A Day at Vitra

Gail and I have just completed another portion of the Via Francigena pilgrimage which started in Canterbury and will eventually take us to Rome. This year, we walked 575 kilometres from Tergnier to Gy in France. Although we planned to walk about 40 kilometres further to Besançon, an unfortunate fall that severely limited Gai’s ability to walk, cut our journey a tiny bit short.

However, we had also planned a post-walk holiday that would take us from Besançon and through Switzerland by train, before returning home to Winnipeg. We resolved to continue with our plans, as carefully and as slowly as Gail’s ability required, minimizing our walking and using buses, trams and trains wherever possible. Here’s a day-by-day account of our progress.   

Notes from our day at the Vitra Campus:

Many countries and cities have heritage villages with a sampling of buildings drawn from the region and collected in a park-like setting. It’s a convenient way to portray local history, expressed through built heritage, in an educational, tourist-friendly way. Vitra, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, has done something similar for contemporary architecture, the reason we have made today’s pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus.   

Founded in 1950 as a shopfitting enterprise, Vitra moved into furniture production based on designers Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and, for a while, the Herman Miller collection. A major fire at the campus in 1981 caused a paradigm shift for the company. A new era of architects were drawn into the rebuilding process, starting with a master plan and industrial buildings by Nicholas Grimshaw, but blossoming over time to include factories and pavilions designed by a who’s who of contemporary architects.

A thirty minute tram ride takes us from Barfüsserplatz in Basel, Switzerland across the unpatrolled Swiss-German border to the Bahnhof in Weil am Rhein, Germany. From there, a one-kilometre walk to the Vitra Schaudepot deposits us at the start of our three-hour guided tour through the Vitra Campus.

Any proper pilgrimage starts with a walk along a path lined with sacred waypoints before arriving at the ultimate, revelatory destination. The Via Francigena does it over a thousand-plus kilometres from Canterbury to Rome. Vitra does it with a one-kilometre path between the Bahnhoff and Vitra Schaudepot. Following a residential lane, we pass by a series of modern-day menhirs, steel poles topped with glass bell jars containing miniature models of Vitra’s classic chair designs. It is a delightful, anticipatory journey that leads us to the suitably monastic Vitra Schaudepot, designed by Herzog and de Meurons. 

This gable-roofed building is entirely clad in a deep red split-face brick with but a single punched-out entrance door for relief. Inside is a reception, gift store and a curated sampling from the vast collection of furniture otherwise stored in an adjoining warehouse space. We gather with our multi-national tour group on the equally vast, equally red, equally monastic plaza fronting the Schaudepot to start our tour of the campus.

I will glibly divide the buildings we visit into two groups: factories and follies.

Of the factories, the standouts are the originals designed by Nicholas Grimshaw as part of the master plan he developed for the Vitra Campus. These low slung industrial buildings match their function with prefabricated corrugated steel siding and industrial fittings. 

Circling around Grimshaw’s sprawling factory buildings we arrive at a different interpretation of the building type, this time designed by the Tokyo architectural firm SAANA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates, founded by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa). It’s a monumental, single-storey industrial structure, similar to Grimshaw’s. However, SAANA has used a roughly circular floor plan and clad it with a glossy white fibreglass material. Its over-scaled vertical corrugations seem to riff on Grimshaw’s use of standard metal corrugated panels.

I use the term follies to loosely describe the buildings lying beyond the factory buildings. Architectural follies are generally decorative structures often placed in garden settings with little or no functional value or, perhaps, with a functional value secondary to a decorative one. The Vitra Slide Tower by German artist Carsten Höller, a tall Contructivist-inspired tower that functions as a viewing platform and children’s slide, is clearly a folly.

Several other structures, each a unique, freestanding pavilion, are similarly scattered about the campus lawns and gardens and, in that context, can be seen as follies as well, despite their higher functional value. Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion is exactly that, with conference rooms set in a contemplative concrete structure, half-concealed within Vitra’s landscaped grounds. Similarly, Frank Gehry’s Design Museum, dedicated to design and architecture exhibits, is contained in a twisty structure clad in white plaster. Also dotting the landscape is a diminutive gas station by Jean Prouvé. Designed in 1953, it is a fine example of Prouvé’s use of prefabricated but oh-so architecturally refined elements. Today, it sits on the Vitra Campus as a museum piece to be viewed from the outside. Just behind it is a shallow geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. Originally meant to house soldiers or refugees, using prefabricated components, it is used here as an event space. Not far away is a classic Airstream trailer converted into a food truck. Curiously, this is the one structure not associated with a design professional yet its iconic form, which still resonates as a design touchstone worldwide, dates back to the 1940s with relatively modest improvements since then. 

Hovering over the Airstream is VitaHaus by Herzog and de Meurons. It can best be described as a stack of extruded gable roof houses. Functionally, it is a restaurant, gift shop and, on the upper levels, a showroom for Vitra products offering various spectacular views framed by the fully-glazed gable ends. It is a fun place to visit. And, from the outside, its madcap design delights.

We leave our tour at the late Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station, her first building in a brilliant career cut too short. It is less a fire hall (and is no longer used a such) than an iconic example of Hadid’s early parametric design explorations. Currently empty, its roof planes soar and walls tilt at disorienting angles. It is a sculptural piece that challenges our notions of what a building should look like. 

We leave the campus and head back to the Banhoff, passing one-by-one the miniature furniture models as they slowly rotate in their glass cases. It’s been a long but pleasant day on our feet. For Gail, it has been challenging, given a still very sore knee. But she pushes through with some assistance and (she tries to convince me) was thrilled by a tour she would not have missed. Before catching a tram back to expensive Switzerland, we pause for a while in Germany, at Restaurant Delphi, for a hearty Greek meal in a decidedly uncontemporary Greek village-inspired interior.               

Click the images below to view a full-screen slideshow.

5 thoughts on “A Day at Vitra

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  1. Gail, you are a TROOPER!!!! A i km walk? I had three favourite photos: there were two photos that featured (to my mind) native plants; and the third photo was the fast food stand. What do you call those wonderful trailers – Airstream? For whatever mystical reason, I enjoyed your decision to snap that photo, David!


      1. And…the native plants are part of a large, attractive garden by another designer, Piet Oudolf. You are correct, the food stand is a vintage Airstream trailer.

  2. Really enjoyed A Day at Vitra. I appreciate the way you compared exploring the campus with a pilgrimage.

    Bonjour, Gail… Get Well Soon!

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