Conversation with Rolf Fehlbaum
How did the Vitra site take place?
“The idea was to involve architects who would never work here under
In 1981 we had a big fire, it destroyed more than half of the factories. They were just sheds, not interesting architecture. After the fire we had to build quickly. At that time I was thinking that our architecture should correspond to our product. In the beginning the idea was very much to create a “Vitraland” which would be absolutely unrelated to the region. Something which would come from nowhere, or from far away.
First it was Nicholas Grimshaw and then it was Frank Gehry, who had never built outside of the United States with the exception of a little structure in Japan. It was also Zaha Hadid who had never built at all, and Tadao Ando who had never built outside of Japan. The idea was very much to create a land which would be extra-territorial in many ways.
One of Vitra’s current construction sites is the building of Herzog & de Meuron. Why this choice now?
“I’m not interested so much in making a surprising choice, but in making the right choice”
I thought it was right to work with Herzog & de Meuron. In the past, my look was distant from them, who I have known for a long time. As it often happens when you live in the same place, I did not see the full importance of Herzog & de Meuron. I thought they were too close. On the other hand, Herzog & de Meuron are no longer regional but global.
The site has its identity and we do not have to worry about regionalism. So working with them in a later phase was a very nice home-coming. Had I worked with Herzog & de Meuron from the beginning, maybe I would have received an important building. But I think that a more mature Herzog & de Meuron creates a more interesting building than it would have in the earlier phase.
There is in Basel an extraordinary concentration of the best of contemporary architecture, private art collections, museums…Any particular reasons why it all happened here?
“It’s an interest in this part of the bourgeoisie. It links with old money spent in a very cultivated way”
Generally speaking, Switzerland had a very easy relationship with the modern. The Swiss character, some aspects of Calvinist attitudes, the work attitudes – all these elements work very well with the modern.
The modern had it always easy in Switzerland compared to France where the bourgeoisie was not at all in that spirit. Basel specifically is the accident of having the chance to have a couple of very good people such as Herzog & de Meuron, Diener & Diener and the younger generation.
Then there is an old and cultivated money in the city. Collectors are wealthy people who are not spending their money on sailboats. Maybe they have one, but they are spending their money on cultural issues. This helps museums and cultural institutions. Think of Schaulager, for instance, that brilliant building which was made possible thanks to private sponsorships.
So there is a combination of this cultural investment and the existence of a strong economy. When you think of Roche and Novartis, both are active in building and very good clients so it’s not just one factor, there are a number of factors that come together that makes Basel a very interesting city.