03 July 2009

Basel / Weil am Rhein

My last day in this amazing country was reserved for some more serious contemporary archi-tourism. So as we headed for Basel - the art and architecture capital of Switzerland (and probably even of the contemporary world) - I once again distanced myself from the rest of my family. Thankfully Basel has one of the best zoos in the world (which I really wanted to see but that will have to wait)!
While in Basel my primary aim was to see as many buildings as possible designed by the most famous contemporary Swiss architecture firm - Herzog & de Meuron (H & de M).

The first project by them I saw was Railway Signal Tower 4 (built between 1992-95) , in fact it was the first recognizable piece of architecture I saw as I entered the city because of its location right at the entrance of the city as one arrives by train.
Though H & de M was already well known in parts of Europe it was this tiny building that announced their arrival to the architecture scene to a larger global audience.

The next project by H & de M I saw was the Institute of Hospital Pharmacy (Kantonsspital Apothek) 1995-1997,
it's one of the many projects that this office had designed that was clad in glass panels with various kinds of patterns/images printed on to it.
Then the "Schwitter" (Apartment/Office) Building built during 1985-88.
Again one in a series, this time of housing projects that had complete facades covered in openable metal panels
(I had visited another building that is part of this series in Paris a few years back - Here's a link about that project - http://www.mimoa.eu/projects/France/Paris/Rue%20des%20Suisses)
Then there was the Geschäftshaus und Warenumschlag Elsäßertor (1990-95, 2005) which is a commercial and office building next to Basel's main train station.
The façades along the building's length consist of floor-height glass panels tilted at various angles, giving off a fractured reflection of the surrounding context
Here too like in the Institute of Hospital Pharmacy the façades are a double-skin, with the outer layer of glass screen-printed with a colored dot pattern (red on one side, blue on the other).
But unlike the tinted glass exterior they have used clear glass on the inner-courtyards to allow the daylight into the office spaces.

The last but probably also the most impressive building my the duo I saw in Basel was the Schaulager.
It is neither museum nor traditional warehouse. It keeps the Emanuel Hoffmann collection in optimal condition and is primarily accessible for specialists: conservators, curators, researchers etc.
On one side the box is somewhat indented, creating a forecourt, so that the entrance side is visible from great distance.
It appears to be guarded by a small building with a gabled roof.
The courtyard-like space radiates urbanism and publicness.
Schaulager is thus not simply an anonymous box on the urban periphery, but rather a place that is active and self-confident, expanding the public dimension of the city of Basel to the south, towards the new district of Dreispitz/Münchenstein.
It opened in 2003 and remains one of the most dynamic project designed by H & de M!
Moving on to other buildings of note that I would like to specially mention here are two projects by prominent Swiss architect and theorist - Mario Botta.

The first of the two is the Museum Tinguely - Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) grew up in Basel and belonged to the Parisian avant-garde in the 1950s and 60s.
He stimulated and revolutionized the "static" art world with his kinetic works.
The Museum's permanent collections present a selection of the Tinguely's machine sculptures, reliefs and drawings from all the periods of his career.
I would say that the building itself with its typical Mario Botta obsession with geometry and weight acts as counter to the playfulness and kinectism of its exhibits and offers it a static backdrop.
The next building by Botta in the city is even more obsessive! The Bank BIS building sits on the edge of the downtown in Basel, about halfway between the train station and the river.
The powerful half-circle design is used often in his projects as well as the alternating bands of light and dark stone.
It's presence dominates the Aeschenplatz, yet it's symmetry and curving facade fit perfectly into the site.
In the architecture of both these buildings you can see an architect who although clearly designing in the 'modern' tradition of architecture, is probably more influenced by the works of Louis Kahn and also the postmodernist like Aldo Rossi and James Stirling.
By this time I knew that I had squeezed out as much as possible in the little time that I had to spent in this great city! But there was one last place to visit before I left, failing which I knew I would be unable to sleep in peace for days to come : )

I knew that my timing was all wrong and that I would not be able to see properly what's there to see, but that wasn't going to be stop my excessive appetite for good architecture! So I headed off towards the north-east crossing the Swiss-German border to a tiny city called ' Weil am Rhein'. It is here that one of the most famous furniture company in the world - Vitra - is based. And over the years they have put together one of the most impressive collection of buildings designed by world renowned architects, in fact they are in the process of adding a few more stars to their already glowing constellation! Following a major fire in 1981, the company Vitra has pursued a conscious approach to its own architecture, starting with the commission awarded to the English architect Nicholas Grimshaw to build a new factory hall.

After completion of the first structure, he was assigned the task of developing a master plan for the Vitra grounds. This idea of "corporate identity architecture" was called into question, however, by the 1984 erection of the sculpture "Balancing Tools" by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. It served as the trigger for an entirely new architectural concept: deliberately contrasting works of architecture were to confront one another and imbue the site with vitality and a distinctive identity. In keeping with this idea, Vitra commissioned a different architect for each building project. And so came into existence the one of its kind architectural zoo.
The first building of the complex that catches everyone's eye is Frank Gehry's sculptural-expressionistic museum building, completed in 1989 - the first of the California architect's buildings to be realized in Europe.
Now what can I say about a Gehry?
I'm not at all impressed or interested in his particular style of haphazard architecture, but given the playful nature of this particular building's brief and purpose I think this one works quiet well!
I have to say that the beautiful sunlight falling on it while I was there obscured by usual hatred towards its architect!
The Vitra Museum is not the only building in the complex that Gehry has designed - he also did one of the many factory halls (seen in the above photo in the background of the Museum and as a close up below)
In sync with what Vitra had set out as a vision for this complex they placed the most opposite kind of architecture to that of Gehry's right next to it.
The Conference Pavilion by Japan's Tadao Ando is like a lot of his architecture an introverted structure that is visually impressive!
Its formal restraint and choice of very few materials in this context makes this great building all the more amazing!
If these two weren't enough there is another great highlight building in the Vitra complex - the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid (seen in the far distance in the photo below). What makes this tiny pavilion like building designed in her early career deconstructivist style extremely important is the fact that this was her first work ever to be realied. Sadly I was not on time to take the architecture tour that would let me go to and inside this seminal project by the most famous woman architect ever.
Another building I missed out on was by an architect who I am now a gigantic fan of - Alvaro Siza. The puristic seeming brick-clad Production Hall designed by him is connected to the neighbouring hall with a bridge-like roof construction (also seen in the above photo).

To add to all these amazing buildings Vitra has in the recent years also added two treasures from the history of building: a dome-shaped tent construction from the American architectural visionary Buckminster Fuller (below) and a small knock-down petrol station by the French constructeur Jean Prouvé.
As I said earlier Vitra is not done yet. They are right now constructing some more buildings - one by Japanese starchitects 'Sanaa' and another by the hugely talented - Herzog & de Meuron from neighbouring Basel (photo of project model below).
Though I was unable to see the Sanaa building under construction here's a few photos of the wacky new museum designed by H & de M.
Now that's what I call 'a great day'!

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