The Vitra Campus is a playing field – but for serious games. An industrial park in the heart of Europe does not at first sight appear to be the appropriate place for risk architecture; however, both technical innovation and artistic exploration are aspects of a desire to experiment that has resulted in an amazing collection of signature architecture in Weil am Rhein. From the dynamic forms of the Vitra Design Museum by the Californian Frank Gehry or the rushing forms of the Fire Station by the Anglo-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, to the latest projects by the Japanese Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, or the Swiss Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, major world architects have helped to turn the dream of the entrepreneur and collector, Rolf Fehlbaum, into reality by creating a site near Basel that is committed to experimentation and artistic excellence.
In Sydney Pollack’s documentary on Frank Gehry, musician Bob Geldof, lost in thought, talks about being thunderstruck by the fleeting glimpses of the dancing forms of the Design Museum, his vision groggy with tiredness and the steamed-up glass of his tour bus, and this sensation of sudden discovery has struck visitors to the Campus ever since Gehry completed his most emblematic work in 1989. The year in which the Berlin Wall fell was also the year Vitra entered the history of architecture: this was the year in which “Arquitectura Viva” first dealt with the Campus, and the year in which I first heard admiring reports of the most forward-thinking pioneers who were on a pilgrimage to Weil am Rhein, while I was living in Los Angeles as a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Center.
Philip Johnson, whom I had got to know through Frank Gehry, was even then an enthusiastic follower of the Santa Monica architect, one of the seven artists included in his ‘deconstructivist’ exhibition at the MoMA the year before, but Johnson’s trip to Basel did not come until a decade later. When at last he visited Basel and Weil in 1999, he wrote: “The Vitra collection of architecture by the great architects of the present day is unique in the world. Since the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927, there has not been a gathering in a single place of a group of buildings designed by the most distinguished architects in the Western world.”It was inevitable that the New York master was reminded of his own farm in Connecticut, where he had rounded off his career with a series of small structures in a similar way to the way in which Vitra brings together international architecture on its campus, with a mixture of personal ambition and openness to the general public – another point of contact between the two concepts at Weil and New Canaan. In the spring of 2007, eighteen months after Johnson’s death at ninety-eight in January 2006, his property at New Canaan, which he donated to the American National Trust, was opened to the public. Everyone who comes here to see the legendary Glass House which the American built in 1949 as a homage to his mentor, Mies van der Rohe, has to go through the sculpted Gatehouse built by Johnson as a homage to Gehry almost half a century later.
By comparison, Vitra does not have such a long architectural history, although between the initial design in 1981 and the scheduled completion of the last commissions in 2009 there are almost three decades of architectural masterpieces. However, both the diversity of the styles and the importance of some of the works in the individual careers of their creators give Vitra a uniqueness that the critical generosity of Johnson highlighted.
After a fire in 1981, the factory area was reconstructed and, in later years, extended with the collaboration of a host of famous architects. The British architect, Nicholas Grimshaw, built the new factory halls in the years after the fire, while the Czech architect, Eva Jiricna, and the Italian, Antonio Citterio, were involved in parts of the rebuilding work. In 1989, Gehry completed the work on a factory hall and the Vitra Design Museum, which was his first work in Europe and the start of an extraordinarily influential stage in his career. Between 1993 and 1994, the Portuguese Álvaro Siza constructed another factory hall, the Japanese Tadao Ando a conference pavilion – also his first work in Europe –, and Zaha Hadid, a fire station, her very first building after coming to fame by winning first prize in the “Peak Leisure Club “ competition in 1982. In later years, the site was extended with the creation of a number of smaller buildings – a dome-shaped tent construction by Richard Buckminster Fuller, a petrol station by Jean Prouvé and a bus stop by Jasper Morrison. In 2006 work was begun on two further constructions – to be completed in 2009. One, an unusual round factory building with loading ramps all around it where transport vehicles can be docked, designed by the Tokyo-based studio, SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa). In addition to this, Herzog & de Meuron designed the VitraHaus, a large showroom for products in the Vitra Home Collection, which combines typical motifs found in their latest creations, such as the classic pitched roof and a stacking of forms. Including the Swiss practice, five architectural studios that have been awarded the prestigious Pritzker prize are now represented on the Vitra Campus; the significance of this lies in the fact that in all cases, apart from the last one, the works were commissioned before the prize was awarded – a clear indication of Fehlbaum’s nose for talent.
