Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Rail Switchtower, Basel, Switzerland: Herzog + de Meuron

Tonight, the first posting in the 'Not PC: Architecture v Architecture' debate, the introduction to which is in the post just below this one. The post this evening is by blogger and architect Den MT. Comments are welcome, in fact they are invited - except by me.

People generally conceive of 'architecture' as grand gesture - public institutions, glamorous housing for the well-off, and showy displays of cultural plumage.

What is great about this building is that it is a simple, pragmatic building - a railway signal box, which has become an object of intrigue, excitement, and beauty through the skilful interrogation of the brief by the architects.

On a purely pragmatic level, the building's primary function is the housing of sensitive electronic switching gear for the railyards at Basel, and as such, the brief called for some form of shielding from external electrical effects. The response of the architects was to create a 'Faraday Cage' by winding the building in copper cladding, effectively creating an insulating coil.

The master stroke was the investigation by Herzog and de Meuron of how this cladding could be used to enliven such a prosaic structure. Each 20mm wide strip of copper has been twisted as it runs across the face of the building, allowing the passage of daylight into the building, but at the same time creating a translucent, shimmering effect on the outside, which enlivens the building form, creating a sense of mystery as to what the simple 'box' might contain. The simple rectilinear plan form has been warped and twisted to conform to the parameters of the surrounding rail lines, attesting to the speed and power inherent in rail transport.

This building demonstrates that 'architecture' is not simply for the elite - that there is no distinction between 'architecture' and building. True inspiration can spring from the most banal and mundane requirements.

Den MT

RELATED: Architecture


  1. A layman's brief first impressions:

    * I quite like its shape. Not too sinewy, but not too 'linear' either.
    * Can't believe the building in top photo is same as in the others. Quite hard to get an idea of the complete 'shape' of the building as a whole - it looks so different from each viewpoint (like Te Papa).
    * Bottom photo reminds me of Te Papa. But in this building, the smooth, curvy, angular thang (like a 'flag blowing in the wind') is quite tasteful - unlike TP, where it's overdone.
    * Seems a slight shame an interesting shaped building will only (mainly?) be viewed by passengers rushing by in a train - with no time for still contemplation.
    * I liked the description of 'shimmering' copper - and I like the visual effect. But it will soon turn a dull, cloudy green, no?

    Looking forward to all the other entries in "Building Idol" ;-)

    I'm in a good mood tonight, I'll give it 8/10.

  2. I hate it! It looks like it belongs on the Hindenburg Line, it looks like something some poor Tommy had to frontally assault with hand grenades. It's ugly!

    Not only that, I can't understand what the building is for without help. This is a train signaling station. How would you know without a brochure?

    I like buildings whose function is obvious from it's form, as well as a building whose form is pleasing to the eye in its contruction and the way it fits the surroundings.

    Phil mentions Te Papa, another building that looks like a wharehouse, another big empty concrete box.

    It looks to me as if the architect has gone out of his way to make the thing look like a 5-year old's lego-building. What's wrong with complexity in form? I like complex shapes, they draw me in, I want to understand them.

    I wouldn't give this building a second glance. It's like those modern art paintings that consist of two brush strokes and nothing else.


  3. Thanks for your comments, guys.

    I should just remind commenters here that architecture isn't often easily amenable to being understood just through photographs, so don't be too hasty to rush to judgement -- but do ensure you come to some conclusion.

    In this respect, plans and photographs of a building are somewhat like a combination of "musical score" and very brief musical excerpts: like the floor plan of a building, the score of a piece of music does allow the person who can read a musical score to come to understand a piece of music just by reading, perhaps with the addition of some musical excerpts to help understand timbre and dynamics and so on.

    But the score itself is not the piece of music. Our understanding of it through the score alone is not complete.

    That's pretty much the case with architecture too. YOu need to project what you can see into three dimensions, in a particular context, in rain and sun and night and evening, and in different stages of use.

    I think for example here (and I'm sure Den will say something about this) the copper will acquire a patina over age that is intended by the architect, which temporal change in this case will presumably reflect some statement the architect is making.

