VitraHaus is the last addition to the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, an experiment in powerfully communicative architecture. The design company Vitra are “collectors” of architectural objects: manufacturing premises by Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank O. Gehry, Álvaro Siza and, now under construction, Kazuyo Sejima; Tadao Ando’s conference centre; the densely figurative presence of the Vitra Design Museum in the 1989 Frank O. Gehry project; the first built project by Zaha Hadid; reconstructions of works by Jean Prouvé and Buckminster Fuller, the large-scale sculpture of Oldenburg and van Bruggen. All these add power of attraction to this shrine of contemporary art/design/architecture.
Here Herzog & de Meuron’s plans for VitraHaus have produced a showpiece of a building with a dual function: room in which to display the collection of residential company products as furnishings for a genuine “house”; and a feature in the Campus depiction of an architectural laboratory. Herzog & de Meuron’s “house” is an archetypal arrangement of masses, twelve elementary geometrical shapes overlapping with stark overhangs to form a composite building.
The relationship to the landscape is directional: the masses are moulded in a simple pentagonal section formed of side walls, floor and twin sloping roofs which debouches in a fully glazed front wall, as though a cross-section had been performed to lay bare the interior. The superimposed masses build up a complex whole on five storeys, a rich interplay of perspective and aperture, jutting volumes versus intersecting volumes. The paving around is in wooden slats which swell gently to form benches against two of the ground-floor masses, where they play their part in cladding the walls. Horizontal motifs combine with vertical: the building splays and sprawls, glass-fronted, towards the surrounding plain and hills with the city of Basel in the background, meeting point of Germany, France and Switzerland.
The image is overwhelmingly geometrical - architecture donning an anthracite-grey render to pick out the rigour of its lines and the unexpected empty façades, lantern-like sources of light producing a visual contrast between the night- and daytime appearance. The interior fits together like a sequence of habitations, the white-coloured walls enfolding design/furnishing objects, old and new, and heightening their expressive power, while the eye delves among the sinuous organic shapes traced by the staircases.