Frank Gehry is, in one sense, the creator of 'dirty realist' architecture. He has had the most wide-ranging influence on forming the new sensitivity in the profession over the last decade. His studio for Ron Davis in Malibu (1970-72) was the first building to introduce elements from the harsh urban and industrial realities into design (which is what we mean by 'dirty realism'): materials such as corrugated and sheet-metal siding in steel, zinc or copper: chain-link fence, exposed and often oversized girders treated with a propensity for wilful neglect, roughness and non-finito. The origin of this sensitivity is the sculpture of the 19 7 0s. in particular that of Gehry's friend and occasional collaborator Richard Serra.
The Vitra Museum contains a foyer, a cafeteria and conference rooms arranged round two exhibition halls that extend upwards the full height of the building. It was supposed to be a lot rougher than it actually is. Originally, the outer cladding was to be in sheet steel, in
Gehry's words, 'like an old oil-can*. But the client of this prestige building was most insistent that it should have a 'finish'. As a result of a 'heated intercontinental fax discussion', a compromise was reached, and the building was finally executed in grey titanium zinc sheeting and white plaster, with 'sheet steel wherever it gets rained on', according to the executive architect of the project. Günter Pfeifer (Martin Filler and Olivier Boissiere. Frank Gehry: Vitra Design Museum, 1990). As a result, the building does indeed look like an old oil-can, but one which has exploded, then been lavishly detailed and painted white. The deliberately nondescript entrance looks more like an entrance to a bus depot than to a museum; the forms of the building seem to be derived from industrial plant ramps.
The museum houses Vitra owner Rolf Fehl-baum's collection of industrial chairs dating from the 19th century to the present which are significant for their function, form, construc tion or material. The building is located across the car park from a complex made up of a factory building by Nicholas Grimshaw and the extension to the production unit for the Vitra furniture design company, also designed by Gehry. The Vitra factory stands in a vast industrial area in the Rhine valley, a once agricultural landscape now scarred by factories, where smokestacks compete with church towers and massive production plants with vineyards.
In this unsettled, 'dynamic' environment where a dislocated, technological, global genius loci has encroached upon the traditional agrarian, regional one, the building takes its 'dirty real' revenge by appearing to be more disarrayed, jumbled and disjunct than anything around it, even when compared with the expressionist buildings of the region. It looks like a Ronchamp gone wild, in a state of convulsion, or a Goetheanum caught in a tornado.
This chaos in the building's form is only seeming, however. In fact, the thunderous, mighty volumes are measured, balanced and in dialogue with each other; there is as much mass and space as the whole requires; the runaway curves are encountered and counter-pointed by broken up-prisms. The result has a sense of balance and variety.
More importantly, once inside the museum, ones impression is the reverse of disorder. Not only is the atmosphere solemn, the light acting as a unifier of the polymorphy of the interiors of these highly fragmented volumes, but there is also a serenity of total harmony between form and goal. As in a medieval cathedral, all the arcane contortions of shape are there for the purpose of modulating light. These interiors are also highly individualized spatial frames to accommodate the display of objects.
It is as if the building's essential form were its interior, a space as if sculpted out of thickened air. each room leading to the next
with a lightness superior to the atmosphere surrounding it, an architecture of 'pure space' as imagined by Hans Hollein in diagrams of his early years and, to some degree, a spatial composition which has certain affinities with the Action Architecture movement of the late 1950s.
(Opposite) Ground plan showing the relationship of the Vltra Design Museum to the rest of the site
(Above) Exterior view and cross section
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