguished architects in the Western world.” In developing the Campus, the architects involved sought to create buildings that harmonised both with the surrounding residential areas and with the natural landscape of the border triangle (Switzerland, Germany and France). And, indeed, what came about was a collection of purpose-built constructions, the incredible density and quality of which have made the Vitra Campus an attraction for fans of architecture from all over the world.
The VitraHaus is Vitra’s flagship store. Here, visitors have the opportunity to experience the furniture in the Home Collection, which is displayed in inspiring arrangements. It was with this in mind that the architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron let themselves be inspired by the typical house shape for their design. The VitraHaus thus consists of gabled houses, particularly apt for presenting home furniture, which have been stretched in length, nested within each other and fitted with large windows at the front.
The projections of the individual 12 houses float up to 15 breathtaking metres over each other, creating a “stack of houses” that almost looks chaotic. At 57 metres long, 54 metres wide and 21.3 metres tall, the VitraHaus towers over the other buildings on the Campus – and not only provides an overview of the Vitra Home Collection, but also a view of the surrounding areas – near and far.
The VitraHaus is impressive both by day and by night. During the day, the VitraHaus offers a lovely view of the surroundings, and at night, the building glows in the dark, while its shape seems to dissolve. The rooms open up and the fronts fitted with glass turn into vitrines of sorts, which glow over the Campus and the surroundings.
This production facility was designed by the Japanese architects SANAA. It has been a part of the Vitra Campus since 2010, except for the facade, which was completed in 2012. The building is rounded in shape, but not quite circular, and is composed of two half-round concrete shells that are connected to one another. The oval form optimises logistical processes by allowing trucks sufficient room for circulating in.
The glass walls of the bus stop made of polished steel provide views of the Vitra Campus and the wine-making village of Ötlingen. People waiting at the bus stops can sit on Wire Chairs, which were designed by Charles and Ray Eames and produced by Vitra. The two bus stops gracing the entrance to the Vitra Campus are unique and elegantly simple constructions designed by Jasper Morrison.
The large and simple brick building designed by Álvaro Siza is reminiscent of anonymous factory buildings from the 19th century and is extremely unobtrusive in comparison to the other buildings on the grounds. The most eye-catching feature of the building is its curved bridge roof, which connects the building to the neighbouring one. It is so high that it does not obstruct the view of the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid and automatically lowers in rainy weather, thus protecting the logistics vehicles on their way to the Grimshaw building. With its brick facing, Álvaro Siza’s production facility makes reference to the production hall that burned down in 1981.
After the major fire in 1981, Vitra decided it would be a good idea to have a fire brigade. Zaha Hadid was commissioned with designing a building for it. Knowing that its company fire brigade could only combat a fire in its initial stages and could not replace the public fire services, Vitra decided to disband its fire brigade a few years later. Since that time, the rooms have been used for events and exhibitions held by the Vitra Design Museum. Today, the Weil fire services are responsible for the Vitra Campus. Together with the Basel fire services, they assume the role of protecting the Vitra Campus.
The Fire Station is the very first building complex designed by Zaha Hadid. It consists of spaces for fire engines, showers and changing rooms for the firemen as well as a conference room and a kitchenette. The sculpture-like building was cast in concrete on site. Positioned alongside the angular features of the neighbouring production facilities, it has the effect of a frozen explosion. Its lack of colour and right angles provides visitors with an unusual spatial experience.
The 1993 construction of the Conference Pavilion by Tadao Ando was the architect’s first building outside Japan. The calm and restrained structure encompasses an assortment of conference rooms. It is characterized by a highly ordered spatial articulation with a large part of its volume concealed below grade. A striking feature is the footpath leading to the pavilion, which has a significant association with meditation paths in the gardens of Japanese monasteries. Because cherry trees are of great traditional importance in Japan, Ando sought to preserve as many as possible. Only three cherry trees had to be felled in order to make room for the building.
Over the years, Vitra accumulated a growing collection of chairs and other furniture. With the aim of making the collection accessible to the public, a shed-like structure was initially envisioned for storage and exhibition purposes. Yet during the planning of Frank Gehry’s first building in Europe, the original function was expanded. A museum was established as an independent foundation dedicated to the research and popularisation of design and architecture: the Vitra Design Museum.
Despite its modest scale, the Vitra Design Museum building emerged as a programmatic work of deconstructivism, a collage of towers, ramps and cubes. Its expressive forms are not arbitrary, but are determined by their function and the lighting. The exhibition area totalling some 700 square metres extends over two floors, with daylight entering the roof area through large windows.
The Vitra Design Museum Gallery was built in 2003 as an annex to the front gate, which was designed by Frank Gehry and has been in place since 1989. It served to house the Vitra Design Museum Shop until 2010, when the shop was moved into the VitraHaus. Since 2011, the Vitra Design Museum Gallery has been used for smaller exhibitions and experimental projects held parallel to the larger temporary exhibitions in the Vitra Design Museum’s main building.