    Anyway, don't let me put you off. Keep those comments coming. Have a think about each piece you see and decide, first, "Is it good architecture?" and second, "Do I like it?" and for each question try and work out why you answer the way you do. :-)

  4. PC, your advice is well taken. But, I visited Basel in the Summer of 2001.

    I'm pretty sure I walked past that railway building and I obviously didn't notice anything special about it. The reason was that it fitted right in with the forest of ugly reductionist/modernist lego-brick monolith high-rise apartment buildings in that part of the city.

    Only the trees and grassy parks provided visual relief from the unrelenting phalanx of rectangular concrete blocks impinging on your view of the Alps.


    Give me the architecture in the city's older quarter by the Rhine and the University any day!

    And not only that, it would appear as if square blocks are Herzog & de Meuron's favourite building shape:


    Quote from Wikipedia:


    "HdeM's early works were reductivist pieces of modernity that registered on the same level as the minimalist art of Donald Judd."

    According to Wikipedia, Donald Judd was an artist who "whose work sought autonomy and clarity for the constructed object and the space created by it, ultimately achieving a rigorously democratic presentation without compositional hierarchy. It created an outpouring of seemingly effervescent structure without the rigor associated with minimalism proper."

    So let me present my democratic emotional outpouring in the most effervescent minimalist literary structure:

    I've built wood-sheds that look better than that copper-clad rectangular turd. They too leaned at a perculiar angle and, like this building, it didn't improve their esthetic appeal either.

    Herzog and de Meuron design FUCKING ugly buildings! And apparently they are inclined to use the same design, no matter what they are building or where.

  5. Given the limitations of the site I think the architects seem to have made something of nothing for the observer here. But while as you say its shape “attests to the speed and power of rail transport” ones interaction with this structure is hardly going to make you want to utilise the railroads more. So I’m failing to see really what is meant by “true inspiration” here – inspiring who to do what exactly, apart from design and build more attractive signal boxes.

    As a railroad building I don’t see why you would put this building up instead of, for example, the Frankfurt (Main) Flughafen Fernbahnhof for great architecture. If you’ve just stepped off flight in that city, when you enter this station you feel the speed and power of rail transport – you’re part of it and want to be part of it – its palpable. It positively influences your perceptions and your choices in relation to rail. This switchtower might stand out from is ordinary surrounds, but it won’t lead more footsteps to the ticket machine. Great architecture must contribute to the achievement of the goals of those who commissioned it – and this is a minor contributor.

    This example is talking up a guilded garden shed rather than the house.

  6. I won't post any commentary or response to opinion, as the buildings should speak for themselves. But after what 'Crazy Joe Davola' said about this building being a 'gilded garden shed as opposed to the house' I feel moved to point out that each building I will submit to PC has a specific quality which makes it an exemplar of excellence in architecture - here it is the brilliance of H+dM taking a mundane, prosaic brief for a non-descript building on a dowdy site, and innovating with material and form.

    To restate, this building to me demonstrates that every piece of 'architecture,' from Pevsner's 'bicycle shed' on up, has the inherent potential for greatness - it is up to the architect to take up the challenge.

    The five buildings I am posting in response to PC's challenge are all examples of masterful treatment in one or more area of architectural endeavour - the fifth is one I think that involves all of the elements represented by the other four.

  7. I'm a bit confused - there are three photos in the post. The top one and centre one are the same building - the centre one taken at night.

    The bottom photo with its triangular shape is a different building, right?

    On that assumption, I don't like the top two photos, they look oppressive like a East German Police Station.

    However I quite like the bottom photo. It looks practical with functional design but also had aesthetic appeal and is pleasing to look at.

  8. A Spam box as housing.... hmmmmmm
    sure doesn't take much to work this one out.....

  9. A Spam box for housing..... doesn't take much to do this......

  10. Mesmerized article written on this blog with other relevant information. It is straight to the point that how we can improve our skills as well as how we can be represented to a new stream of professionalism. Transportation basel


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