A laconic facade folds around this block of five apartments in Basel, yet its thoughtful Swiss sobriety is also undercut by a more complex and contradictory language
Any attempt to characterise a nation’s architectural culture runs the risk of generalisation. However, in considering the work that has brought the Swiss scene to global prominence over the past 20 years we might yet venture to identify a couple of defining preoccupations: an interest in the expressive capacity of construction and a commitment to the development of each building on the basis of a single, all-encompassing idea. Not the least remarkable aspect of the apartment block that the young Swiss architects Oliver Lütjens and Thomas Padmanabhan have completed in suburban Basel, is the extent to which it sets itself apart from those concerns. Its tectonic of painted render and metalwork could scarcely be more standard, while the episodic, even eclectic character that pervades both its facades and interior pointedly eschews any sense of organic unity. The building is the second that its architects have realised and radiates the energy of a young practice seeking to escape the shadow cast by the achievements of its older compatriots.
Located at the junction of two residential streets on a site formerly occupied by a freestanding single-family house, the development has been undertaken by a private individual with the aim of securing a rental income for his children. Lütjens Padmanabhan won the commission for a three-unit building in competition in 2011 and duly secured planning permission. However, a week later its client received a second letter from the town hall notifying him of an error that had been made in its digitisation of the zoning plan. Finding himself able to build over an area twice as large as he had thought permissible he sent his architect back to the drawing board with the task of developing a scheme that incorporated an additional two units.
Welcome as this development proved, it generated a significant disparity between the scales of the new building and the surrounding properties. While the sites of a number of other houses in the area had been redeveloped on a similar basis, Lütjens Padmanabhan viewed the resultant buildings as less than successful, notably in relation to their failure to direct a multi-unit programme towards a collective expression. By contrast, its own design suppresses all external reading of the repetitive nature of its brief to the point that it might well be taken for a single, if unusually lavish, residence.
‘In an architecture composed of autonomous elements the coexistence of different languages is a source of richness, not a failure of rigour’
It comprises an essentially rectangular volume set back from both street frontages but extending a prow towards their junction. Expressive while lacking overt dynamism, this gesture defines a small forecourt in front of the entrance facade and a garden, accessible by the two ground floor flats, that runs along the side elevation. The shape has a direct model in the North Penn Visiting Nurse Association Headquarters (1960), the first completed building by Robert Venturi, an architect who exerts a strong influence on Lütjens Padmanabhan’s sensibility. Venturi has described his project as having been designed ‘from the outside-in’ and that is very much how the Basel building presents itself too.
Its most insistently recurring motif is an assembly of two windows − the smaller suspended, as it were, below the larger. This device, which the architect likens to compositions found in Michelangelo’s work, amplifies the facades’ scale while giving the first floor a piano nobile-like dominance. A sense of the building as a large house is also asserted through the treatment of the third storey. The single penthouse flat commands the highest rental value but its role in the composition is subservient, communicating the minor status of an attic storey.
Openings are modelled so as to maintain a sense of the wall’s thinness − a decision which (much as in the work of Venturi) serves to drain the building’s more demonstrative gestures of bombast and locate them in the world of everyday construction. Rather than the outer faces of a sculpted solid, the five autonomously composed facades might more accurately be likened to the panels of a folding screen. A sense of nervous discontinuity also characterises the arrangement of openings within each one, care having been taken to minimise diagonal relationships that might see the composition settle into formal equilibrium. The more heavily fenestrated elevations, in particular, read less as walls punctured by apertures and rather as assemblies of independent components distributed side by side.
Dominated by a single, centrally located iteration of the conjoined window, the entrance facade is the most solid but still maintains a sense of its composition from discrete parts. The front door stands to one side, signalled by a projecting metal hood that recalls the work of another of Lütjens Padmanabhan’s Postmodern enthusiasms, John Hejduk. His influence is also discernible in the building’s most surreal feature: a freestanding letterbox that comically suggests the form of a cat. The abrupt shift in expression is disconcerting but this quizzical little creature feels emblematic of the building’s paratactic logic. In an architecture composed of autonomous elements the coexistence of different languages is a source of richness, not a failure of rigour.
The interior exploits that licence further. Head through the front door and you are immediately confronted by another surprise in the form of a black and white terrazzo stair that could have been co-opted from a ’70s nightclub designed by Ettore Sottsass. The apartments employ an altogether more laconic imagery but a sense of their composition from fragments persists. This is most pointedly conveyed by the single black marble column that features in each of the larger apartments. It is located midway down a wall of internal glass doors that separates the principal living area from an adjoining winter garden and covered terrace. The column stands at some distance from the middle of the plan but nonetheless reads as its nexus. Whereas the winter garden and terrace might ordinarily feel like adjuncts to the interior, the device has the effect of drawing them into the body of the apartment as rooms in their own right.
Lütjens and Padmanabhan’s fascination with the legacy of Postmodernism is shared by a number of European architects of their generation, notably the loose coalition of practices that contributes − as they have also done − to the architectural journal San Rocco. However, given the central role that figures like Peter Zumthor and Herzog & de Meuron played in redirecting architectural discourse away from the semiotic gamesmanship of the Postmodern era, this reclamation carries a particularly transgressive frisson in Switzerland. This is not to present the building as a provocation. Its tone is far removed from the pungent blend of high symbolism, pop decoration and abundant irony with which Postmodernism is usually associated. Lütjens Padmanabhan has looked beyond that surface rhetoric and found something simpler and richer: a supply of architectural techniques of ready application to the complexities and contradictions of the world today.