A 1000 m2 piece of furniture

Interview with Florian Stroh

Part of Álvaro Siza’s heritage-listed production hall on the Vitra Campus has been refurbished for the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Lörrach and its newly established architecture degree programme. Design consultant Florian Stroh, owner of Basel-based architecture firm studio ne, talks to us in an interview about the special features of this transformation – and how it was completed in record time.

Florian, how did you initially react when you were asked in spring 2023 if you could help convert part of the 12,000 m2, open-plan Siza factory building into teaching and learning spaces – and in time for the start of the university semester in October 2023?

The first part of the question gave me goose bumps and then I thought the completion date couldn’t be right. A planning and construction time of just under six months really took me by surprise. But of course, you can’t let a project like this slip through your fingers. When I worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the Vitra Schaudepot, which is just 100 metres away from the Siza building, was the first major project I ever managed. Being able to plan and design again on the Vitra Campus as an independent architect was therefore a special honour. Building for future architects and transforming Álvaro Siza’s architecture made the project even more exciting.

Were you allowed to intervene in the existing architecture? The hall was designed by a Pritzker Prize winner and is now a listed building – to what extent did that influence your planning?

The few interventions in the façade for the entrances do not have a major impact on the design. Inside, we planned a timber construction that resembles a 1000 m2 piece of furniture within the 12,000 m2 factory hall – like a uterus generating new life. The construction is structurally independent, only touching the outer shell, not connected to it. On the one hand, it was important to achieve a quality of installation that did justice to Siza’s architecture, but on the other it was also vital to create a successful environment for teaching and learning. We wanted the quality of the interior architecture to have a positive influence on the culture of living and working within it. That’s why we gave the installation and its supporting structure its own distinctive flow. Just as in a jazz piece, the rhythm and harmonies are predetermined, but the melody can be freely improvised. Translated into architectural language, this means that users are free to decide how they want to occupy, use and ‘play’ with the space. The settings are open and informal to encourage ideas to flourish and facilitate the sharing of knowledge.
What were the biggest stumbling blocks in the project? And how did you avoid them?

The biggest stumbling block by far was the planned moving-in date. The six-month timeframe for this project was highly ambitious. It’s something that isn’t possible in a normal construction process. But fortunately, I had Christian Germadnik from Logad – a property company that develops, manages and leases properties to the Vitra Group and third parties – by my side as the building owner’s representative, site manager and architect. He mobilised all his experience and contacts with regional entrepreneurs, with whom Logad and Vitra often collaborate, and involved them in the project from a very early stage. The wooden system was designed to be as modular as possible and was prefabricated extremely quickly. We didn’t hide anything; pipes, cables and screws are visible, which suits the industrial character of the site. And very importantly, we didn’t have time to get lost in details or hold multiple rounds of meetings when making decisions. This approach matched the simple, industrial minimalism that was intended for the interior.

What do you think of the result? Are you satisfied – and almost more importantly, are the students happy with their surroundings?

The positive feedback from the students has been resounding. They love the open space, the architecture, the ‘groove’ – and the cafeteria, where they regularly eat lunch together. And my thoughts? If we had had more time for planning and execution, I would certainly have done certain things differently – but the outcome wouldn’t have been any better. There was no room for non-essentials, so the result is an honest and pragmatic spatial solution in an industrial hall.
Vitra attaches great importance to sustainability. How did this manifest itself in the DHBW project?

In addition to the use of wood as a sustainable building material, other important issues come into play here. Not constructing a building when creating a school, but transforming an existing building, is already a good example of sustainability. A personal reference for me – despite it being on a different scale – was the transformation of London’s Tate Modern from a power station into a museum, a public space. This capacity for change symbolises longevity and that represents sustainable architecture in my eyes.

Longevity is an interesting topic: why do some buildings last longer than others? People want to live in 100-year-old houses that are somewhat problematic in terms of energy efficiency by today’s standards, while newer houses are already being torn down because they are difficult to adapt to new requirements. But if you can transform spaces, they will continue to be functional in 200 years’ time. It’s the same with Álvaro Siza’s production hall: who would have thought that a school could be housed in there? The quality of the building is what made it possible – the better the quality of the architecture, the easier it is to redevelop.

But for me the most sustainable aspect of the project is that here, on the Vitra Campus and in the architecture programme at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, generations of architects are being exposed to and influenced by good architecture. And learning how to build well and in a sustainable manner is more sustainable than anything else.

Biography of Florian Stroh

Born in Basel, Florian Stroh studied architecture at ETH Zurich, at the Royal Institute of Stockholm and at Yale University, USA. After graduating, he headed projects at the Basel architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron for seven years before setting up the Basel office for Studio Banana and founding his own architecture firm studio ne in 2022. Before studying architecture, Florian Stroh was a guest student at the Hanover University of Music. Music has a significant influence on his architectural work inspiring him to create compositions of varying rhythm, colour, texture and shape.

Publication date: 14.5.2024
Author: Christoph von Arb
Images: © Vitra

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