The gatehouse is the entrance to the area of the Vitra Campus that is not open to the public, and which can only be visited by taking a guided architectural tour. It houses the company security staff as well as a utility room. Before the VitraHaus, Vitra‘s flagship store, was built in 2010, the front gate served as the gateway to the Vitra Campus.
The factory hall designed by Frank Gehry is located behind the Vitra Design Museum and is similar in size to the neighbouring Nicholas Grimshaw building. Here, the ramps and pillars serve as a formal connection to the Museum. The building contains production rooms, a showroom, the test centre, the canteen and offices. The first floor windows look out onto the entire hall and allow visitors to observe the production stages in progress.
In 1981, Nicholas Grimshaw's first construction on the Vitra Campus was seen as a homage to its own industrial usage and to Vitra’s technical expertise. Relying on prefabricated elements, planning to start-up of the production space was completed six months after the great fire as covered by insurance funds. Clad with horizontally striated façade elements made of corrugated aluminium sheeting, the building houses the production areas along with two showrooms.
The second factory by Grimshaw from 1986 contains production facilities as well as the Citizen Office. This office environment was created by Sevil Peach in 2010. The founder of the London design studio Sevil Peach Gence Associates, SPGA, has worked with Vitra for over ten years and has designed office environments for and with Vitra as well as for leading international companies.
On the seventieth birthday of Willi Fehlbaum, Vitra’s founder, his children presented him with the sculpture “Balancing Tools”. Erected on the grounds between the main road and the complex of buildings, it depicts the tools of the furniture maker juxtaposed with one another on an oversized scale. It was in Claes Oldenburg’s studio that Vitra Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum met Frank Gehry for the very first time.
Influenced by his experiences during the second World War, Richard Buckminster Fuller designed a modified geodesic dome as housing for army troop units, the wounded or refugees. The aluminium tubes that form the frame are connected via a plug-in system. This facilitates the construction’s quick assembly and dismantling. Buckminster Fuller’s construction principle was patented in 1954 in the USA.
The Dome on the Vitra Campus was created in 1975 at Charter Industries and was the product of a collaboration with Thomas C. Howard. In 1978/79, it was used as a car showroom in Detroit (USA). In 2000, Rolf Fehlbaum bought it at an auction and installed it in Weil am Rhein in the same year. Today, the tent construction is used as a space for events and exhibitions.
The petrol station designed in 1953 by Jean Prouvé and his brother Henry is one of the first serially manufactured petrol stations. It was built about 1953 for Mobiloil Socony-Vacuum and stood at “Relais des Sangliers” in the Département Haute-Loire. Created modularly of individual pieces, it was installed in 2003. There are three in total on the Vitra Campus.
The building consists of angular aluminium components and sheeting perforated with bull’s eye cut-outs. The load-bearing structure and wall construction are clearly differentiated from one another, a distinction reinforced by the colour scheme. Many of the buildings by Prouvé constructed out of prefabricated metal components have structural and formal qualities almost identical to his table designs and demonstrate his consistent adherence to tectonic principles in the design process.
The original Airstream trailer, a 20’ 1968 Globetrotter, was discovered by a trucker scout in Nevada and shipped to Hamburg/Germany. It has been owned by Vitra since its restoration in 2011 and has become a part of the Vitra Campus. During the summer months, it is used as a take-away restaurant and also increases the culinary offers available on the Vitra Campus.
With “Diogene”, Renzo Piano and his architecture office Renzo Piano Building Workshop have developed a living unit which unites all elementary functions of temporary living under one roof in a modest living space of six square metres. As the modern interpretation of an archaic cabin, “Diogene” is Vitra's largest product , but also the smallest building of the architectural ensemble in Weil am Rhein. The building is named after the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope ("Diogene di Sinope" in Italian) who is said to have lived in a barrel because he considered worldly luxuries to be superfluous.
Although “Diogene’s” façade matches that of a simple house, it is in reality a highly complex technical building with consumption, production and disposal satisfying the highest demands of sustainability and energy efficiency. Be it as a secondary residence in nature, a home office in one's own garden or as a temporary installation, the object fulfils the dream of minimalist housing and offers a retreat for the modern-day Diogenes – an urban nomad who longs for the return to a simple lifestyle, far away from the bustle, noise and distractions of everyday life.
Take an architectural tour of the Vitra Design Museum to gain some background information about the buildings designed by Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Frank Gehry, Nicholas Grimshaw, Álvaro Siza and SANAA as well as about the structures by Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé. Public guided tours that last about 2 hours are held daily at 11am, 1pm and 3pm in German and at 12pm and 2pm in English. Groups of ten or more are kindly asked to sign up for private guided tours four weeks in advance. For more information, please go to www.design-museum.de.
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