Vitra Children Workshop / Alejandro Aravena Architects


Architects: Alejandro Aravena
Location: Zurich,
Project team: + Ricardo Torrejón + Víctor Oddó
Partner Architects in Germany: Osolin Plüss
Models: Ricardo Torrejón
Built Area: 600 sqm
Project: 2008
Renders: Víctor Oddó

Also, Alejandro Aravena shared with us the Sketchup model that you can download here

sketchup model

A thing, not an object.

It’s been a couple of years now, since I heard Argentinean architect Rafael Iglesia describe one of his projects as the attempt to produce a thing not an object. A thing, he said, does not have project, it has not been designed; but an object has.

I might have misunderstood what he meant, but I translated it as the difference between a chair and a stone. A chair is designed to be able to sit on it. A stone, if of the right size and form, may allow to sit on it, but was not designed as such. A thing has a life on its own, it has no purpose; only circumstances, e.i. use, make a thing become intentional.


Even though it might seem a paradox, the idea of designing a building as if it has not been designed remained in my mind. I wanted to achieve the status of those cases that are closer to nature than to artifice, even though they are obviously manmade, cases in which the consecutives layers of knowledge applied to a given question and the uninterrupted trial and error approach besieging a problem, have shaped answers efficiently and smoothly. Some archaic shoes, some antique vases or some primitive tools have erased the traces of their formation process up to the point of acquiring the capacity to fit life, naturally.

The VITRA job seemed from the very beginning to be the case to do a thing not an object, something as natural and statement-free as a stone, but if of the appropriate size and form, able to perform as a building, in this case as a children workshop.

No ideas, but facts

The first meeting took place in November 2007, on site: an existing garage neighboring Siza’s factory and Hadid’s firestation, that had been recently added to the Weil am Rhein Campus property. Rolf Felhbaum began by saying, as if it was a very normal thing, that he wanted a “direct” building for hosting the workshops that VITRA offers to children as an extra curricular activity. He did not say simple, nor cheap, but direct. It was one of the healthiest and most strategic starts I have ever had. Looking back, that first requirement, became the frame that defined the tone of the discussion and oriented the decisions that were taken afterwards.


In part due to the remoteness (Chile-Switzerland), in part because it just happened that way, we started a “thinking-out-loud” type of process: an Internet dialogue in the form of texts and drawings where very clear, common sense, pragmatic options were evaluated. It was an exchange of facts, not ideas. Ideas are overrated.

Do we keep the garage and adapt it for the workshops? Being the building just a collection of small additions not flexible enough for an easy reuse, and being the environmental standard of the construction very poor, insufficient for an educational facility and very costly for a simple upgrade, what appeared to be more reasonable, was to demolish the existing structure.

However, to keep the 400 m2 underground made a lot of sense. So, the footprint of the basement, dictated the shape of the building on top.

basement floor plan

Do we integrate the basement by perforating the slab? To remove some earth and get rid of a peripheral wall to bring light, air and people through a sloped courtyard, was easier.

How do we prepare the initial building to grow afterwards and still make sense? We thought that a fence was more flexible for future developments than a building. We spent a lot of time trying to balance a shape and size for the fence with the maximum space for the workshops but the minimum impact in the context in order to let Hadid’s building be visible from the street.

The long distance dialogue was followed by regular face to face meetings with Rolf Fehlbaum and the VITRA crew, where key, very precise and fresh conditions and orientations were given:

Use encouraging materials. Not rough, low budget, but encouraging materials.


Do a happy building. Think of an environmentally friendly eventually recyclable structure. Discipline the form.

That is how we arrived to the wood and the reet as materials for the building. Form follows facts: The thatch roof follows archaic rules, taken from a time when construction and environment were not an option nor a technique but a fact as natural as gravity. The wood is laid in a way that structural intuition more than calculus informs its form.

Since we cannot compress the time required for an object become a thing, we decided to integrate as many layers of accumulated knowledge as possible, replacing experimentation by synthesis.

