I recently exchanged three days in our London office for time in Basel, with the 'business'of indulging in the delights encoded in the Michelin Red Guide and undertaking an architectural inspection of projects (ours on paper, others' in the flesh).
Vitra, at Weil-am-Rhein, is a magnificent zoo - starring Siza, Fuller, Ando, Grimshaw, Hadid and Gehry - its masterplan inspired by a 'non-plan' that appropriately, given the client, scatters buildings like chairs around the room. Gehry's pavilion (beside a large factory with 'twiddly bits'on the corners - seemingly the product of Egan meets Gehry) reversed preconceptions: small and over-complex without; simple and elegant within.
Inside in the form of model, drawing, photograph and object, was the oeuvre of Marcel Breuer. I knew the Whitney and Unesco, the houses and furniture, but this introduced me to the 'other'buildings. Four churches and monasteries were concrete essays in ideas of 'programme and form', as seen in El Croquis (the definitive contemporary guide to the European scene), but without the relentless justification of tediously inessential diagrams of the slightest change.
Here was a 50-year cycle illustrating the nature of incremental progress. Breuer's De Bijenkorf Department Store, Rotterdam, was pure OMA, but built in 1955. His Grand Hotel LeFleine used cantilevering balconies only surpassed in audacity by the building's cantilever off the cliff edge.
I offer this view on Breuer only on the evidence of photographs which, as Basel highlighted, is dangerous. Basel, at the junction of France, Germany, Switzerland and the Rhine, goes crazy for three days a year - unfortunately the three days after our departure. At all other times it is conservative, clean and pleasant, with cuckoo clocks available at exorbitant prices.
It is populated by much-published contemporary architectural icons - some good, like Diener and Diener and Herzog & de Meuron; others disappointing.Surprisingly, the most notable thing about Basel is that it contradicts established urban models by hosting, near its core, a vast factory complex for Roche. Adjacent is a park and gallery housing the works of Tinguely (whose exuberance provides one hell of a contrast to the architecture).
The recent buildings of Basel support Koolhaas' observation that new buildings date far quicker than their neighbours.Thankfully, nearby Ronchamp appeared timeless - you cannot shatter too many perceptions on one trip.
Which brings me back to travel, distance and perception.
FRS Yorke, my father's partner for a while, had previously partnered Breuer.Over many years I was intrigued by tales of Breuer's other 'English'contemporaries: Lubetkin, Emberton, Wells Coates, Goldfinger, Arup and Samuely, and of the visits of Aalto, Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies. And yet in an exhibition in the gardens of a small factory in suburban Germany, I was amused to note that this entire episode was summarily dismissed as the 'short design history of British Modernism'.
We have lived on a small isolated island for a very long time and are out of sync with the continental drift; maybe that's what we do best - provide a contrast to the merging European condition. For however hard we export/import ideas and people, physical separation leaves us on the outside looking in.Perhaps this respect for the position of others explains Churchill's response to news of a Tory peer's arrest for sexual indiscretions (on a freezing cold night in wartime Hyde Park): 'It makes you proud to be British.'