Just as wildfires play a vital role in nature, renewing the land they burn, human fires have a way of spurring unprecedented innovation in efforts to rebuild what was lost. A quintessential case in point is the small German town of Weil am Rhein, home to the architectural park cum production facility–retail complex known as Vitra Campus, owned by the Swiss interior design firm whose corporate headquarters lies just across the border in Birsfelden, Switzerland. The Weil am Rhein facility was Vitra's factory until a massive fire destroyed nearly everything in 1981, leaving Rolf Fehlbaum, son of founders Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, to ponder the site's future. Little did he know his anything but straight-line choices would give a select group of architects a carte blanche creative playground and their followers the architectural equivalent of a magnificent outdoor sculpture garden whose works are by turns whimsical, edgy, and exuberant.
The Fehlbaum’s first hire was London’s Nicholas Grimshaw, tasked with a comprehensive site redesign and Vitra’s first new factory buildings in decades. But thanks to a fortuitous birthday present to his father Willi, the Claes Oldenburg–Coosje van Bruggen sculpture Balancing Tools, which they commissioned in 1984, Rolf met the burgeoning visionary Frank Gehry (Oldenburg introduced him to the Canadian-American in his studio) and invited Gehry to build the Vitra Design Museum, a gateway to the Vitra Campus, and a factory building of his own. That was it for the Grimshaw plan.
Having set the precedent of diversifying its commissions, Rolf pursued the strategy with gusto, and in the process became the Cosimo de’ Medici of his time. In 1993 minimalist master Tadao Ando was hired to build an elegant, low-slung conference center amid a grove of cherry trees, his first work outside Japan. The same year Zaha Hadid was tapped to build the astonishing, angular, fully functional Fire Station, made of poured concrete on-site; it was the Lebanese-born architect’s first-ever building. A year later he turned to recent Pritzker Prize recipient Álvaro Siza for a massive brick factory building to meet Vitra’s growing production needs. And in 2010, Fehlbaum undertook the company’s most ambitious project to date, hiring Swiss architecture giants Herzog & de Meuron to build the flagship retail complex VitraHaus, an assemblage of 12 comically elongated gabled houses stacked on top of each other, crammed together, and hollowed out to create a single light-filled, exploration-inducing interior.
Inside, visitors can check out and buy every one of the products in the company’s home furniture line, from office-nook desks and chairs to living room sofas and lounge chairs, bookshelves and lighting fixtures, and the likes of pillows and throw blankets.
What lends the Campus its magic, though, aren’t the majestic edifices, most of which you’ll need to book an architectural tour to see, but the playful, genre-defying architectural sculptures and cultural relics that dot the campus, like Jean Prouvé’s adorable Petrol Station, a prefab gas station from 1953 whose geometric lines and red, green, and white color scheme are far more Mondrian than Mobiloil (the Campus installed three of them in 2003); Renzo Piano’s Diogene (2013), a mini, six-square-meter house inspired by a mythical figure said to live in a barrel; Jasper Morrison’s snazzy functional Bus Stops (2006), outfitted with wire chairs designed by the legendary Charles and Ray Eames; the aforementioned Balancing Tools; and the shiny-happy 1968 Airstream Kiosk, a refurbished 20-foot aluminum trailer found in Nevada that serves ice cream and other treats in the summer months. It’s hard to imagine a more enticing way for a company to say what it’s about and who its wares are for.
Vitra. Charles-Eames-Str. 2 D-79576 Weil am Rhein, Germany