Brands such as Herzog & de Meuron, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Richard Meier, and Gehry Partners among many others, help to shape the image of the city.
Undoubtedly, Basel is one of the hot spots of contemporary European “archi-tourism”.
The re-making of Basel as an “architecture destination” was not at all an exclusive trend. The same strategies were similarly adopted in other European cities and regions, such as Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, and the Netherlands.
And yet there is something which makes Basel an exceptional place: relative to its size, this city shows a remarkable density of global brands, both in the realm of architecture and design and in other industries, namely in the field of pharmaceuticals and life sciences. The first entrepreneur to use the driving force of architecture decisively was Rolf Fehlbaum, who since the late 1980s has been permanently engaging innovative architects to expand his furniture company Vitra in Birsfelden and Weil am Rhein, the latter town being located just across the German border. After Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum (1989), Zaha Hadid’s fire station, and Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion (both 1993), the Vitra House by Herzog & de Meuron and another factory building by Sejima + Nishizawa / SANAA are currently under construction.
In 2001, the life science’s giant Novartis announced that within the following decades it would totally renew its headquarter in the north of Basel, which at the time was just an architectural mishmash inherited from the former Sandoz company. In a certain way, the masterplan for the so-called Novartis Campus by Italian architect Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani seems to be inspired by Vitra, though it proceeds in the opposite direction. Unlike Vitra, Novartis would not provide any opportunities for the public to visit new buildings by renowned architects such as Diener & Diener / Federle / Wiederin, Peter Märkli, Adolf Kirschanitz, Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, and Sejima + Nishizawa / SANAA among others.
It goes without saying that Herzog & de Meuron, having reached the status of a globally connected enterprise many years ago, play a major role themselves both within the Basel architecture scene and in promoting the reputation of the city in other parts of the world.
Following Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and Roland Rohn, who since the 1930s have been responsible for the architectural development of Roche – the other big pharmaceutical company in Basel – Herzog & de Meuron were designated the corporation’s new head architects. While Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s unparalleled career is rooted in a close examination of their native city and its vicinity, they dominate today’s scene in a rather bifurcated way : even though they have realized major landmarks such as the St. Jakob soccer stadium or the Schaulager in Münchenstein, many other projects have been slowed down or brought to a halt by democratic political processes. This is currently the case with an intense controversy over their design for a new exhibition hall at Messe Basel. Alongside their architectural practice, Herzog & de Meuron entered the academic field by founding ETH Studio Basel together with Roger Diener and Marcel Meili in 1999. The intention of this design research studio is to define a new understanding of urbanism somewhere between heuristic methodology and latent policy-making.
Hot and cool
Today, we can observe two diverging yet symbiotic tendencies in Basel’s architectural microcosm. On the one hand there are a handful of young and dynamic architectural practices preoccupied with the production of architecture and the invention of their own stylistic signatures. On the other hand, there is a growing interest in new themes such as grassroots developments or Basel’s role as an integral part of the tri-national border region.
Maybe less visible, but no less effective, there is a group of architectural and cultural activists who engage through rather informal channels, investigating alternative fields of operation, reaching beyond the built environment while negotiating between planning strategies, politics, and the public realm. This has given rise to a growing density of independent initiatives offerting platforms to foster a sustainable discourse with the field, and to create awarness among a larger public. In fact, this interest can be read as a twofold reation to the specific landscape described above : Firstly, it shows to what extent the business of architecture has shiffted towards the mere representation of global brands and economic strengh, becoming more and more impassable for small and mid-sized enterprises. And secondly, it confirms that :
In Basel there is a strong tradition of looking at architecture not only as a matter of the present, but equally of the future.