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Design Museum (Weil-am-Rhein, Germany)

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Address: Charles-Eames-Straße 1 / D-79576 / Weil am Rhein / Germany

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      01.05.2012 11:01
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      Vitra Design Museum

      Can you imagine travelling three hours by train (one way) to look at chairs and about a dozen buildings? I did so some time ago as do more than 70.000 people every year. Many come from places much farther away, even from abroad. The Vitra Design Museum offering these attractions is situated in the small German town of Weil am Rhein, a 20 minute bus ride away from the German train station in the Swiss city of Basel (Basel has a Swiss, a German and a French train station).

      Vitra HQ are in Switzerland, the furniture producing company was founded in 1950 and is now operating in 14 countries. Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum began to collect furniture of designers which had influenced the company's development in the 1980 such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Alvar Aalta and Jean Prouvé. Soon the collection reached a dimension that a special venue was needed to display it. It was to be built in Weil am Rhein.

      After a fire in 1981 the English architect Nicholas Grimshaw was commissioned to build a new factory hall. When it was completed, he was asked to develop a master plan for the whole area with buildings expressing a corporate identity. This was thrown overboard, however, when in 1984 the gigantic sculpture Balancing Tools by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen was erected. It was a surprise birthday present for Fehlbaum's father. It's made of steel, the measurements are 8x9x6.1 m (26ftx29ftx19ft), it shows a pair of pliers, a hammer and a screwdriver brightly painted in coloured enamel. The idea was to celebrate the craftsman. It looks like a gigantic toy, I like it. At Oldenburg's Fehlbaum got into contact with the American architect Frank Gehry and a completely different concept was then thought of, namely to invite architects from all over the world representing different architectural styles. Vitra's corporate identity would be diversity, not uniformity.

      It's possible to walk across the compound but not to enter the buildings. A guided tour is essential, however, to learn about the architects if you're a layperson like me and not an architect yourself and to understand what's special about the building in question. The saying 'You see only what you know' doesn't exist for nothing. The tickets are sold in the white museum building built by Frank Gehry (see photo at the top of the site). It looks like a sculpture, especially when the sun is shining and there are shadows on the curved walls. The museum houses the chair collection and shows two to three exhibitions a year. The entrance fee is 8 Euro/concession 6,50 Euro. Guided architectural tours lasting 2 hours cost 10.50 Euro. They're offered daily at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm in German and at 12 am and 2 pm in English. I walked together with seven other visitors, this was a good number. There was always the possibility of asking the guide something without disturbing the tour.

      I'm not going to lead you across the whole compound, that would go too far. I'm picking out some buildings which impressed me besides the museum. The first is the Fire Station by the famous Iranian-British architect Zaha Hadid (who designed the Aquatic Centre for the London Olympics in 2012). Zaha Hadid had already pocketed important prizes for her architectural designs, in 2004 she became the first female and first Muslim recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. But she had never had the opportunity of seeing a design become a building. The Vitra Fire Station is her very first building and a destination for her fans. After the fire in 1981 it became necessary to have a fire station on the compound as it wasn't served by the local fire brigade. It was manned (and womaned) by staff working in the Vitra factory. It was ready to function for two years, but fortunately no fire broke out. Then the fire district lines were re-drawn, the Vitra compound is now covered by a nearby fire department. This rendered the building partially obsolete. The big hall, where once four fire engines were standing, is occasionally used for exhibitions. Besides it there are the shower area, the loos, a gym, a kitchen and a kind of lounge.

      What is striking are the unusual angles outside and inside. One has to walk around the building and look at it from all sides, it's like a sculpture. Inside, the guide pointed out certain spots from which one sees a room or a view in a special way. For example, when one is standing on the first floor at the top of the staircase (a sculpture in its own right) and looking out across the terrace, the end of the building seems to be the bow of a ship. Standing on the terrace and looking to the hillside opposite one has the impression that the small village there sits precisely on the roof of the fire station. The most striking feature for me who gets dizzy when only standing on a chair are the shower room and the toilets because their walls aren't straight but slanting at a slight angle. I can't be more precise, the guide didn't tell us the details and I forgot to ask. I went into the toilet as we were advised to do, not in order to use it but to get a feeling for the unusual distortion. I didn't feel too good inside and I didn't feel better when I got out because then the 90° we're used to seemed strange. Other walls are also slanting because Hadid isn't a great fan of the 90° angle, but the effect was strongest in the small loo cubicle.

      Another striking building is the Conference Pavilion by Tadao Ando, Japan's most famous contemporary architect and one of the top architects worldwide. He has never had a formal training in the field of architecture. Before he opened his own studio he worked as a carpenter, truck driver and professional boxer. His favourite building material is cast-in-place concrete with evenly located holes. I'm sure you can't imagine stroking a wall made of concrete, but the concrete Ando uses has such a silk smooth surface that one simply has to do it.

      Ando has designed three buildings in Germany, this is the second I've seen. The first is in the north-west of Germany on the Lower Rhine on a former NATO base turned Museum. His designs express 'The beauty of simplicity'. He has nothing against angles of 90°! His buildings are simple, no-frills structures which exude a meditative quality. They remind me of monasteries. The one on the Vitra compound is set apart from the other buildings so that there isn't too much traffic disturbing the meetings held there. People can't even rush to it, a narrow footpath leads to the entrance which one has to walk in single file.

      Concentrated listening is tiring, so when the guided tour had ended, I had a cappuccino and a piece of cake in the restaurant of the VitraHaus which was designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, famous for London's Tate Modern. Where Tate Modern is gigantic, the VitraHaus is tiny. It's a five storey building and with this the highest on the Vitra compound. With its height of 21.30m it could easily be put into the turbine hall at Tate Modern which is 35 m high! It's meant to give an overview of the surrounding picturesque landscape - slight hills, meadows and orchards - and the factory premises as well as an overview of the Vitra home furniture.

      But it's not one house but apparently several (eleven if I remember correctly) houses interlaced with each other. Herzog & de Meron occupy themselves with the idea of stacked volume and the 'ur-house'. As the VitraHaus is the exhibition area for home furniture they thought this design appropriate. Visitors can walk through and dream of buying the furniture on offer. My problem is that I don't have the house for the furniture and not the money for it, either. But I wouldn't mind having some of the pieces. There are shop-assistants everywhere, you can choose a sofa, for example, and then discuss the size, material and the colours with them and order, of course.

      When I'd seen everything I came to see, I was tired and couldn't work up any interest any more at the bus stop which was also designed by some famous architect or other. My brain needed a rest.


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