The sublime is now

The latest addition to the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein — a site of applied architectural experimentation — is a warehouse by SANAA; while its scale is imposing, it succeeds in introducing an element of poetic sublimity to the industrial site.

This article was originally published in Domus 969 / May 2013


It doesn’t happen often that a building with a total floor area of over 30,000 square metres hides its enormous dimensions in plain view. But standing in front of the new industrial building designed by SANAA on the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, it is impossible to imagine either its exact form or size. To pull off the trick of concealing a building that covers more than three football fields, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA did not make use of a square plan, going against what appears to be the global norm for industrial factories and high-bay warehouses. Instead, they chose to design the structure with a circular form, and the fact that it’s also a slightly distorted circle makes it even more difficult to imagine the building’s layout without seeing a plan of it.

With its distorted circular form, the warehouse is located in a corner of the Vitra Campus. The loading bays are concentrated in the northeast and southwest sections
Another design element that helps to make the building almost disappear is the cladding of the exterior. Corrugated white acrylic panels wrap around the concrete wall, opening only in very few points to form windows and two rows of loading bays. The design of the panels is based on three differently shaped moulds that allow a sequence of six individual panels, creating a rhythmical flow around the whole building envelope. Vertically, these panels extend to the maximum height that could be produced on a special machine, and horizontally the single elements blend together in a continuous, seamless curtain. The cold white colour and the opacity of this thin dress enhance the monumental building’s impression of immaterialness.
The façade is clad with a continuous surface of white acrylic corrugated panels of three different types
The observer’s perception is completely altered when entering the interior from one door on the west side. A stunning view opens down the central axis along endless rows of high racks to another opening in the east, 156 metres in the distance. In compliance with safety regulations, the building’s interior had to be divided into two fire zones, separated in the middle by a single, large concrete wall. However, with all the countless racks around, this wall remains out of sight and a large opening along the central axis keeps the view open as well as permitting traffic to pass between the two halves.
It doesn’t happen often that a building with a total floor area of over 30,000 m2 hides its enormous dimensions in plain view
The building’s two sections are also constructively different on either side of the wall. While one side contains a basement with a garage for employees and visitors, the other part stands directly on the ground with its concrete slab. Here again, the division is imperceptible as the floor seems to be cast in one piece without any expansion joints. As the circular exterior wall has the function of bracing and stabilising the building, the presence of structural elements such as pillars in the interior are kept to a minimum. The double T-beams and girders, the storage racks and water pipes for sprinklers are all painted white, which has the effect of making them disappear too. Large skylights cover the entire roof and give the work area plenty of daylight.
The SANAA industrial building is connected to an adjacent shed via a curvilinear sheltered walkway
The space contains the same necessary elements as any other industrial storage and factory building, yet with its clean, bright and cheerful atmosphere it has a very different look about it. The interior—with its numerous small offices, workshops and breakout facilities arranged around the large storage and work areas—is structured by a grid-like design that divides the space into separate zones. These divisions are given over to Vitra’s various product lines, which are brought together under one roof without any clear physical boundaries between them. Due to the huge radius of the circle, the smooth curvature of the outer wall does not create empty zones between the linear grid and the circular perimeter. On the outside, the circular design facilitates traffic flow for the trucks and gives them better access to the loading docks.
Vertically, the panels extend to the maximum height that could be produced on a special machine
With the Vitra warehouse and logistics building, SANAA has turned the design of an industrial structure into an exercise in architectural sublimity. Externally it plays down its dimensions and gives no indication as to its interior functions. Inside it surprises with its brightness and lucidity. The general impression of elegance is not an end in itself, but a clear response to the functional parameters and the human need for a serene and dignified workplace. The only thing that perhaps seems to be missing, however, is a clue to help maintain one’s sense of orientation. With its overall whiteness inside, and with few visible openings to the exterior besides the skylights in the roof, after a while it seems almost impossible to imagine one’s physical position in this vast, indeterminate space.
The interior is divided in half by a concrete wall in compliance with fire regulations. The volume on the left houses offices, workshops and loading areas
SANAA’s factory building appears to have one extra quality that can only be appreciated in the context of its immediate surroundings on the Vitra Campus. Many of the buildings here are small but iconic architectural objects that also have a strong visual impact when seen in two-dimensional photographs. Over almost two decades now, thanks to a variety of commissions to famous or famous-to-be architects, this campus has developed into something of an architectural zoo.
Vertically, these panels extend to the maximum height that could be produced on a special machine
It started off in 1989 with Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, his first building in Europe, which in this neighbourhood at the time looked more like a white elephant. The zoo gained a really wild tiger with the addition of Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station in 1993, and more recently, in 2010, Herzog & de Meuron contributed another spectacular, acrobatic and iconic building with the VitraHaus, conceived as a stacked house of houses. SANAA’s factory building seems revolutionary in this milieu because it opens up a completely different direction. It almost camouflages itself on the outside, preferring not to create a spectacular image despite its sheer size. Is this attitude a result of modesty, or is it an immediate response to the spirit of our time that turns against architectural icons? Maybe it is both. Andres Lepik, professor of Architectural History at Technische Universität München
SANAA: Vitra Factory Building
Design Architects:
Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SA NAA , in collaboration with nkbak
Design Team SANAA: Marieke Kums (ex-staff), Takayuki Hasegawa
Design Team nkbak: Nicole Kerstin Berganski, Andreas Krawczyk
Local Architect: Mayer Bährle Freie
Structural Engineering: Bollinger und Grohmann GmbH, SAPS – Sasaki and Partners (consultant)
Engineering: Henne & Walter (HVAC), IB Schwarz (ELT), IB Horstmann + Berger (BP), Transsolar (energy & climate), Baumgartner GmbH (MCR), IBB Grefrath (fire), IB Roth (landscaping)
Building contractor: Moser GmbH & Co. KG
Façade: Strabag
Site area: 47,000 square metres
Building footprint: 20,445 square metres
Total floor area: 30,535 square metres
Building height: 11,4 metres
Design phase: 2006–2007
Construction phase: 2007–2012

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