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‘Allgemeine Gewerbeschule und Schule für Gestaltung’  by Hermann Baur, 1961

(Industrial Trade School and School of Art and Design)

MS

On a recent office trip to Basel my colleagues and I discovered this fantastic school! (Thanks to our trusty guide Jörg…)

When I got back to London I did a little research on the building, keen to find out more about the campus and its architect. I was interested to learn that Baur had collaborated with artists and designers throughout the design and construction of the buildings. A Jean Arp sculpture forms the fulcrum of Baur’s composition – an energetic totem to the buildings creative intent, the sculpture is a collage of hard edged blocks and natural forms (perhaps a nod to the school’s dual function.)

There is a uniformity of tone throughout the campus that is at first a little overwhelming. From the shuttered concrete of the communal hall, to the precise (presumably) prefabricate panels of the studio and administrative blocks, and even in the honed surface of Arp’s sculpture.

It reminded me of Sigrun’s last trip to London and our visit to the Barbican Centre. The school has the same brutal quality, but like the Barbican it is exceptionally well made, precise and most of all generous. I can understand why the public often find these buildings hard to love – they are bold, heavy and monochrome. But for me they represent the best sort of public spirit. Their focus is on quality, functionality and clarity of form, and they are endowed with exceptional art. Luckily it seems this type of architecture is having something of a popular resurgence. Sadly, only in Switzerland are we likely to see this sort of public budget any time in the near future…

Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see much of the buildings interior… but a few of us did managed to sneak into Baur’s Maurerhalle (mason’s hall) pictured below. The hall is one storey below the level of the public square. It is flanked by a subterranean storage room – presumably to allow it to perform multiple functions. The space is covered by a folded band of smooth shuttered concrete. At one end of the space the roof folds downwards to form the enclosure. The texture of this supporting wall is much richer, unlike the smoother ceiling, the trace of the course timber formwork gives the wall a more robust, compressed quality.

The simple act of folding the roof, gives this concrete – used elsewhere on the campus for its robust quality – an amazing lightness. This is enhanced by the vast areas of glazing which span from ground to soffit on slender steel mullions.  From the outside the effect is equally impressive. The folded concrete wall and jagged roof line create a memorable form, clearly differentiating the hall from the other rather monolithic blocks which it serves.

Another great contributor was the graphic designer Armin Hofmann. His pyramid of stacked concrete slabs forms the perfect for student romance and a horizontal counterpoint to Arp’s vertical sculpture. Here’s a link to a set of archive photographs of Hofmann’s other graphic contribution to the school’s buildings; http://www.flickr.com/photos/80magazine/sets/72157626613230276/

I wish I had been aware of Hofmann’s work before my visit. I would certainly have made more of an effort to get inside the other buildings!

SS.

In the elevator going down from the exhibition at the Barbican we were confronted with this diffuse feeling people have for brutalist architecture. A woman started speaking to us, saying that she couldn’t wait to get out of this horribly ugly building. She said it in a very matter of fact way as there was no possibility that someone might actually like it.

Brutalist concrete architecture is notoriously difficult to digest but Mark´s pictures above make evident why we should all embrace these buildings!

Firstly the quality of the materials  and joints show its value, this type of quality is very rare and hard to achieve in todays building industry (i.e design&build). The art is an integral part of the architecture. It is obvious that the architect and the artist have collaborated from the beginning of the process, the art and architecture are inseparable and they strengthen each other. This is also something that is extremely hard to accomplish today, not because of any issues between artists and architects but again because of priorities, time and money. The care in which this building is made gives it value and through that gives value to its programme and makes its users appreciate it more.

The robust character of these spaces invite a multitude of activities to happen within them. The industrial quality of the material evokes the spirit of production which in the case of the school above fits very well with the programme. This invites participation more then refined and finished spaces do.

Perhaps that´s why they fit so well as public buildings where interaction and participation is key. The Barbican does this so well, and even though some are offended by its straightforward character it is obvious that it is appreciated, judging by the multitude of people using it and the varied programme and goings on within it. It seems to be a place where people can see unexpected things and meet unexpected people.

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