Cite: "Vitra Children Workshop / Alejandro Aravena Architects" 09 Jul 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • nothing to say

    I usually like Aravena’s work. But I don’t know if I like this giant pita bread.

    • Lehung

      i’m sure with you, this place is not for children.

  • neoinc.

    very nice “thing”… seems to be a great composition somewhere between an object and what aravena interpreted as HIS “thing”. the orthogonal struktures are well integrated in the dominant hut-form…

    i like the aravena stuff very much so this nice project undergirts my opinion of his creative mind and output…

    well done, mr. aravena, and it seems to be affordable too…


  • neoinc.

    @ nothing:

    hehe, giant pita bread is a kinky association, but i’m a bit with you.
    i see it as a so called “reet-dach” (german), that would be very interesting i guess.
    reet is a natural material, made of the stems of bulrushes…
    it guarantees a great inner climate and would fit to aravena’s regional basic approach.

    links for “reet-dach”:


  • PanamArq

    very nice, i like the interior space but I keep being drawn to the nose-picker

  • Hellyess

    i agree with comment #1. I really like Aravena’s work, and begin a south american, i always show his new work to my colleagues, etc. But this one.. i don’t know. Not good, not good.

    • neoinc.

      are there any reasons for sayin’ : not good, not good??? or easily not good, not good?


  • Arturo López

    it looks like a childhood memory,
    not even “a thing”
    a thought

  • 16:08:78

    One can trace Aravena’s failure in this project easily with his statement: “So, the footprint of the basement, dictated the shape of the building on top”….…really,…. I though he said Form Follows Fact?….. Then how the basement got that shape in the first place? What does that shape follows? I’m sure there must be an argument that addresses this issue, but the fact is it is not stated here.

    In the interesting pursue “to produce a thing not an object” Aravena fail. As far as I’m concern this still is an object.

    • David Basulto [tricky]

      The basement is pre-existant.

  • mathias

    It is a very interesting goal that Aravena tries to reach with his theory of the “thing” vs. the object.Unfortunately, and despite the fact that his building is carefuly and masterfuly designed it does not reach the status he aims for. This is a good example of the great distances that often separate theory and practice. It is never easy to materialise abstraction without the natural flaws and limits of savoir-faire.

  • Comitant

    If you want Thing, not Object, then the only really option is stereotomic. Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides would a good source for understanding the difference.

    Carve away, dig, scoop, rebuild, but always with the same matter: rocks, mud, clay, sand, reeds, reshaped and reformed until they become usable and inhabitable.

    I can see the intent in the rendering, of the accidental roof covering, as if some giant walked by and left his hat and that became the space. But everyone, including children, know this is a building designed and built. The accidental look is just a look. Looking at the section, I bet this roof Object will effectively be a highly engineered tectonic construct.

    Theoretical considerations aside, the building looks like fun. But why not make the surface of the roof somehow usable? With an exposed tectonic solution, kids could play in the rafters and have little windows that peer out of the thatch. Tiny attic spaces looking out would be great fun for kids.

  • rek

    i understand the object trying to be a thing, or at least looking that way, i saw the interview in canal13 cable,”la belleza de pensar”, and mabye there´s where aravena is going, BUT, in my opinion, if you are “compiting” with the other works at the vitra campus, you should try harder…

  • rek

    and understanding what building on that campus means, eaven harder…

  • sisifo

    i dont know. aravena was my first architecture teacher… i can say he is like an idol to me, love the books, the projects. but … judging for the images and the model , my veredict on vitra´s project is : FAIL!…

  • medusa

    The world of furniture design is madly in love with the Campana brothers. Weird hybrids between plastic and rattan. Teddy bears woven together by shantytowns artisans. There seems to be a need of fresh views, with the enhanced creativity that the lack of means tend to force. Milan gets expensive chairs with a latin soul, Vitra gets the ‘arte povera’ provocation of a thatch roof in the middle of a signature campus.
    On a recent interview the painter David Hockney, when caught contradicting himself, said ‘never listen to what the artist says, look what the artist does’. One might not believe too much the clever and provoking words that come with the project. We will just have to wait to see what really matters… how the building will actually be.