With the addition of two new elements, the German furniture-maker is stitching together its experimental Wunderkammer of architectural follies
The ongoing development of its campus on the edge of the Swiss city of Basel has secured the furniture manufacturer, Vitra, a reputation as one of the world’s most adventurous architectural patrons. The factory, showroom, exhibition and conference buildings that it began constructing after the old plant’s destruction by a fire in 1981 now include the work of seven Pritzker Prize winners. A number of them represent significant turning points in recent architectural history. Frank Gehry’s design museum and factory building of 1989 was his first work outside America and signalled the emergence of many of the formal concerns that we now understand as central to his mature style. The fire station that Vitra built four years later represented an even bolder act of commissioning. It was Zaha Hadid’s first building – the project that allowed her, 20 years after graduating from the Architectural Association, to finally escape her reputation as a paper architect.
Yet as remarkable as each addition may have been, doubts over whether they share a convincing collective ambition have been increasingly hard to suppress. My last visit was in 2011 on the occasion of the opening of the outrageous accumulation of house-like forms that constitutes Herzog & de Meuron’s Vitrahaus showroom. Gehry’s nearby museum looked positively antique by comparison. It was hard not to feel that the company was locked into a game of architectural one-upmanship, motivated more by the marketing potential of iconic buildings than by a desire to create a believable place.
Happily, Vitra’s latest project does much to add connective tissue to the campus’s remarkable parts. It is the work of Alvaro Siza, an architect who had previously contributed one of the site’s less demonstrative buildings: a brick-faced factory block, completed in 1994. This time, he has been asked to develop a landscaping project, the principal feature of which is a new pedestrian route.
Visitor access has always been limited to the wide meadow that effectively forms the site’s shopfront, but Siza’s 500-metre long route extends this public territory significantly. Its principal purpose is to provide a means of reaching the Hadid building – which now serves as an exhibition space – without crossing the secure working environment that occupies the centre of the site. With that aim it strikes a course down the back face of Siza’s own factory block, in the process organising a large swathe of land that overlooks one of the principal roads leading into Basel. The route is lined by hornbeam hedges that will grow to a height of two metres and are configured so as to form a series of outdoor rooms of varying scale. A number of the campus’s smaller structures, such as a Buckminster Fuller dome and a prototype house by Renzo Piano, are afforded new settings through this device: a reframing through which they take on the surreal character of pavilions in an English landscape garden. The hedges also create sites for new interventions. The first to be realised is a helter-skelter designed by the artist Carsten Höller, the considerable height of which lends it a strong relationship to Herzog & de Meuron’s Vitrahaus. Suddenly we understand the site’s northern edge as a second public frontage scaled in acknowledgement of the motorway below.
Siza’s path follows a meandering course for much of its length, but at the factory’s far corner it is required to perform an abrupt left turn. Here, the architect has introduced a structure of free-standing walls in brick and granite: a fake ruin, as it were, from which the visitor is presented with a framed vista towards the fire station. Through its use of the same brick, this little pavilion acknowledges the factory that stands alongside, but its composition as a series of free-standing planes affords it a relationship to Hadid’s building too. Pseudo-dynamism and pseudo-entropy confront one another and look surprisingly alike. The approach recalls the most spectacular aspect of Siza’s earlier project for Vitra – a flamboyantly over-engineered canopy that links his factory to Grimshaw’s earlier steel-panelled building across the road. Reading like a momentary excursion into English High-Tech, it allowed Siza’s building to address its neighbour in a voice that was ostensibly friendly but perhaps not entirely lacking in parodic intent. His new intervention communicates the same slyly subversive spirit. It may have introduced a new cohesion to the site but it is the work of an architect observing the encompassing circus with an eyebrow firmly raised.