Many things simply just happened

A conversation with Rolf Fehlbaum

The Vitra Campus emanated from a catastrophe. Explaining how this provided an opportunity for a new beginning and why many things did not turn out as planned, Rolf Fehlbaum talks about coincidences, failed projects and the question of what gives the campus its appeal.

A little over 40 years ago, Vitra’s production facilities in Weil am Rhein caught fire after being struck by lightning. What was going through your mind on that 18 July 1981?

Rolf Fehlbaum: As far as the fire was concerned, nothing at first. I was travelling in Africa at the time and my brother Raymond spared me the bad news because I was scheduled to come home a few days later anyway. When he finally told me about it, he was quite calm and had already come to terms with the worst for both of us, so to speak.

But it still must have been quite a shock for you. Were you not worried about your company’s survival?

I can’t remember exactly how I felt. But yes, the place where people had been busy working the day before was now in ruins. At the time, we had so-called business interruption insurance covering all ensuing costs for a period of six months. That was not very long. Fortunately, my brother reacted very quickly and contacted the architect Nicholas Grimshaw while I was still away.

Why Nicholas Grimshaw?

The year before, we had already had the idea of commissioning a new headquarters in Birsfelden. When I met Grimshaw at an event in London, we discussed such a building. We then visited his recent constructions and met in Basel in December 1980. So the relationship had already been initiated, and my brother just had to make it clear that the project was now more urgent.

Extremely urgent...

Exactly. We had to be up and running again as quickly as possible and needed a roof over our heads. Time provided the framework for the architecture. Still, we didn’t want to just put anything there – we wanted a work of architecture. Grimshaw was the ideal partner for the task. His way of working is very reminiscent of product design, as Charles and Ray Eames understood it, for example. He thinks very economically, using existing components and paying precise attention to details, like the right connections between parts. After six months we were back in production, and Grimshaw’s building also gave us the chance to start afresh.

In retrospect, the tragedy could almost be called a stroke of luck.

It was certainly a great opportunity, because we probably would have otherwise continued in the style of the existing buildings. Grimshaw was on a different level. When the building was finished, we asked him to design a master plan for the site. However, we then only executed two more buildings based on the plan.

Why is that?

As is so often the case, chance played a role here as well. My brothers and I wanted to give my father something special for his 70th birthday in 1984 and commissioned Claes Oldenburg to create the sculpture that now occupies the space between the Vitra Design Museum and the Ando Pavilion. It was through Oldenburg that I met Frank Gehry. We talked about furniture in the early days and launched the cardboard chair Little Beaver as a special edition. The conversation only drifted to architecture when I asked him if he could design a ‘shed’ to house our furniture collection.

And he then presented you with a whole museum?

No. He said it was far too expensive to hire an architect from Los Angeles for such a small job. When a new factory was to be built soon afterwards, I suggested to him that we design this factory and put the ‘shed’ in front of it. He agreed and the ‘shed’ became the Vitra Design Museum. This was the end of the concept using Grimshaw’s master plan and the beginning of the idea of developing a kind of collage instead of a uniform corporate identity – an urban space where very different buildings by different architects would come together.

Today buildings by several Pritzker Prize winners stand on the campus. At the time they were built, many of the architects were still rather unknown. How did you locate these individuals and why exactly did you want to collaborate with them?

Architecture had long been a particular interest of mine. Before starting at Vitra, I worked as a consultant for training and continuing education at the Chamber of Architects in Munich and got to know what mattered to architects at that time. It was the era of postmodernism. I was particularly interested in architects who did not try to fight modernism, but rather sought to reinterpret it. Grimshaw did this in a way that was aligned with Eames and Prouvé. Frank Gehry was closer to Aalto. What fascinated me about his work, apart from the sculptural qualities, was the seemingly improvised character, the use of ordinary materials, the carefree nature of the composition – in a way, a counter-world to the very correct and very Swiss ideal of perfectionism. With Jacques (Herzog) und Pierre (de Meuron), it took some time for me to recognise how good they were. Maybe because I was always looking for something that came from the wider world, whereas they are local. However, they had long since gained international renown, and when we eventually became friends, it seemed almost absurd to me that we hadn’t done anything with them yet.

What was it like with Zaha Hadid? She had never built anything before.

When I met Zaha Hadid, my original intention was to develop furniture with her. We didn’t come far with those plans, but we got on well and I was fascinated by her projects, which only existed as drawings. We had housed our fire brigade in a makeshift structure, and it seemed time to build a fire station. Then the idea came up to create this building with Zaha, whose designs seemed outrageously dynamic, in keeping with my idea of a fire brigade. Many things simply just happened, more as a result of personal contacts and coincidences than from a long-term plan.

Over the years, this has resulted in one outstanding building after another. Have you ever wondered what this must have been like for the individual architects?

The idea was never to create a museum of architecture where you just string buildings together. It was always about building a place. In this respect, the task for every architect was to react to what was already there. Respectfully. Even if the various buildings differ greatly in form, they have all incorporated the overall happenings into their designs. The VitraHaus, for example, should originally have been closer to the museum and was planned in white. But it would have been too overwhelming to place a much larger building like this in the same colour right next to the museum. That’s why Herzog & de Meuron changed the location and chose a dark colour.

Speaking of museums, while Grimshaw’s buildings were production facilities, which suited the company and the actual purpose of the site, Gehry put a piece of ‘culture’ in the middle of the green meadow in 1989. How did people react to this idea?

If I had collected art and put up a museum for it, it would certainly have been received critically. But it was about a museum for our own discipline – design – and thus also served to enhance and augment our expertise. We wanted to illuminate, analyse, exhibit and communicate the full spectrum of this discipline. That certainly strengthened the credibility of the company and was understood from this perspective. Apart from that, Vitra was always a cultural project for me, making it possible to do things that were beyond immediate utility. However, the prerequisite has always been that these activities do not have a negative economic impact on the company. In the meantime, the Vitra Campus is known to architecture enthusiasts all over the world and plays a key role in terms of branding.

This applies in particular to how the company is viewed and its image. But how much has the campus influenced Vitra’s collection, its designers or even the company culture in recent years?

There are certainly reciprocal interactions and effects, but it is difficult to identify them precisely. In our work, we start from the conviction that the environment where we live and work strongly influences our well-being and behaviour. We can assume that an extraordinary place like the Vitra Campus strengthens our bond with the company. This also manifests itself in the fact that employees come to the campus with their families in their free time. And for the designers, the collections of the Vitra Design Museum are very enriching and inspiring.

What is the Vitra Campus in your eyes today: a production site, an urban biotope, an open-air museum, a pilgrimage destination, a meeting place...?

The campus’s attraction lies in the mix of activities that do not usually occur in one place. Furniture is produced and exhibited here, and design is collected and presented in exhibitions. People who work here encounter visitors who come to see the architecture or the garden or to visit exhibitions or who want to take part in a workshop or collect furnishing ideas... etc. And it all happens quite naturally because it is not based on a PR strategy, but has come about over many years – as an expression of an attitude based on the conviction that design can and should make a contribution to improving our everyday lives.

Publication date: 17.6.2021
Author: David Streiff Corti
Images: Olivo Barbieri; Gabriele Basilico; Wolfgang Beyer; Vitra; Rolf Frei

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