Architecture Heals

heal |verb| become sound or healthy again

 If God made Eve from the rib of Adam, He made the Portuguese from the rib of the Atlantic. Our roaring ocean gives the coastline a dramatic beauty that has made us a country of adventurers, poets and Biblical fishers. But you must constantly reign in your love for all that aquatic splendor. As our poet Sophia de Mello Breyner once wrote “as beautiful as each thing is / it holds within a suspended monster” (“Ocean Floor”).

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Through osmosis, we quickly learn the key to survival in agitated waters: deep fight. When a wave comes and is too much, resist the urge of flight. This will only result in the tough tumble of a wave breaking heavily on your back. You’ve got to face it. Go deep. Dive as low into it as you can. Stretched underwater, you’ll feel its shape roll over your body like a triangular wheel as it curls into itself. When you come up, it’ll be behind you. If another wave comes on its tail, dive again. A set of big waves is always followed by a set of small ones. When the small ones come, you can leave. Until then, dive, dive deep.

During my years of law school, there was a constant trickle of Italians coming to Lisbon for a year of architectural studies, something our country is renowned for. We may not have an economy able to buoy lots of major architectural projects (like Switzerland does), but out of the 36 Pritzker Prize winners (the Oscars of architecture), 2 are Portuguese: Alvaro Siza in 1992 and Eduardo Souto de Moura in 2011. On their tails is a whole generation of high-quality contemporary architects. Not bad for a tiny county of 10 million. Back in college, while I’d drag around my massive compendiums of laws, the Italians would slave over their glycerin soap maquettes. They were used to a tamer beast than the Atlantic, so we would teach them about waves. And with them, I learned to look at architecture for the first time. To look with eyes that see.

In 2003, I did my own year abroad in Milan. My father had just passed away and it felt like an unending sequence of massive waves – too close and too many. In the fight or flight dichotomy, diving deep was clearly the task at hand, but I needed a minute to catch my breath and no one seemed to know where the pause button was. Then some friends invited me on a road trip to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. I discovered there that architecture can heal.

Renzo Piano's Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

The Beyeler Foundation is an art gallery designed by the blue-eyed Renzo Piano. A decade down the road, I have a mental snapshot of the red stone facade baking in the expanding light. A whimsical lime green basin at its feet, tapping on the window just beyond which hung Monet’s enormous Water-lily Pond. It was all so serene. My lungs were filled with air at last – the relief I had so desperately sought. I was back there recently, amidst this very happy phase in my life, and yet the effect was the same. The Beyeler’s beauty was not a fluke – it was objective.

Architecture is not just a backdrop to our buzzing bustle. It has the power to uplift or oppress the human heart fueling all that activity. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle in the large neutral demilitarized zone of routine. But occasionally it succeeds at addressing us at the level of our deepest desires – our thirst for beauty, love, belonging, justice. At those moments, that immovable building can move us, an amazing thing indeed.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

A few weeks ago, I visited a very different Renzo Piano museum on the outskirts of Bern: the Zentrum Paul Klee, dedicated to the namesake Swiss artist. Fit into a curvy landscape is a playful squiggly iron facade. You can Google it all you want, but actually experiencing it will awaken even the most dormant of us. I’m no technical expert in architecture – just a sensitive inhabitant – and am always uncertain about a building until I’ve been inside. Under the curves of the ZPK, I felt just disoriented enough to go through the gallery spaces in subtle tension: uncertain of how the space was going to satisfy my needs as a museum-goer, but trusting it would. A sense of direction begins to form only when you let go of pre-conceived notions of how such a space should behave and let it speak to you in its own language. As you become open to its innovative dynamic, you slip into a fresh state of mind. Automatic reactions abandoned. What better state of mind to engage with Paul Klee’s artwork, no?

If – like the ZPK – some buildings are designed to place the inhabitant in a positive state for the activity to be undertaken there, others have the opposite effect. Some are so self-absorbed that anything else taking place in their vicinity feels like an afterthought. I call these diva building. Although I recognize their often innovative value, they wear me out if I have to deal with them for too long. I much prefer a more discreet approach. Luckily, the Vitra Campus provides a little of both and they compliment each other like salt and pepper.

Vitra is a Swiss design powerhouse owned by the Fehlbaum family. Known as the Vitra Campus, it’s factory/ warehouse/ design museum/ showroom in Weil am Rhein, Germany is an excellent example of how the Swiss not only have stellar architects, they also commission stellar architecture. This architectural fairground was born out of an unpredictable combination of circumstances: a fire, a visionary new Chairman and lots of financial clout. The original factory was razed by a fire in the early 80’s, with insurance coverage for halted production of only 6 months. Instead of a bland re-construction, Vitra’s Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum commissioned the well-known British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to build 2 new innovative factory buildings. The only hitch was that the factories had to be up and running when the coverage expired. Despite the impossible deadline, they pulled it off and, with it, the first starchitect buildings were in place at the Vitra Campus.

