By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

HOW IRONIC THAT A PRACTICE CAN CREATE SUCH SPLENDOUR ON A BUSINESS PARK BUT INADVERTENTLY IMPOSE CORPORATE ANONYMITY ON A POTENTIALLY MAGICAL SITE

BUILDING STUDY

Basel-based Diener & Diener Architects was established by Marcus Diener in 1942 and is now headed up by his son, Roger Diener, who joined the office in 1975. A direct contemporary - and friend - of Herzog & de Meuron, Diener has transformed the already flourishing practice into one of a handful of Swiss practices of truly international renown.

This is the story of how one of the greatest architectural practices in the world has simultaneously delivered one building that is both extraordinary and triumphant, and one that, despite the very best intentions, is bordering on banal. Novartis Forum 3 in Basel, Switzerland, is the first completed office building on the Novartis Campus, a 20 hectare former industrial site that is currently being transformed into 'a place for knowledge, innovation and encounters'. Orkanen, which translates as 'the hurricane', in Malmö, Sweden, is a city-centre waterside building that will soon house the School of Teacher Education and the main library for Malmö University.

Basel is the architect's home town, and Roger Diener is something of a local hero. He has clearly had an enormous personal involvement with Forum 3's conception and execution - and had a lot of fun in the process. After winning the competition for the commission in 2002, he put together a design team of Diener & Diener, Viennese architect Gerold Wiederin, and the artist Helmut Federle. The fact that Federle had previously collaborated with Diener & Diener on the extension to the Swiss Embassy in Berlin (1995-2001), where he designed the hauntingly beautiful concrete relief for the firewall of the existing building, and had also designed glasswork for Gerold Wiederin's chapel in the Tyrol suggested a shared sensibility between the three. As a trio, they exude a joie de vivre that is evident in the Forum 3 building, and the fact that nobody seems inclined to define the precise roles of any party is a measure of the collaboration's strength.

Malmö, in contrast, is new territory for the architect.

Having won the project in competition in 1997, Diener, perhaps wisely, felt that the realisation of the scheme would be best handed over to somebody better placed to carry out the necessary level of collaboration with the client. The role of executive architect fell to Malmö-based practice FOJAB Arkitekter. It was, in many ways, an intelligent appointment. Having entered the original competition (in a joint submission with a Danish firm), FOJAB, a highly regarded practice, was already familiar with the client and the brief. But while the executive architect clearly has enormous admiration for Diener & Diener, their relationship is characterised more by respect than by the intuitive empathy that underlies the understanding between the Forum 3 team.

If Diener has poured his heart into the Basel building, the city has been quick to return the compliment. Forum 3 enjoys the political and psychological advantage of being the flagship building in a project to breathe new life into an anonymous area.

Before Forum 3 sprang into local consciousness, the majority of the local population had only the haziest notion of its locale, let alone a strong opinion as to the appropriate response to the site.

In any case, it looked jolly from the start. With its Meccano-esque aesthetic, the haphazard multicoloured facade is equally enticing in both its finished and unfinished state, and sits happily with the paraphernalia of the building site. Its cheery splendour was an unexpected bonus; an outsize and unusually uplifting billboard to punctuate the tedium of travelling through an unremarkable part of the city. Local interest in the building is such that it is currently the subject of an exhibition in Basel's Architekturmuseum.

Orkanen, however, could hardly occupy a more controversial site. Situated opposite Malmö central station, the terminus for international arrivals from Copenhagen, it is the first significant example of contemporary Swedish architecture that many visitors see. Diener was the only entrant not to attempt to break down the 150m-long, 60m-wide building into a composition in keeping with the medieval scale of the city centre, opting instead to respond to the vast scale of the industrial structures relating to the now out-of-use docks. It was a bold move. As Björn Wigelius of FOJAB recalls: 'At first, I didn't understand it at all, but Roger was very persuasive.' Not having been privy to Diener's persuasive powers, much of Malmö remained unconvinced.

The strength of feeling may have been less of an issue were it not for the fact that Orkanen is perceived as a public building. Since Swedish universities are not permitted to own their own buildings, Malmö University was forced to find a third party from whom it could 'rent' its own facilities. DIL Nordic, a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bank Group, won the commission to build the property and is the owner of the building, and the university's tenure is subject to a 20-year lease. The City of Malmö still owns the land.

The issue of ownership has made its mark on both projects. At Forum 3, the architect was beholden only to the client, Novartis Pharma, and to the broad diktats of the campus masterplan. These were not too onerous; the most significant stipulation, that there should be open access to the ground-floor areas of every building on the campus, was easily accommodated by the simple expedient of putting the communal areas and bars on the ground floor, with office space above. Certainly, there is no visible sign of compromise. The facade - an inner 'window zone' of clear sliding and fixed sash windows, and an outer semi-open composition of frameless panes of coloured glass seemingly randomly positioned on three different planes - is a clear sign that the architects were encouraged to follow their own agenda.

