A Theme Park for Top Architects

Vitra Industries chooses world-class designers to complete its factory and museum complex

ONLY minutes beyond the Swiss border, in one of the most industrialized areas of Europe, lies the small German town of Weil am Rhein. Rather than disappearing into the anonymity of surrounding industrial towns, Weil am Rhein has become a hip place.

The town is home to Vitra Industries, which creates interior design for shops and has been manufacturing office furniture and avant-garde chairs since the 1950s. For the past few years it has also become the site of a design museum and a burgeoning architectural park under the aegis of its Swiss aesthete-owner, Rolf Fehlbaum.

The inspirational departure point for Vitra in terms of design came in 1957 when in a joint venture with a United States firm, the company began to produce chairs designed by architect Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, for Europe and the Middle East.

Since then, Vitra has been at the forefront of industrial furniture design, working with some of the world's most innovative designers.

Mr. Fehlbaum joined the family business in 1977 with an interest in architecture, sparked by the architects and designers he had come into contact with at Vitra as a young boy. When more than half of the company's manufacturing buildings were destroyed in a fire four years later, Fehlbaum decided it was time to rebuild in a new way. He commissioned British architect Nicholas Grimshaw, known for his high-tech style, to build a factory on the site.

Mr. Grimshaw designed two other factories that were built at Vitra over the next few years and drew up a project for an entire complex of buildings. This project was never completed but was perhaps a precursor to the architectural park that was to come.

The idea of using different architects to plan the buildings that were still missing from Vitra Industries did not occur to Fehlbaum as a vision - ``I'm not a visionary'' he says - it was a step-by-step process. The catalyst was the installation in 1984 of a large-scale sculpture of a hammer and wrench by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in front of the factory grounds.

``It meant putting something else on the site. And it led almost directly to Frank Gehry because Oldenberg and Gehry are close friends,'' Fehlbaum says.

Architect Gehry's collaboration with Vitra began with a design for a cardboard chair in 1987; he went on to create a factory, the gatekeeper's house, and one of the industrial site's biggest draws for the public - the Vitra Design Museum. Immediately visible from the road at the entrance to the factory, Gehry's small building is a fusion of swirling ramps and towers in white plaster, giving the impression of constant motion.

At this point Fehlbaum began to see the reconstruction as a composition. He carefully chose three other architects, Zaha Hadid from Iraq, Alvaro Siza of Portugal, and Japan's Tadao Ando, making sure their styles would be complementary and work well with Mr. Gehry's and Grimshaw's buildings.

``It was not a project trying to create a sensation or simply a collection of architects,'' Fehlbaum says. ``Each architecture responds to the other, it is harmonious but also creates tensions.''

This year saw the completion of three contrasting buildings that put Weil am Rhein definitively on the map for architecture and design amateurs and professionals alike. Ms. Hadid, who had years of brilliant yet unrealized projects behind her, was able to see her first building completed in the form of the Vitra Fire Station. A long, narrow concrete building, the fire station is all angles and points and has the look of a streamlined vessel gliding through water.

Located next to the fire station, Mr. Siza's vast red brick building anchors the motion of Hadid's creation. Ware for shop interiors is produced in it, and unlike Hadid's and Mr. Ando's buildings, it is not open to the public.

At the far end of the site near the road, surrounded by cherry trees, Ando placed his conference center; a low, discreet building in concrete with a sunken patio. The interior walls and ceiling are also of concrete while the doors, floors, and some walls are oak, giving it a convent-like quality.

Fehlbaum's precise choice of architects was ``a choice well taken by the architects themselves'' he says. Each project was executed with sensitivity to the surrounding buildings and as a result, Fehlbaum's architectural composition is an exciting balance of complexity, energy, and tranquillity.

Each day up to 200 visitors file past the buildings and through the Design Museum while adjacent factories produce state-of-the-art office furniture.

For the moment there are no additional plans to build on the Vitra site. However Fehlbaum's relationship with architecture continues; Gehry is completing an office building for Vitra headquarters in Switzerland, which will be finished next year.

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