Architecture and design lovers should not miss a visit to Weil am Rhein, a town in the German region of Freiburg as well as a suburb of the Swiss city of Basel. Here we find the Vitra Campus, Vitra being the Swiss furniture producer founded in 1950 by Willi Fehlbaum. In 1981 a major fire destroyed parts of the original Campus factory and Nicholas Grimshaw, a British architect, was commissioned to design a new production building, which started a series of contributions by architects adding more and more buildings and constructions on the Campus premises, today a world-class destination for all architecture enthusiasts.
Where else can you enjoy the works of so many prestigious architects in one place? Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Nicholas Grimshaw, Jasper Morrison, Alvaro Siza, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé have all left their mark on the Campus through the years.
As well as the architecture, the factory also exhibits a wide selection of designer furniture from recent history, all of which have helped define the design of their time: in-house items are on display together with works by Verner Panton, Philippe Starck, Ron Arad, Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Prouvé and more.
I visited the Campus in 2011 and I was fascinated by the sight of these very different architectural styles all sitting together on a wide open plateau, vineyards glistening in the distance. Sadly, Renzo Piano’s Diogene had not been completed at the time of my visit, a minuscule living space measuring just eight square metres and named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, whose self-imposed poverty-ridden lifestyle led him to live inside an earthenware jar.
I could well have benefited from more time on my visit, as one day is not enough to see the extensive collection of furniture on display - urban, office and domestic - at a leisurely pace, taking in all the spectacular sights around you.
I spent most of my time in the Vitra Haus, a 2010 building designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It consists of a series of houses all of the same basic shape, stacked on top of one another, reminiscent of Switzerland’s Actelion Business Center. Light plays a key role in the appreciation of the building, and the view from outside at sunset is quite stunning. The Vitra Haus building also contains the Vitra Home Collection, where visitors can see, touch and purchase different items representing the latest design trends, across various floors and exhibition halls.
Herzog & de Meuron are the Swiss architects responsible for some of the world’s most diverse and iconic constructions, including London’s Tate Modern gallery, the CaixaForum in Madrid, Beijing’s spectacular Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the Prada building in Tokyo. They’re all fascinating structures, my personal favourite being the Bird’s Nest due to its sheer size and scale.
Another architect whose work I greatly admire is Jean Prouvé. At the Vitra Campus one can see his petrol station originally designed in 1953 and relocated to the Campus in 2003. It brings together all the qualities that define Prouvé’s work: functionality, careful selection of materials and resourcefulness. These were the guiding principles of his work, and they would prove particularly relevant during the harsh post-war period, considering the uses his buildings would be put to.
Another gem to be found in the Campus is Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Dome, a geodesic structure currently used as an exhibition space. Fuller, like Prouvé before him, was also interested in achieving maximum functionality with minimum expense, both in terms of materials and energy consumption.
The minimalist simplicity of Jasper Morrison’s bus station, Zaha Hadid’s fire station or Frank Gehry’s buildings, archetypes of deconstructivism, complete the visit to this unique location, an absolute must for anyone interested in architecture and design, or indeed art of any kind.