Frank Gehry's Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

For someone who is presently trying her hand at a new career, Fehlbaum’s story is pretty inspiring. He toyed with other professional paths and only really committed to the family company when he was 36. But his vision made up for lost time. Having built-up one of the most complete chair collections in the world (“had me at hello” anyone?), Fehlbaum wanted Frank Gehry to build him a new gallery for it. Since this was to be Gehry’s first European commission, he needed a bigger carrot, so Fehlbaum upped the ante with a new factory and entrance building to seal the deal. Fehlbaum has an eye for talent. It’s no coincidence he was a member of the Pritzker jury for 6 years and that 6 out of the 7 burgeoning architects he commissioned to build on the Vitra site later became award winners in their own right. Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, as it is now called, is all white rowdy volumes – way too distracting for a museum, in my opinion. It juxtaposes quite sharply (pun intended) with its neighboring buildings, but that’s surely not a coincidence. Although each building on the campus is it’s own, it’s also inevitably a reaction to those that surrond it.

Tadao Ando's Conference Pavillion

Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavillion

SANAA's playful factory facade.

SANAA’s playful factory facade.

One such construction is the Japanese Tadao Ando’s concrete conference pavilion – also his first European commission. Fehlbaum had the initially reticent Ando flown in when the cherry blossoms existent on the site were in full bloom, knowing that these trees have a magnetic appeal in Japanese culture. Ando not only agreed to the project, he built a powerfully discreet conference center positioned so that no trees had to be cut down to accommodate it. Gehry, on the other hand, had all of the cherry trees in the vicinity of his museum cut down so they wouldn’t clutter its facade. He was also none too happy when Ando designed a long narrow pathway leading up to the conference center that ran across the length of Gehry’s building.  This pathway is narrow and oblique with a purpose – it is intended to prepare those heading to meetings by inviting reflection. I watched a passing group as they walked its length and, in effect, their conversations were broken-up. Of course, most of the people walking through here are probably German or Swiss. Us Southern Europeans would probably just walk all over the grass.  As for the other building of Japanese design, the newly opened SANAA factory is sleek and playful with its shiny white curtain-mimicking façade and oval shape. A pleasure to walk by.

The inside of Zaha Hadid's Fire Station (top floor).

The inside of Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station (top floor).

For all its shortcomings, Gehry’s gallery is certainly not more of a diva building than Zaha Hadid’s infamous fire station. I’d heard the stories of the firemen protesting about the open plan bathrooms and impossibly slanted walls, but only when I tried it out for size myself did I give them the credit they were due. I felt lastingly dizzy. Every wall is tilted in some odd direction. I wondered why the bathroom’s paper dispenser had caught my eye so. Then I realized that it was the only thing with right angles in the entire construction. Hadid deserves all of the recognition she has received. She is an incredible innovator and her designs are beautiful, but the Vitra Fire Station – her first commissioned work (despite all the recognition given to her designs) – is totally unfit for purpose. How can you fight fires when you feel sea-sick? Thank God it is no longer a functioning station. My guide at the campus confessed she’d once run into Zaha Hadid at an ArtBasel conference and asked her if she knew people got dizzy inside the building. Apparently, her response was a terse “they’ll get used to it”.

Alvaro Siza's red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid's fire station at the end of the road.

Alvaro Siza’s red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid’s fire station at the end of the road.

Before you get to Hadid’s building, you have to walk past my compatriot’s warehouse. Alvaro Siza’s construction with its red brick façade is incredibly understated. So much so that Siza has been accused by some of missing an opportunity to shine. Instead, the architect wanted to mark a discreet presence in an already visually noisy campus. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside, but you can see it’s very sophisticated in the details. It requires, however, an unrushed engagement to be fully appreciated – something like getting a conversation started with a wise, but grumpy old man. The only attention-calling element in Siza’s design is the white iron walkway that connects his building to Grimshaw’s aross the road. It’s oddly elevated and has a complex mechanism to bring it down on days of rain when it is actually needed. The reason for this becomes apparent only upon close inspection – if the Portuguese architect had put this walkway cover at a normal height, he would have totally blocked the view to Hadid’s Fire Station. A telling detail of an inconspicuous design.

Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus

In between these larger constructions, you’ll also find tiny design delights such a Jean Prouvé’s gas station, Buckminster Fuller’s dome and Renzo Piano’s one man hut called Diogene. But the building that most takes my fancy is Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus. It looks like an utterly confusing mound of sliced black houses and is thankfully set a bit further apart from the remaining buildings just so you can take it in. This showroom for Vitra’s products is clearly anything but quite, but unlike Gehry’s and Hadid’s constructions, its agitated playfulness is completely fitting to its purpose. The shapes and light frames found within set-off Vitra’s products in an intimate yet fanciful way. The slightly odd workings of the building within make you feel like you’re inside a treasure trove. Sounds good for business if you ask me.

But for all my architectural ranting and raving, nothing can substitute your own experience of walking in, over and around these buildings. And thank God for that. I wouldn’t want to detract from anyone else’s exchange with them. Perhaps one day you’ll need some uplifting and, if nothing else, I’ve given you somewhere to go in this corner of Switzerland. Looking up and around you can fill your lungs with air. And that can be life saving.

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