Dream factory: A tour of the Vitra campus
In the German town of Weil am Rhein, a manufacturing plant gutted by fire in 1981 has become a showcase for cutting-edge architecture. Martin Gayford takes a look around
For the fan of contemporary architecture, there is no destination more enticing than Weil am Rhein, just over the German border from Basel. The town itself is nondescript, it’s true, but on the outskirts, almost in the country, is the Vitra factory, specialising in furniture for the office, shop and home, with the excellent Vitra Design Museum next door.
That description, however, does not do justice to the eccentric attractions of the place. Among these are an array of industrial buildings amounting to an anthology of cutting-edge styles of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a definitive collection of modernist chairs, an elegant bus stop and the most beautiful disused fire station in the world.
When you arrive, alighting perhaps at that bus stop, designed by Jasper Morrison, Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum is in front of you. At once angular and twisting, it suggests wild cinematic intercutting between one of Le Corbusier’s villas and a cubist guitar by Braque. When it first opened in 1989, the museum — Gehry’s first European project — would have caused more surprise than it does now, especially to those who have visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which came later.
Nowadays, the other edifice you see as soon as you arrive — the VitraHaus by the Basel-based architectural team of Herzog and de Meuron — is far more startling. This consists of 12 traditional Swiss houses with sharply tilted roofs crammed together at random angles in a 50ft-high stack. It looks more like an accident than a building. Inside are a shop, a restaurant and a series of showrooms that add up to an unorthodox and highly enjoyable museum of design. In fact, as an experience, it is a distinct advance on the actual Vitra Design Museum, which holds relatively conventional exhibitions. And in the VitraHaus, you can do what is never possible in a more traditional display: you can actually sit in the chairs, and inhabit an interior with books and magazines that are there to be read.
This highlights one of the major limitations of museums as we know them, which evolved out of aristocratic picture galleries and collections of classical sculpture. The latter are well suited to a standard museum display. Many objects, however, are not. Coins and medals really need to be held in the hand. Chairs cannot properly be experienced unless you sit on them. In the VitraHaus you can. Clearly such a system needs a well-behaved clientele, which, it seems, Vitra attracts.
On the edge of the site is the Vitra Slide Tower (2014) by the contemporary artist Carsten Höller — a combined clock tower, viewing platform and fairground-style helter-skelter slide. When Höller’s trademark slides were exhibited in London at Tate Modern and the Hayward, public access was carefully policed by attendants. Here it is left up to the visitors, who wait their turn in an orderly fashion and sit on the mat provided — in case friction heats up their clothing — to shoot round and round and down.
From the top of the construction — given a surreal Mitteleuropean air by a clock set at a crazy tilt — you can look out over the whole Vitra Campus, as it is called. This is the actual factory area, designed by a succession of celebrated architects. Dotted around, in addition, are portable structures collected from here and there, including a geodesic dome after a design by Buckminster Fuller that once functioned as a car showroom in Detroit, and a delightfully dinky 1950s filling station from the Loire Valley by Jean Prouvé. Like many things at Vitra, these lie on the intriguing borderline between practicality and art.
To visit these items and all the factory units, it is necessary to join one of the guided tours, some of which are in English. It would be hard to believe that there is another furniture manufacturer’s industrial site that is remotely as engaging. The array of modern masterpieces at Vitra came into being partly as the consequence of a disaster. At 4am on 20 July 1981, lightning struck the Vitra site and a fire broke out. Winds were strong, and the nearest fire crews were some way away.
By the time the fire was out, more than half the production units had been gutted. Major rebuilding was unavoidable; what was far from inevitable was that in place of the burnt-out structure there would rise a series of new ones by different architects, in contrasting styles. That came about from a combination of inspired patronage and chance.
The Vitra company was founded by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum. In 1934, it took over a firm that manufactured shopfronts. In 1957, Vitra began to make furniture designed by celebrated figures such as Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar Aalto. By 1981, Willi and Erica’s son Rolf was chairman of the company, and in the aftermath of the fire he decided to reconstruct the campus in an architecturally distinguished fashion. So he commissioned two new factories and also a master plan for the site from the British architect Nicholas Grimshaw.
However, this scheme was to be transformed as a result of a meeting that came about through a sculpture. In 1984, to mark Willi Fehlbaum’s 70th birthday, his children commissioned a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The work consists of a gigantic set of furniture-maker’s tools, balanced in space and sited next to the design museum. The most important result of this commission was not the work itself — though that is a characteristic piece of Oldenburg and van Bruggen — but the fact that it was in the Oldenburg studio that Rolf Fehlbaum met Frank Gehry.
The effect of this encounter was that, instead of continuing with the Grimshaw scheme and creating a homogeneous group of buildings in a style that could be called ‘hi-tech classicism’, Fehlbaum diverted into what he calls ‘collage’. This is a principle in Gehry’s aesthetic, and one that can be extended, as here, to a group of diverse designs. In the end, Gehry built not only the museum, but also another factory that stands next to — but looks very different from — one of Grimshaw’s industrial units. Gehry was also responsible for a little gatehouse that originally functioned as a shop and café.
One suspects that the gatehouse was just a pretext for another commission. The same applies to the fire station by the late Zaha Hadid from 1993. Ostensibly this answered a real need. The place had been partially destroyed in a conflagration, so it was decided to retain a depot on site for volunteer firefighters, recruited from the workforce.
The resulting building — the first project by Hadid, then aged 43, ever to be constructed — is as magnificently over-designed as an Art Nouveau house by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Every detail, including a kitchen/dining area upstairs and some deconstructivist showers, washrooms and lavatories, has been rethought in an utterly original way. No wall or floor seems straight. Outside there is a barbecue pit — half usable object, half sculpture. This building is perhaps Hadid’s chef d’oeuvre, and all the more precious since her recent and early death.
Vitra has continued to add buildings by star architects, often spotted early in their careers. The conference centre, by the Japanese master of Zen and the art of moulding in concrete, Tadao Ando, also dates from 1993. It was his first commission in Europe, dropped self-effacingly into a cherry orchard but leaving almost all the trees undisturbed. A more recent addition is a factory unit from 2010 by the Japanese duo SANAA, which is encircled by an undulating curtain of milky acrylic glass.
For a while, the fire station — which was not long used for its original purpose — housed the Vitra collection of designer chairs. But from June, those and other items from the 7,000-piece furniture collection will be shown in a new building by Herzog and de Meuron, the Vitra Schaudepot. Veteran modernist Philip Johnson once compared the buildings at Vitra to the Weissenhofsiedlung at Stuttgart. This is an array of housing from 1927, designed by Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and many of the leading figures of the day. The Vitra Campus is a similar idea, and a very German one. In effect, it is an exhibition of real buildings from that little-known historical period: right now.