Even without taking into account Vitra’s other buildings – Antonio Citterio constructed another factory building in the German town of Neuenburg and Frank Gehry designed the Vitra Center in the Swiss town of Birsfelden, near Basel –, the buildings at Weil am Rhein form such an unusual and cosmopolitan concentration of architecture in their brilliance and novelty that they were immediately included in the architectural tours of the area, already important because of its proximity to Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel in Ronchamp and because of the Goetheanum by Rudolf Steiner in Dornach. Before taking over the family business, Rolf Fehlbaum completed a doctorate with a thesis on the utopian socialist, Saint-Simon – an aristocrat in Napoleonic times who was an advocate of the new religion of industry. With such worship of science and technology, Fehlbaum must have felt inspired.
The initial buildings constructed by Nicholas Grimshaw were in the high-tech tradition, unadorned, functional and precise elements which characterized much of British architecture. However, giving the commission for the Museum to Frank Gehry broke away from this essential line. The building constructed by the Californian – himself a chair designer – to house the company collection is characterized by its sculptural, broken forms in a shell made of white plaster and zinc plate, with an unexpected and highly complex interior full of luminous expressiveness. Opposite the gigantic polychrome tools by his friend, Claes Oldenburg – with whom he had already worked on the famous Chiat Day building in Los Angeles, whose facade incorporates the sculptor’s gigantic prisms –, Gehry’s small construction, designed without any help from the CATIA software which he would later find so useful, rose up like a playful formal and intellectual challenge. Echoes of the impression it made can be seen today in numerous works of architecture, including, of course, the most famous example, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also built by Gehry.But if the Design Museum was a stylistic shock, the buildings completed between 1993 and 1994 also had considerable repercussions. The factory hall by Álvaro Siza is a purist cube of bricks with monumental vertical cavities and a sculpted roof construction. It is totally unspectacular in comparison with the major ambitions of the overall design and, with the characteristics that appear in all his works, serves as a neutral background for the gestural work of Zaha Hadid.
The Conference Pavilion by Tadao Ando has the characteristic precision of the Osaka architect. The master of concrete and light had not until then had an opportunity to build in Europe, if you exclude the now nonexistent pavilion for the Seville Expo in 1992. For Vitra, he produced a building sunk into the ground, organized around a square inner courtyard sunk into the lawn and consisting of a cylinder and two cuboids linked together elegantly and with calm clarity and beauty.
In the same stage of construction, Zaha Hadid also built her very first building – up until then, she had only designed a restaurant interior in Japan. After ten years of continuously being one of the architectural avant-garde, she was suddenly catapulted onto the cover of professional journals as a result of the Fire Station building. On a factory site, which was once destroyed by fire, a building of that kind enjoys great prestige – even though it lost its original function when the fire brigade subsequently moved to the city of Weil and it is now used for exhibitions. The dynamic, explosive construction suggests speed of response by the fire engines while at the same time touching on the incendiary with the violence of its projectile velocity. The inclined, unstable elements of reinforced concrete aptly reflect the Anglo-Iraqi architect’s interest in Russian Suprematism – a fondness which she learned from her professor, Rem Koolhaas, at the Architectural Association in London, where Hadid made her home. However, the anti-gravitational construction required the use of so much steel that the concrete covering essentially has no other purpose than to protect the metal against corrosion. For an architect known up to then only for her futuristic drawings of stretched, suspended, geometrical forms who stated that she was convinced that buildings could float, the materialization – contrary to all expectations – of the Vitra Fire Station was a milestone that turned the little building into a very influential work. Like Gehry, she was originally asked by Fehlbaum to design chairs and, like him, she ended up building structures of pivotal architectural influence.
These dynamic constructions, which cross cultural and stylistic frontiers, are metaphors for a world undergoing radical change. They represent, on the one hand, the hectic movement of people, towns, information and images which entwine the planet with their vertiginous flows, but they also represent the growing instability and nomadic life that characterize modern economies and society, whose imbalances further precipitate changes and fractures. Gehry’s forms in motion and Hadid’s accelerated architecture, as well as the expansive, light-footed dynamism of SANAA or the swaying balance in the buildings of Herzog & de Meuron, are architectural explorations of a world in motion, playful structures that can make many people smile while still being serious. Architecture is in motion but, like the world, we do not really know where it is going.