The VitraHaus Show House
Enlarge image The new Vitra Home Collection showrooms at the VitraHaus, designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, in Weil am Rhein, Germany. (© Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE ) On the architecture campus at Vitra in Weil am Rhein there’s some more avant-garde architecture to marvel at. The furniture manufacturers are showcasing their products in the new show home.
Rolf Fehlbaum collects buildings designed by Pritzker award-winners like other people collect paintings. Fehlbaum is Chairman of the Board at Vitra, a family-run company founded by his parents in 1950, which began production of furniture classics by Charles & Ray Eames in 1957 in Basel and in nearby Weil am Rhein, and has since become globally established as a manufacturer of designer furniture. Creating designs is an author thing, and for that reason Vitra always collaborates with well-known authors, from Ron Arad to Philippe Starck, from Mario Bellini to Jasper Morrison.
Enlarge image Vitra is a family-run company known worldwide as a manufacturer of designer furniture. (© Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE ) Vitra boss Fehlbaum, who is also responsible for product development, ranks among the global players on the international design and architecture scene. For him it seemed a good idea to make use of the big names for designing new industrial buildings and order “author’s architecture” from them. First of all it was the British architect Nicholas Grimshaw, renowned as a high-tech architect in those days, who erected two new factory buildings on the company site in Weil am Rhein (1981 and 1986) and was commissioned by Fehlbaum to devise a master plan for further development of the works premises. In 1989 Frank O. Gehry was contracted to build a museum in front of the factory fence, but also the factory gate and a production building. This building is probably the only utility structure of its type that Gehry – a sculptor/architect – had the opportunity to build. He was not able to express his architectural passion to its full extent with the simple rectangular shed; it is only the externally-constructed staircases and ramps that betray his signature style.
The only architecture campus of its kind in the world
Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station has become famous – it didn’t exactly function perfectly as accommodation for the fire brigade, but that doesn’t really matter because the works’ fire department was decommissioned anyway and since then the building has been popular for event bookings. With Tadao Ando’s conference pavilion (1993) and Alvaro Siza’s production building (1994) the architecture campus was complete, for the time being. It was just complemented by a few small architectural works brought there in the nineties – a carefully restored fuel station by Jean Prouvé from 1953, a bus stop by Jasper Morrison (2006) and a domed structure designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller in 1978. Vitra finally became an architectural park that was visited not only by furniture design enthusiasts, but also by architecture tourists. Visitors numbered 100,000 last year.
Enlarge image The new Vitra Home Collection showrooms at the VitraHaus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. (© Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE ) However, this year they had 100,000 visitors within just eight weeks during March and April. This was because Fehlbaum had landed a new coup. He secured the current top fashionable architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron from Basel to build the “VitraHaus” for him, a show home in which the company’s products are to be showcased. These include design classics, re-editions and products by contemporary designers.
The building has approximately five stories (you can’t really say exactly) and is so tall that it can even be seen from the motorway, making passing motorists curious. Long buildings with dark anthracite-grey rendering are piled oddly on top of one another, windowless but instead featuring glazed gables. People have never seen anything like it before.
Herzog & de Meuron had raw materials for modeling on the table in a meeting, bars with a cross-section like a house with a pitched roof, and they stacked them up playfully. The basic idea of the new building was born. Twelve of these “bars” are stacked in such a way that they interfuse and at some points overhang by up to 15 meters. The bitumen sheeting for the roof covering and the dark grey mineral rendering combine to the required monolithic overall effect, as if the bars had been extruded in one piece. Skylights, railings, lightning conductors, guttering, the architects avoided all distracting details in favor of giving the building an ideal archetypical appearance. The glazing on the gables is held in place by extremely thin struts, which are only 30 millimeters thick and are made of tempered tool steel to resist wind pressure.
Enlarge image Various living scenarios have been set up in the museum which showcase Rolf Fehlbaum’s collection of furniture classics. (© Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE ) At one point all the floors overlap each other, that’s where the lift is located to make all levels accessible to the disabled. Other than that, the rooms are linked by various staircases, you can wander through the house from top to bottom and continually experience charming spatial interactions and perspectives. The walls and ceiling are white, the floors are laid with unpolished oak parquet, which has been left with a coarse-cut finish and simply waxed to create a distinctive effect.
Fixtures for adjoining rooms have also been kept in white, however they have curved forms, which is perhaps the only “mistake” you might notice. You might accept round forms with spiral staircases at the most. They are made of thick, welded steel, the railings are white stucco lustro, a fine Italian plaster skimmed and polished five times; people won’t balk at walking up those stairs.
In the clearly-arranged sequence of rooms various living scenarios have been set up. Rolf Fehlbaum’s collection of furniture classics is being exhibited. A library, museum shop and bistro round off the package, but there is also a lounge that serves as a reception room for special guests. A home, a museum, a studio for lifestyle ideas, a sales presentation, every visitor can see something different in it, every day, and entry is free.
New jewel in the crown
There will soon be a new jewel in the crown to show off on the guided architectural tours that are also offered on the Vitra campus. The winner of the Pritzker Prize 2010, architect duo SANAA from Tokyo, are constructing a new logistics building. Alongside Gehry, Hadid, Ando, Herzog & de Meuron and Siza they are the sixth winners of the award, also dubbed the "Nobel Prize of architecture," who were able to put their work into practice here. The building should be finished by the end of 2010, it’s gleaming white as SANAA’s works always are, and as ever it is also a typological surprise, because its egg-shaped contours and shimmering mother-of-pearl facade in Perspex is in no way what you would expect of a production building and warehouse.
There are still undeveloped areas and a need to replace buildings on the company site. Rolf Fehlbaum hasn’t run out of architect friends and the only architecture campus of its kind in the world will continue to grow.
Written by architectural historian and critic Falk Jaeger.
Translation: Jo Beckett