It has a very direct relationship to Diener & Diener's plans for the Geschäftshaus Spreedreieck building in Berlin, suggesting an emerging theme in the practice's work.

Orkanen, on the other hand, is a barely recognisable incarnation of Diener's original scheme. While early visualisations show a green copper-clad building strongly reminiscent of the Migros shopping centre in Lucerne, the reality is very different.

The enigmatic austerity of flush copper facades has been rejected in favour of the more corporate language of green-tinted structural glass. Although the executive architect attributes the changes to 'environmental issues', the faceted facades read as a clear response to public pressure to break down the scale. And it is hard to believe that the newly acquired business park banality wasn't influenced by the owner's desire for a safe investment property that will be easy to re-let in 20 years' time. Another late development was the introduction of text behind the facade. Diener sanctioned the idea, but apparently had little role in the precise selection of the text, which is described simply as 'words in various languages and on various themes'. One can only speculate as to whether the owner would deem it acceptable to include company names or slogans if it were a means of securing a future tenant.

With inevitable logic, the owner stipulated that Orkanen's internal organisation should be efficient, flexible and easily divisible. The spatial organisation - six accommodation blocks separated by courtyards - fulfils this aspect of the brief, but, given its inherent advantages in terms of bringing daylight into such a deep-plan space, it would be unfair to dismiss it as little more than a concession to corporate demands, especially since Diener & Diener's office building for ABB Power Automation in Baden North (1999-2002) is organised in much the same way. With typical panache, Diener has exploited an apparently instantly legible diagram to create one big surprise. The entire upper floor, some 7,000m 2 in all, is given over to the library.

Vast picture windows allow a full appreciation of the building's extraordinary location, mediating between cosy medieval Malmö, the industrial scale of the dock and the infinite horizons of the views out to sea. This is, by any standards, an extraordinary space.

Far more problematic is the absence of a clear dialogue between interior and facade. The decision to place teaching spaces on the perimeter meant that much of the office space suffered from a dearth of natural light. It is conceivable that, given sufficient funds and care, and sophisticated lighting, these could have had a special quality - womb-like havens from the harsh Scandinavian climate. But in a world of loose-fit, low-cost solutions they appeared to be distinctly short-changed. Charged with responsibility for the interiors, Wigelius took the only sensible action in the circumstances and added a few internal windows to the plans. As he says: 'People in southern Europe never understand how we in Sweden miss the sun.' Wigelius describes FOJAB's approach to the interior as 'making a scenography inside a Diener & Diener building', although limited funds and the ubiquitous demand for flexibility put restraints on the extent of this ambition. The pragmatic decision to eliminate suspended ceilings and leave the services exposed has given a degree of expression to rooms that would otherwise be rather bland, and the palette of concrete and timber is perfectly pleasant. It is telling that FOJAB felt compelled to specify structural green-tinged glass for the balustrades to the interior staircases 'to make reference to the facade, to remind people of the building they are in'. (It is perhaps even more telling, that the contractors wrongly supplied standard glass, and the mistake was deemed too costly to correct. ) It is entirely inconceivable that the inhabitants of Forum 3 could, even for a moment, need to be reminded of the extraordinary building with which they are blessed. The ever-changing composition and colours of the facade give every part of the predominantly open-plan building a strong identity of its own. As the interior designer, Sevil Peach Gence, puts it:

'It makes every space a mini-Mondrian.' Far from 'making a scenography', Gence describes her role in terms of allowing the theatricality of the architecture to breathe. Aside from the facade, there are two major set pieces: an outsize helical staircase clad in American walnut veneer, which winds its way through the four upper floors, and the deceptively ordinary-sounding 'plant room', a jungle-dense cluster of mature trees and greenery that occupies the end of the building as a slightly surreal invasion - and distortion - of the gap between the two layers of the glass facade.

It is ironic that a practice that has managed to produce such playful splendour on what is effectively a business park has inadvertently imposed corporate anonymity on a potentially magical site. It is almost as though the two buildings have been transposed. The patchwork facade of Forum 3 would, of course, make perfect sense if it were justified in terms of a means of mediating between the vast industrial scale of the harbour and the multicoloured facades of the medieval scale vernacular architecture. The tragedy is that Diener's original design would have done something rather more sophisticated. An intelligent and difficult choice by an imaginative and ambitious client, it could, if circumstances had been different, have been both monumental and bold: a happy marriage of radical architecture and Scandinavian restraint.

But the university seems happy enough. It has, after all, secured a highly practical building, the prestige associated with commissioning a world-famous architect, a truly magnificent library, and a bargain to boot. As Ingrid Gustavsson, head of the planning and estates department, says: 'The cost per square metre will be about SEK 14,000 (£1,000), which is very low for a building of this kind. Combine this with low interest rates, and Malmö University will enjoy a good lease.' Meanwhile, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, the Milan-based architect responsible for the Novartis Campus masterplan, reports that Forum 3 'has not only realised my vision, it has surpassed my wildest dreams'.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters