In lieu of a follow-up post on the complexities of the architectural game in Basel, which I hope to write on in depth later, here’s an essay I wrote earlier this year for a seminar led by Rob Livsey at the Knowlton School of Architecture. I published this earlier, on my Archinect School Blog, but hey, I’m not wasting any trees here, so here it is again, inline with the Basel photos in case anyone’s actually reading this thing regularly. A great deal of this essay re-appeared in my ‘exit review’ last June, the final assignment of the KSA M.Arch program.
(presentation slides on flickr)
Herzog & de Meuron – Schaulager / Laurenz Foundation – 2003 – Basel, Switzerland
“Wenn Kunst nicht gesehen wird, lebt Sie nicht.
Wenn Kunst nicht gehütet wird, verfällt Sie.”
“If art is not seen, it is dead.
If art is not conserved, it decays.”
In these two short statements from the website of the Laurenz Foundation and Emanuel Hoffman Collection, we find the architectural ambition of the Schaulager, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed art space on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland. Tackling the two seemingly opposed programmatic requirements of storage and exhibition, the architects found opportunity to develop a scheme driven by duality. Inspired by its unique location in the Basel metropolitan agglomeration, and marked by both grand gestures and subtle details, they have created a space that deals equally with the infinite and the intimate. Through the subtle manipulation of forms and perspectival tricks, they have created a work of architecture that forces visitors to appreciate the multiple scales at which artworks and architecture can operate. I believe their ambition is to reveal these scales as a continuous gradient, creating a space where the duality between conservation and presentation becomes ambiguous, where contemporary art is no longer constrained to the narrow confines of the gallery, but can expand to envelop the city itself.
The Schaulager is located on the edge of Munchenstein, a suburb of Basel, about 20 minutes away by public transportation. The building is set back from Emil Frey Strasse, a street that delineates an urban-scale division between a residential zone and an industrial area. The massing of the Schaulager reflects this directly.
Two volumes are placed on site: a large, apparently orthogonal box sits to the west, finding its place among large industrial sheds and parking structures, while a small gatehouse finds affinity with the gable-roofed residences to the east. The placement of these volumes seems appropriate, and should indicate at once that the architects recognize the different urban scales that come into conflict at the site.
This massing strategy should be evident to even the casual visitor, but the apparent dichotomy is called into question as you prepare to enter the building. Approaching the building by car, you park in a lot set back from the Schaulager by a large field of grass. A fence surrounds this field, denying a direct approach: you must walk around the perimeter. The distant view from beyond the fenced-off lawn makes the building look small, as if a folly in the landscape.
From here the facade is flat and blank, a uniform field of color, but as you approach, the building seems to grow, (or are you shrinking?) and the texture of the facade is slowly revealed. The brown earth tones of the facade seems to suggest that the building has emerged from the ground through some tectonic process. The asphalt sidewalk is dotted with small rocks, apparently the same stones used in the exposed aggregate of this concrete facade. As you turn the corner, the sidewalk path brings you closer to the building, which now looms high above you.
From this corner, you turn towards the gatehouse, a small structure guarding the entry and providing termination to the perimeter fence. Clad in the same material as the main building, the gatehouse can be read as a piece removed from the the larger volume, and shrunken. The gatehouse walls are not parallel with those of the entry facade, and this angle throws the plaza out of equilibrium, as if the entire complex was succumbing to a compressive force. The inward tilt of the gatehouse walls establishes a false perspective, and the small structure seems to fluctuate wildly in scale, depending on your viewpoint, a technique the architects have used in the past, as in the housing block at their St. Jakob Park stadium.
As you pass through the gatehouse into the entry plaza, the massive white walls of the facade block your peripheral vision. Punctuated only by two large LED screens, the composition evokes artwork hung on a drywall gallery partition, blown up to the scale of the city. To retain the continuity of this gallery wall, the band of windows below has been tinted a dark gray, and the details are kept to a minimum. The contrast between this black band and the stark white above clearly establishes the entry plaza as an interior gallery space, reinforced by the conspicuous absence of embedded pebbles in the asphalt underfoot. The plaza is tilted downward, and this band of windows could be mistaken for a shadow or gap below below the gallery wall. To enter, you scurry through the gap.
