I had the opportunity to visit the Vitra Campus in Weil Am Rhein with my three colleagues from Erginoğlu & Çalışlar Architects as the guests of Vitra Furniture and Mozaik Design, representative of Vitra in Turkey. Vitra family successfully brought together numerous buildings designed by world famous architects to form their impressive campus. Seeing alive and individually experiencing the artifacts of the architects that I read and analyzed all through my college education have given me priceless excitement. In this article, I am going to share my architectural observations related to this valuable trip.
Eccentric // Flexible // Motivated
Our first stop was Vitra Headquarters Building (1994) right after we landed to Basel. Having been designed by Frank Gehry, the building caught attention at first sight with its distinctive features both from exterior and interior. It was a gigantic artifact with its eccentric form. The interior was designed in line with the flexible and innovative work practices of Vitra. Comfortable seating arrangements, collaborative working areas and ‘’cubicles’’, for those who prefer to work individually, granted maximum work flexibility. The organization of the office space reminded me of a library environment where every morning, employees simply choose their seating area that best serve to their daily work practice. The form and the interior of the building was designed to accommodate all the features for the employees to feel motivated to come to work every day. At least, I believe that would be absolutely true for me.
Pendant // Decent // Journey
After our visit to Vitra Headquarters, we had a delicious dinner at Volkshaus Basel, No 2 Brasserie (1925) that was renovated by Herzog & de Meuron in 2011. In the renovated restaurant space, naked pendant lightings hang from the beams that form a pattern on the ceiling and create a decent atmosphere that reinterprets the 1920s setting. Putting classical furniture and plain design items in harmony, the old location invites its guests to a journey in time with its revived atmosphere. I strongly recommend the visitors of Basel to have a dinner in this brasserie and to taste the flavorful Crème Brule.
Dream // Disaster // Opportunity
Dream a campus where each building is designed by a different world famous starchitect! Dream a Frank Gehry artifact next to Tadao Ando’s building. A Herzog & de Meuron vis a vis a Zaha Hadid design. As this sounds impossible, Vitra made this dream come true. Turning a disaster into an opportunity, Vitra family decided to form a campus of artifacts designed by world famous architects when the factory building was burned down by the strike of a thunderbolt in 1981. Thus, a marvelous architectural collection has been created since then.
Fire // Cantilever // Vertigo
Which building would you guess to be built after the fire that burnt down the factory? It was Vitra Fire Station (1993) of Zaha Hadid, her first built building. On the main entrance side, surprisingly only three of the twelve columns support the cantilevered thin concrete roof. The fire station is currently being used as an exhibition hall. It was a unique experience to climb on the concrete stairs that bend with every single step. Another interesting part of the design was the changing rooms that were not being used due to their tilted walls, simulating the perception of Vertigo patients, that caused dizziness for its visitors.
Triangle // Traditional // Flipped
For me the most impressive building on campus was Herzog & de Meuron’s Vitra Schaudepot (2016) with its simple yet effective design decisions. The architects stayed loyal to the original form and brick material of the burnt factory building. They kept the triangular plain barn like structure and reworked the traditional brick material in order to emphasize the difference between the old and the new. They formed the façade by breaking the bricks into half and flipping each piece inside out creating a desert like effect when viewed bottom up.
White // Scattered // Harmonious
Vitra Design Museum (1989) was composed of a range of masses rearranged by the unique interpretation of Frank Gehry. With its white painted exterior, dramatic spiral staircase and scattered yet harmonious masses, the Gehry building goes beyond the time that it was designed. Unfortunately, Gehry decided to take down all the cherry trees on the construction site in order to make sure that his building stands out as an artifact; this way his design would not be hidden under the shadows of the trees. However, opposite to Gehry, Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion, built on the neighboring site four years later, would glorify nature.
Humble // Nature // Leaf
Vitra Conference Pavilion (1993) is Tadao Ando’s first building in Europe. Neighboring Frank Gehry’s Vitra Museum, the Conference Pavilion is a case of humbleness in physical form. This beautiful artifact is hidden under the shadows of the cherry trees reflecting Ando’s respect for nature. Having the aim to make sure that the building is not dominating the nature, the second floor is created by excavating the ground floor and by forming a courtyard. Ando embraced the nature’s final touch to his artifact and did not even touch the three leaves that were glued to the wet cement of the narrow wall along the lengthy entrance road to the building, which was left to desiccate on a stormy night.
Public // Thank you // House
VitraHaus (2010) is the flagship store building on campus designed by Herzog & de Meuron. This building is open to public, and it is actually located just outside the campus borders. It is a thank you gift of Vitra to the local people; visitors can freely wander in the store, have picnic in its quad, can eat in its café and enjoy their day. The form is designed as a series of stacked pitched-roof boxes that resemble houses shooting to different directions. The unique design fulfills the needs of the inner spaces. VitraHaus hosts numerous works of skillful designers and artisans like Charles & Ray Eames. The interior is finely designed to feature the home environment and help the visitors to imagine the designers’ furniture in house scale.
Geodesic // Aluminum // Wedding
Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Vitra Dome (1975) gets is geodesic dome form from the frame that is made of plugged-in aluminum tubes. The material choice allows temporary use; and the mechanism facilitates quick assembly and dismantling of the construction. Before its assembly into its site in Vitra Campus in year 2000, the dome was used as a car showroom in Detroit. Today, it is used for different events by Vitra. When I entered the Dome, the triangular motifs of the aluminum tubes which reflected on the white fabric of the walls reminded me of a church like atmosphere, and I was not surprised to hear that the site was also used for wedding organizations. Being empty, the space was high in audio echo; but we were told that it functioned perfectly when filled with people and furniture.
Circular // Furnace // Sky
Designed by SANAA, Vitra Factory Building (2012) has an arbitrarily drawn imperfect circular plan. This unique form enables operational flexibility for the logistics function where trucks can dispatch and disembark without hindering each other’s traffic. The factory was built in two phases, where half of the structure was erected first and then the other half was completed. The façade material was found in Austria after time taking research and efforts. In order to create the wavy façade; a huge furnace had to be specifically constructed to heat the one-piece acrylic glass panels which were as tall as the height of the building. The outer layer of acrylic panels is completely transparent, while the inner layer has an opaque white color; thus, the façade of the building reflects the color of the sky perfectly. When we were on campus, the weather was inconsistent; rain and sunshine followed one after the other and we were lucky to see how the façade changed its color from gray to blue and to white.
Lake // Wall // Man-Made
On the last day of our trip, we had the opportunity to visit Naturbad Riehen (2007) project of Herzog & de Meuron in Basel. It was a rainy day in Basel and there were no bathers in the pool. The design aimed to create the feeling of swimming in a natural lake for its visitors. There was only a thin wall separating the natural lake and the artificial pool. The water of two sides blends together but when one stands right where the wall is, one is able to see the gravel/lake water on one side and tile/pool water on the other. The pool water was biologically filtered in order to make it as close to natural as possible, resembling the bathing lake. Naturbad Riehen is a strong representative of the conflict between nature versus man-made.
To sum up, it was a great pleasure to visit the Vitra Campus as the guests of Vitra Furniture and Mozaik Design. My three colleagues and I had a unique architectural experience by visiting the works of great designers one next to the other, all at once in a two day trip. The campus is a must-see site for anyone once in their lifetime.
*The photos in this article were taken by Aslı Germirli, Hilal Kurt, Zeynep Uzel, Duygu Uzunalı and Özge Üstündağ.