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Weil am Rhein, Germany – Herzog & de Meuron plays architectural Jenga with its VitraHaus

Vitra bids farewell to the age of spectacle

”I was waiting for him to ask,’ says Jacques Herzog. It’s taken Vitra boss Rolf Fehlbaum three decades to ask the most famous architects in the Basel phonebook to add to his design factory’s collection of illustrious buildings, on its campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. By the time he did, of course, Mr Herzog and Mr de Meuron had done rather well for themselves. Fehlbaum was the first to realise a building by Zaha Hadid (the infamous 1993 Fire Station) and to have unleashed Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando on Europe (Vitra Design Museum, 1989, and its Conference Pavilion, 1993). But for VitraHaus, the firm’s mammoth showroom-cum-gatehouse, which opened on 22 February, he’s changed tack: no ingénue for front-of-house. This, folks, is showbiz.

No doubt about it, this is good old-fashioned spectacle. The press launch saw 300 journalists and camera crews land in Basel for the pleasure of elbowing each other to receive a glimpse of the famous pair. And the building? Well, if you thought Gehry and Hadid’s efforts a bit fruity, you’ll need smelling salts.

Herzog & de Meuron have gone a bit Las Vegas recently, with Herzog’s desire ‘never to repeat ourselves’ translating, sometimes wearily, into an insatiable hunger for form-making.

This is their Venturi moment, extruding the cartoon outline of a house as a slab, and, in a feat of architectural Jenga, stacking 12 of them five-storeys high. Outside, the result’s more banal than spectacular, the chocolate render and scenographic style lending the massive concrete walls a whiff of MDF. But the interior joyride’s up to scratch, all Piranesian perspectives thrown through vast windows out to the countryside, and dizzying Alice-in-Wonderland labyrinths — an architectural epitaph, perhaps, to the long-gone good old days of rampant consumerism and razzle-dazzle buildings.

Read the AR’s full critique of VitraHaus

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