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Vitrahaus by Herzog & De Meuron, Weil am Rhein, Germany

Herzog & De Meuron’s witty and whimsical take on the basic house shape. Photography by Roland Halbe

The great American mid-century designers - Charles and Ray Eames, especially, and George Nelson - were distinguished by two things. One was an appetite for the techniques of modern industry. The other was playfulness, a child-like delight in shapes, patterns and images. The simplest way to describe Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus is that it takes this playfulness and does something quite serious with it.

Vitra is a furniture company whose modern prosperity is based on its ownership of the European and Middle Eastern rights to the Eameses’ designs. On the strength of this prosperity Vitra has assembled two collections, one of classic pieces of furniture, the other of buildings from the 1980s onwards, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Álvaro Siza, Tadao Ando and (soon) SANAA.

These have been built on Vitra’s campus in Weil am Rhein, under the leadership of chief executive Rolf Fehlbaum, to serve the company’s activities. There are storage, production and administration buildings, as well as a museum for design exhibitions. Fehlbaum didn’t just want to sell furniture, he wanted to contribute to the culture of contemporary design.

Weil am Rhein, although technically in Germany, occupies a tri-national territory close to both the French and Swiss borders, and functions almost as a suburb of Basel. Basel is the base of Herzog & de Meuron, the kind of internationally celebrated practice that Vitra liked to attract to its site. Yet until recently, Fehlbaum looked everywhere but locally for his architects. For decades Vitra and Herzog & de Meuron, a few kilometres apart, pumped ideas and images into the world of design, side by side but separately.

VitraHaus is the long-delayed consummation of the union of these neighbours. Open to the public, it is, like the Gehry-designed Vitra Design Museum (AR December 1994), placed outside the perimeter fence of the industrial complex. Its function is to be a showroom with an added hint of museum: it invites people to enjoy Vitra’s current products alongside impressive specimens by Eames, Nelson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Isamu Noguchi and others, obtained from the collection that used to reside in the museum, which will now be dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

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The role of the VitraHaus is to seduce, entice, charm and publicise more than directly sell, although a system of screens allows you to send information about objects to your personal email, together with details on how to buy them. You can also, at the end of the experience, buy smaller objects on site. At the same time the building has to attract attention for Vitra, both of passing traffic on the large roads around this slightly nondescript district, and within the global sphere of images. The Gehry museum already does a reasonable job of attracting attention, but from Vitra’s point of view there was no harm in doing something new.

Herzog & de Meuron’s design starts with two child-like themes, the house-shape of an oblong with a triangular top, and the precarious stacking of building bricks. These themes are then played out with an oscillation of figurative and abstract: few images could be more literal than the house shape, but the execution here is plain and reduced.

The shape is extruded into long bars or tubes, glazed at the end and treated near identically on all five other planes, in dark concrete.

The bars are piled up seemingly at random, cutting into each other and fusing at their junctions.

As you get nearer, the stack creates a series of intriguing, semi-enclosed spaces, with framings of the sky, of views, and of glimpses into the inner life of the building. At its heart you discover an irregular court, darkened by the proliferation of jousting beams above and around, from which you reach the VitraHaus discreet glass entrance.

There is a recommended route through the building, like a thread through a labyrinth or a visit to a stately home. From reception you are taken to the top of the building in a lift, from where you trickle back down via a series of stairs and diversions. It’s a classic shopping mall technique - rapid ascent by lift or escalator, slow descent with many distractions - but done with tact.

If the building appears on the outside as a dark, enigmatic thicket, the internal route feels natural and easy. It is bright and white. It starts, when the lift doors open on the top floor, with a startlingly lovely view of vineyards on an opposite hill. It is framed by the ubiquitous house-pentagon, which repeatedly shapes other prospects as you move through the building. A 180° turn away from the vineyard presents you with the skyline of Basel, seen through the other end of the tube. At other times, calculated glimpses are offered of the surrounding roads and landscape, and of the rest of the Vitra campus.

The determined repetition of the basic form is offset by the random placings, the occasional curve applied to vertical circulation elements, and adjustments in proportion and pitch of the pentagon-section. Surprising intersections are created - sideways, upwards, obliquely. At one point the floor steps up and then down in terraces, in order to get over the ridge of the roof below. There is some degree of accident in the creation of these intersections, but not in their detail. Each junction has been modelled at 1:5 or 1:20, with about 50 models in all, in order to avoid the three-dimensional car crashes that they could have been.

The overall feeling is of an abstracted and extraordinary house that is then tuned to create different atmospheres. The setting in the top room is like a loft apartment, with Vitra’s finest domestic furniture displayed to good effect. Other spaces contain collections such as historic pieces, or a children’s section, and the place is subtly modified accordingly. The means are proportion, shape and orientation, and a limited range of materials: white paint, untreated oak floors, and stucco lustro on the curving parts. Otherwise it is left to the objects and furnishings themselves to set the mood.

Eventually you are returned to ground, where there is a gift shop and a glass-walled café. Here the house-shaped tubes are modified with concave external walls that are wood-lined and fitted with benches, in order to make a sheltered place to sit. The external deck on which you stand is also wood. From here you can look back across a space planted with cherry trees (which originally covered the whole Vitra site) to the Gehry Museum and the rest of the campus. The VitraHaus fits within a Herzog & de Meuron masterplan, under which it was felt best to put some space between their own and Gehry’s different forms of eye-catching architecture.

In the VitraHaus you feel yourself to be inside a charmed circle of delightful design. This is what the Vitra world has always been, but here it is distilled. There is a play and reversal of internal and external - wooden decking outside, hard floors inside - and also of enclosure and exposure.

The glass ends of the tubes sharply reveal the domestic mise en scènes inside: this makes them look vulnerable and fragile, except that there is no real danger - which in the end enhances the feeling of security.

There are touches of the Germanic fairytale about this place. The delightful zone inside can only be reached through a dark tangle, something like a forest. There are moments of severity, slight menace, and withholding before rewarding. The abstract/figurative oscillation creates some disorientation and an uncertain void which requires you to trust that the unseen makers of the building know what they’re doing. It also pushes you to occupy this void with your own actions and imagination. But despite the disorientation you know that, at the end of this beautiful story, everything will be all right.

Architect Herzog & de Meuron, Basel, Switzerland
Project team Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Wolfgang Hardt, Guillaume Delemazure, Charlotte von Moos, Sara Secci, Harald Schmidt, Katharina Rasshofer, Thomasine Wolfensberger, Nicolas Venzin, Isabel Volkmar, Thomas Wyssen
Associate architect Mayer Baehrle Freie Architekten
Structural engineer ZPF Ingenieure
Services engineer Krebser und Freyler
Landscape architect August Künzel

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