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Vitra Campus Extension

4th December 2006 Print
Vitra Campus extension Manufacturer of modern classic and contemporary furniture, Vitra, will add to its existing architectural campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Two new buildings are to be added: an exhibition building designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron for Vitra and a factory designed by Japanese architects SANAA for Vitrashop.

The project will see further expansion to a site whose development began over 50 years ago, when the garden of a house on Feuerbachstrasse in which relatives of Erika Fehlbaum used to live provided the land on which the first office building and production facility was built. In 1950, the entrepreneurs Willi and Erika Fehlbaum opened the first branch of their Basle-based shopfitting company in the courtyard of an inn in Weil. In 1954, they moved their business to the new building, which to this day forms the entrance to Vitrashop.

The Vitra Campus used to be farmland. Gradually, Erika Fehlbaum acquired land from farmers in Weil and Halting, thereby laying the spatial foundations for the business's continued expansion. Acquiring these reserves of land meant that production expanded in Weil rather than at the main headquarters in Birsfelden near Basle, where the company's management, product development, marketing, finance and international activities are established.

The buildings erected during the first few decades reflected no architectural ambitions. But that changed in 1981, when a major fire destroyed over half the site's production capacity. Faced with the choice of either erecting a faceless prefabricated structure or creating an architecturally ambitious building, Raymond and Rolf Fehlbaum, who had taken over the company's management from their parents in 1977, went down the architectural path despite the short grace period of six months allowed by their insurance company. They hired high- tech British architects Nicholas Grimshaw to plan the rebuilding of the factory, a move which prompted the redevelopment of the Römerstrasse site. The experience with Grimshaw's building, with its characteristic horizontal treatment of the corrugated iron facade and moving of stairways to outlying towers, was so positive that Grimshaw was asked to draw up a blueprint for the future development of the site. That blueprint included a number of similarly designed buildings extending from Römerstrasse towards town and gave the formerly industrial area an established and high-level corporate identity. However, ultimately only one more building was constructed on the basis of Grimshaw's blueprint.

In 1984, a small but momentous event occurred on the site. On Willi Fehlbaum's 70th birthday, his sons presented him with the monumental sculpture entitled "Balancing Tools" by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, designed specifically for the site. This sculpture brought to the site an element which served no industrial or commercial purpose, but stamped a cultural presence, and altered the character of the site. Working with Oldenburg also resulted in a meeting in the latter's studio between Frank Gehry and Rolf Fehlbaum. Their joint interest in furniture initially led to a furniture project, but in time also decided to construct a building. Since a further factory was planned as part of the expansion project, this second building moved away from the concept of corporate identity embodied by Grimshaw's design and became a completely differently kind of structure, designed by Frank Gehry.

Initially, there were fears that the juxtaposition of two such different structures might reduce the value of both, but that never happened. Indeed, they greatly enhanced each other. This determined the new concept for the site: architectural diversity and a collage (a concept that is already an important to Vitra in other areas) were the result, rather than a uniform corporate identity.

At the same time as the factory was built, a small museum was also constructed – the Vitra Design Museum – to house a collection of contemporary furniture. The creation of the museum was a turning point in the history of the Vitra project. The building itself also turned out to be a significant milestone in Frank Gehry's career, being the first constructed outside the United States – an important milestone.

The Vitra Design Museum completed the transformation from a purely industrial site to a meeting place for cultural and commercial activities. Ever since, the site has fulfilled a public function as well as an industrial one. Over the next few years, new construction projects dared to experiment with architectural forms. In 1993, the Vitra site's fire station designed by Zaha Hadid - the architect's first realised project - was built. That same year saw the construction of Vitra's conference pavilion, architect Tadao Ando's first building outside Japan, and these developments were followed in 1994 by the official opening of the factory designed by Alvaro Siza. A conscious decision was made to select architects who, under normal circumstances, would not have designed buildings in the Basle area, the aim being to create a site that drew not on regional sources that are now recognised around the world, but designs that stamped their distinctive character on the site through their foreign influences.

In the mid-1990s, the production concepts at Vitra changed. Expansion was curbed as the group's organisational methods were reviewed. As such, the spatial pressure that had regularly necessitated the construction of new buildings, became a thing of the past. During this lengthy break in new construction, the site was enriched by a number of smaller architectural projects, such as the building of the Buckminster Fuller Dome, Jean Prouvé's 1950s petrol station and Jasper Morrison's bus shelters. A combination of several factors triggered new building plans. Though able to present its range of home products in its own publicly accessible showrooms in most European markets, Vitra has yet to establish such a facility in the important German market. Also, Vitrashop needed to build another factory; an obsolete building needed to be replaced, and various external storage facilities needed to be centralised.

The rising number of visitors to the Vitra Design Museum meant that more space was needed for infrastructure and the development of other activities. Relocating some of these activities to another location had long been considered, but in the end, in view of the development potential of the Vitra site, this plan was shelved.

The opportunity to acquire the surrounding Schupp+Kiefer site enabled Vitra to start implementing its plans. The original intention of converting the Schupp+Kiefer building into a Vitra showroom in partnership with Frank Gehry came to nothing. Following more in-depth analysis, it became clear that the building's conversion was neither economically nor operationally viable and this insight paved the way for discussions about a new building.

Over the next few years and decades, the Vitra Campus will be further developed as a design and architecture centre. The number of visitors – currently some 80,000 every year – will increase, and this should simultaneously boost the performance of the companies involved.

Two buildings designed to achieve these goals are currently at the planning stage.

The 'VitraHaus', developed with architects Herzog & de Meuron, will serve as a public showroom for products in the Home Collection, house a visitor's reception area, a café, conference rooms, a museum shop and exhibition spaces that will be used to display highlights from the Vitra Design Museum collection. The building takes house forms familiar to the region, overlaps them and provides a number of different spaces covering an area of 3,000 m2. However, a sense of 'coming home' is expressed not only in the Home theme and the shapes of the gables, but also refers to the partnership with Herzog & de Meuron.

In the wake of architectural inspiration taken from Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Porto, it was time that the world-renowned architecture produced by Basle-based Herzog & de Meuron was also allowed to make its mark on the Vitra site.

The decision to commission SANAA, the design office of architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, to build Vitrashop's factory, was borne of a longstanding admiration of Kazuyo Sejima's work. Working on a design that has to be multifunctional and seemingly offers little room for manoeuvre is a challenge for this highly talented female architect, who, until now, has worked mainly in the cultural domain. SANAA has succeeded in rising to this challenge in a surprising and poetic way.

Both buildings will be completed by 2009.

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Vitra Campus extension