Initial studies showed the Schaulager as an overscale gallery wall, with every piece of the collection arrayed on its expansive surface. While the entry facade is a vestige of those early models, the technical requirements of art storage and conservation could not be met by such an audacious scheme. We can recall how Herzog & de Meuron mobilized “stacking” as an aesthetic indicator of storage in the facade of their Ricola Building in Laufen, and they’ve done the same at the Schaulager as a larger scale. As you enter, and look up into the full-height atrium, the identical stacked floor plates resemble nothing so much as the shelves of a tall bookcase. The visiting public is never treated to a direct visual connection with any of the upper floors, so this stack remains an image, a representation of the art stored beyond. From here, the typical visitor can only see the ceilings of the levels above, and the lighting, consistent with the gallery levels, draws equivalence between storage and exhibition.
The upper levels, and the ground floor galleries consist of orthogonal arrangements drywall partitions, but the lower level is more ambitious. Adjacent to the grand stair to the lower level, a short gallery space compresses down to nearly nothing, taking the ceiling along with it.
Two permanent installations punctuate the architecture’s playful manipulation of scale. A work by Robert Gober takes up one large room. Drawn on the architectural plans, Gober’s complicated piece consists of four sewer grates. Three are roughly one-to-one, but the central one is grossly overscale, and pinned down by a statue of the Virgin Mary pierced through the gut by a corrugated plastic pipe. The two flanking grates are contained in suitcases, as if the expansive infrastructure of sewage flow could be packed up for travel. A piece by Katharina Fritsch is perhaps simpler, but no less impressive. Fritsch’s installation consists of a circle of large rats, tremendously overscale, reinforcing and concluding the series of scalar shifts that have affected the visitor.
Returning to the ground floor, in the cafe we find a ceiling treatment that is reminiscent of both the concrete facade texture, as if it has been scaled up and thickened. The downlights in the cafe ceiling could be enlarged pebbles from the concrete facade. The scale and texture of the cafe ceiling extends to the apertures of the exterior windows, whose jagged edges suggest a distant landscape of rolling hills and unite the oversize scale of the cafe ceiling with the material of the concrete facade. This texture is present yet again, at a different scale, in the metal mesh of the doors at the gatehouse and loading dock.
The jagged strip windows wrap around the corners of the building, enhancing the impression that the mass of the building is homogeneous, and what few openings exist are have been chipped away. The window cuts are the only place where the thickness of the concrete facade is revealed, and revealed to be massive.
The heavy visual impact of the exposed-aggregate concrete represents permanence, and the thermal barrier of the concrete creates the stable environmental conditions ideal for the preservation and conservation of art. The permanence of the facility is reinforced by its surrounding fence. The bases are large, wide and apparently weighted, as if mobile, removable at any moment, but several bolted connections and poles embedded in concrete reveal the truth. Though necessary for security, the fence is detailed in a way that makes it read as temporary, which makes the Schaulager itself seem more permanent by contrast. This must reassure Robert Gober, whose stairs and plumbing are drawn on the plans, as if the architecture is necessary for the art to survive.
In contrast, the white walls of the entry facade are revealed to be thin, ethereal, and temporary. Apparently hung from above, the white entry facade hovers over the atrium space with no support from below. The constantly changing images on the LED screens reinforce the temporality of this facade. As a gallery wall, it may be reconfigured, repainted, destroyed, and recreated, constantly changing to meet the needs of ever-evolving contemporary art. It seems appropriate that the material choices for the Schaulager should represent the two seemingly opposed programmatic requirements of exhibition and storage.
Finally, the Schaulager must be read as an urban anchor. Located far from the historic city center, the Schaulager is on the border between a declining industrial zone slated for redevelopment and a residential community. The Schaulager is located in an area known as Dreispitz, and Herzog & de Meuron have done a preliminary masterplan that may reveal some intentions behind the Schaulager. Intended to develop as a suburban cultural zone, Dreispitz is to be redeveloped with galleries, shops, and residential complexes, and current plans show the Schaulager mirrored along its rear facade to engage this future development. Though currently located on a kind of frontier, the architects envision the Schaulager as a new center for this cultural enclave on the outskirts of Basel, doubling itself to reinvigorate the fading industrial landscape.