This article was originally published on April 27, 2017. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Even at the Vitra Campus in Weil-am-Rhein—a collection of furniture factories, offices, showrooms, and galleries, many of which are the products of iconic architects—the Vitra Design Museum stands out as exceptional. With its sculptural form composed of interconnected curving volumes, the museum is the unmistakable work of Frank Gehry – an architect who has built a legacy for himself upon such structures. What may not be immediately apparent is the crossroads that this serene white building represents: it was in this project at the southwestern corner of Germany (close to the Swiss border) that Gehry first realized a structure in the vein of his now signature style.
As with a number of great works of architecture, the Vitra Design Museum’s story began with a fire. One night in 1981, a single bolt of lightning struck the Vitra Campus setting off an inferno which reduced half of the campus to smoldering ruins by morning. In the wake of the devastation, Vitra would commission a number of notable architects from around the world—including Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, and Zaha Hadid—to contribute designs for buildings to replace those lost in the blaze, curating a sequence of projects by some of the late 20th Century’s most celebrated designers.
Gehry’s contribution to the campus came in the late 1980s. Over its (then) three decades in business, Vitra had accumulated a sizable collection of chairs and other pieces of domestic furniture. The company initially planned to house these articles in a simple shed-like structure, providing both public exhibition and storage facilities. During the design process, however, this simple mandate grew more ambitious; what had been envisioned as a display space for a private collection evolved into the Vitra Design Museum, an independent organization dedicated to the research, dissemination and popularization of design.
By the 1980s, the Canadian-American Gehry had already made a name for himself as a “Deconstructivist” architect. His body of work by the time rejected the cold monumentality of Modernism, instead seeking integrity with its surroundings and creating spaces that related more clearly to human scale. This philosophy was perhaps best exemplified by his own home in Venice, California, with its jagged, oblique protrusions of chain link and glass. In fact, his early work was almost exclusively composed of straight lines and angles, a far cry from the undulating, sculptural style he has since adopted. It was only with the Vitra Design Museum, his first realized building in Europe, that Gehry’s now signature style began to emerge.[3,4]
Designed in collaboration with German architect Günter Pfeifer, the Design Museum is a clear transition between Gehry’s smaller-scale Deconstructivist projects and the grander, sleeker aesthetic for which he is better known. It is neither fully angular nor fully curved but a mixture, with volumes of either nature intersecting at shallow angles throughout the structure. The sloping curves, finished in white plaster, are likely a reference to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, located nearby across the French border. The zinc alloy plating which covers the roof and some wall planes, meanwhile, not only references a nearby factory building by Nicholas Grimshaw, but calls forward to Gehry’s later works, which would be sheathed entirely in polished metals.
The interior of the building comprises four main display galleries, production areas, a test laboratory, cafeteria, multi-purpose room, and offices. It is the functional requirements of these spaces that helped to dictate the size of the volumetric towers, bridges, and cubes that compose the form of the building, but their arrangement was evidently dictated by a desire to create a sense of spatial intrigue. The inclusion of curves, beyond referencing Notre Dame du Haut, may also be inspired by the nearby Vitra factory: the focal elements being gentle, sweeping curves. This, perhaps, was meant to imply the feeling of a collective movement, fitting for a place of industrial manufacturing.
Despite its 8,000 square feet (743 square meters) of exhibition space being relatively modest for a museum, the Vitra Design Museum is nonetheless one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to design. The display areas occupy two floors of the building, consisting of a series of exhibition halls (two of which connected by a dramatic spiral stairway). A large cross is cut into the roof above, bathing the exhibition spaces in light. The main furniture collection, originally consisting solely of Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum’s approximately 200 Modern and contemporary chairs, has since grown to over 6,000 objects including chairs, cutlery, consumer electronics, and architectural prototypes.[8,9,10]
The Vitra Design Museum opened its doors to the public in 1989 and has enjoyed widespread acclaim in the almost three decades since. Its fluid, dynamic composition of interconnected volumes made an instant and lasting impression; architectural writer and critic Paul Heyer lauded the building, describing it as “a continuous changing swirl of white forms on the exterior, each seemingly without apparent relationship to the other, with its interiors a dynamically powerful interplay, in turn directly expressive of the exterior convolutions. As a totality it resolves itself into an entwined coherent display.” For Gehry himself, the Vitra Design Museum represented a life-altering epiphany: “I love the shaping I can do when I’m sketching and it never occurred to me that I would do it in a building. The first thing I built of anything like that is Vitra in Germany.” Whatever stance one takes on Gehry’s unique architectural style, it cannot be denied that it has become a global sensation – a sensation which was born in a modestly-sized museum in a factory campus in a discreet corner of Germany.
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