June 1, 2010
Vitra’s new building by Herzog & de Meuron cleverly showcases the manufacturer’s residential designs.
Animated by architectural gems, the industrial campus of the furniture company Vitra, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, has long been a tourist attraction, but before a new addition by Herzog & de Meuron, public access had been limited to guided tours focusing on the on-site museum. Vitra uses the campus, after all, to manufacture, test, and store much of the furniture it ships across the world, and the grounds weren’t designed to handle swarms of visitors. That all began to change in 2004, when the company, formerly focused on contract products, launched the Home Collection.
After a major fire ravaged the site in 1981, Vitra hired Nicholas Grimshaw to devise a master plan. It called for four new factories, which were constructed between 1981 and 1994. Grimshaw designed the first two, Frank Gehry the next one, and Álvaro Siza the last. To preserve the operation’s confidentiality, each of these buildings is kept strictly private. In 1993, the company added a Tadao Ando–designed conference center and a fire station by Zaha Hadid (famously, her first built work). But until recently, the only real exception to an otherwise hermetic campus was the Vitra Design Museum, built in 1989, which had been commissioned at the same time as Gehry’s factory building and was originally intended to display the owners’ extensive collection of modern design. Vitra now needed a place to show merchandise to the individual shopper. “It became quite clear to me that the next building absolutely had to be with Herzog & de Meuron, since they represent all I care about in architecture,” says Rolf Fehlbaum, the company’s chairman.
At Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus, which opened on February 22, visitors are formally welcomed by a campus info desk, exhibitions, a café, a gift shop, a meeting room, and, of course, access to the residential furniture. To signal the collection’s domestic nature, the Swiss architects turned to the archetypal pitched-roof house, a form they had explored in 1980 with Blue House. This time, though, the firm used 12 of these volumes, stretching them and stacking them askew like cantilevered beams. Inside, the design produces intertwined spaces that artfully frame views up, down, and across galleries. Furniture lines in different styles get the benefit of their own discrete environments. “Nothing has been left to chance,” says Jacques Herzog, cofounder of the Basel-based firm. “Every crossover has been studied in detailed models and adapted according to aesthetic and functional criteria.”
The architects distinguished their building from the others on the campus in a couple of ways. First, they positioned it at the entrance, across the main road from Gehry’s museum. “We moved the building away from its originally planned construction site to allow each building to stand independently,” Herzog says. “Since we did not want to build up a competitive situation in regards to the Gehry building, we chose dark gray as a contrast color.” And while the other buildings are inwardly focused—housing either trade secrets or galleries—VitraHaus looks outward. “The stacked beams are not only exhibition spaces but also viewing platforms,” Herzog says. The volumes’ glazed ends frame different features of the landscape—Vitra’s other architecture, the rolling vineyards and farms that surround the campus, and, to the distant south, the industrial landscape of Basel’s pharmaceutical businesses.
“It is easy now to spend a leisurely afternoon at Vitra,” says Fehlbaum, and so far the numbers seem to back him up. The campus normally has 100,000 visitors each year, but in the two months since VitraHaus opened 75,000 people have visited. “Buildings have always anticipated great changes at Vitra,” Fehlbaum says.