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The corrugated acrylic glass façade resembles a fine curtain. Photo © Vitra
Curtain raised in Weil am Rhein
by Daniel von Bernstorff | 4/25/2013

“What’s so impressive about SANAA’s architecture is that it makes complicated and complex things seem so very easy,” comments Vitra Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum and it’s hard to disagree. Vitra appointed Japanese architectural duo Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) to create the designs for the new production hall on the south side of the campus. And the building has now been commissioned, thus adding another architectural highlight to the grounds, which already boast architectural gems by the likes of Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid and most recently Herzog & de Meuron. The key theme of the new edifice is its attention to lightness: The corrugated acrylic glass façade resembles a fine curtain and shrouds the huge and seemingly circular volume of the building to make it appear almost weightless.

It had been more than ten years since something new arose on the Vitra Campus: following the large fire in 1980, which razed the ground then populated with buildings by Tadao Ando (conference pavilion, 1993), Zaha Hadid (Fire Station, 1993) and Alvaro Siza (production hall, 1994), it was not until 2006 that there was a renewed round of building. Vitra then contracted Herzog & de Meuron to create the VitraHaus, which opened in early 2010, and SANAA to design a production building for the southern section of the grounds.

And how urgently the new production hall was required. As the new home to the shopfitting company Vitrashop (a member of the Vitra group), which hitherto had no other option but to operate in a 12,000-square-meter hall that had been slightly damaged by the fire. By contrast, the new building was originally expected to contain four separate sections that together came to 20,000 square meters. After a detailed analysis of the setting, SANAA proposed building a single, circular structure (in reality it is not quite circular). As soon became apparent, this was indeed a smart and wise suggestion. And an unusual one. SANAA’s design breaks with the rules that say production halls have to be rectangular. Contrary to all expectations, the round structure is exceptionally flexible. The circularity means deliveries can be made to quite different points as required and thus optimizes transport workflow within the hall. Moreover, the assembly zone in the middle can be variably configured depending on the orders being processed at any particular time.

The building has been consistently developed from the inside outward, in keeping with Vitrashop’s functional requirements. When you step inside the hall you encounter not a somber but a friendly atmosphere suffused with light; here, all the functions, from the illumination and the sprinkler alarm system to the power and gas lines are all clearly structured and visible, and so conform to an overall design plan. On balance, the building is bright and light in its appearance thanks to the use of the color white (a SANAA trademark) and windows as well as loading-bay doors that are cut into the fair-faced concrete at irregular intervals. It conveys a sense of lightness and calm, thus intimating a pleasant working atmosphere.

This sense of lightness continues on the outside. By virtue of its corrugated surface, the façade resembles a curtain made of light fabric and imbues the volume with both a sculptural and poetic quality. Another example of SANAA’s prowess in analyzing complex spatial and functional requirements and developing exceedingly reduced and smart solutions to cater for them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s an office building, a university or research institute, a cultural venue or, as here, a production facility (this was the architects’ first). They always devote the same care and attention to the analysis, producing countless models and drawings, commissioning studies of particular materials, and only when all the details are just right do they sit back and let the building work begin.

“They can be pretty stubborn,” remarks Rolf Fehlbaum, only for Kazuyo Sejima to contradict him immediately in her pleasant and modest way. Shy and restrained, and evidently astonished by the massive attention and media madness currently surrounding their architectural designs in Europe – last week Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa attended the opening of their debut production hall.

Seriousness, precision, analytical acumen, modesty, and an intuitive feel for the poetic, these are the magical ingredients that go to make up SANAA’s architecture. It’s hard to pigeonhole the result as being of a particular style, which is probably why it has such a unique forcefulness. The Vitra production hall is another, quite marvelous example of this uncanny ability.

Facts & Figures

Project: Production Hall for Vitra, Weil am Rhein, Germany
Architects: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/ SANAA, Tokyo, Japan
in cooperation with nkbak, Frankfurt, Germany
Local architects: Mayer Bährle Freie Architekten BDA, Lörrach, Germany
Construction period: 2007-2012
Site area: 50,000 m2
Building footprint: 20,455 m2
Height: 11.4 m

By virtue of its corrugated surface, the façade imbues the volume with both a sculptural and poetic quality. Photo © Vitra
The building for Vitrashop has been consistently developed from the inside outward. Photo © Vitra
Bright and light: windows as well as loading-bay doors are cut into the walls at irregular intervals. Photo © Vitra
Suffused with light and visible: all the functions, from the illumination and the sprinkler alarm system to the power and gas lines are
all clearly structured. Photo © Vitra
SANAA’s design breaks with the rules that say production halls have to be rectangular. Photo © Vitra
Another example by SANAA, in analyzing complex spatial and functional requirements and developing exceedingly reduced and smart solutions to cater for them. Photo © Vitra
Ryue Nishizawab and Kazuyo Sejima (SANAA) at the opening. Photo © Daniel von Bernstorff, Stylepark
The round structure means deliveries/collections can be made to/from quite different points - thus optimizes transport workflow. Photo © Vitra