Apart from being a well-known fabricator of all things cool in interior design, The Vitra Co, located in tiny Weil am Rheine in Germany’s far southwestern corner, just five km from Basel, Switzerland, is famous for its postmodern architecture, a very high concentration of it. Situated within a few hundred meters of one another there are buildings designed by Frank Gehry (2), Herzog and de Meuron, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANAA), Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid. Indeed, Hadid’s installation the campus fire station, which was finished in 1993, was Hadid’s first realized design. The most quirky addition to the dreamy ensemble of structures is a Buckminster Fuller inspired structure that used to be a car dealership in Detroit, Michigan.
On a recent visit to The Vitra, we traveled from “Germany’s Greenest City” via RegioBahn to Haltigen and walked the final 2km, we were struck by the thought, design, and general aesthetic these buildings brought to the European production site of Vitra. Sure, Vitra likes beautiful design, but design also fits into their “global brand” alongside Ray and Charles Eames. We suspect that even the Jesus of beautiful devices, Steve Jobs, had visited the Vitra in his life, and “The Fake Steve Jobs” was outwardly jealous of their campus.
While Jobs’ products were made to be obsolete. The Vitra’s are not. If consumers could get away from spending $5 at Wal-Mart and consider something with a better design, higher quality, greener materials, and constructed by someone making a decent wage, we’d be happy. This is a rant for another post, however. Let’s get back to The Vitra’s beautiful built environment; in particular its most recent addition, the building designed by Japanese architect Tando Ando.
We were struck by Ando’s contribution for a number of reasons. First, if you didn’t look for it, you might not see it (see photo at right). This is somewhat ironic since the building is in the front part of the campus—its most publicly oriented section. If you are an employee, however, you know the building well, as it serves as the company’s conference center.
One approaches the building via lengthy, out of the way, footpath that crosses the public part of the campus via a series of right angles. This path is a central element of the Ando’s design. This feature also serves as the organizing metaphor for this essay.
Ando planned the footpath to serve as a non-direct connector between the campus and the conference center. The idea was intentional: to force people to walk a longer distance than the direct way, Ando wanted to create a meditative opportunity, so the path is reminiscent of a Japanese monastery or Zen garden. They even saved existing cherry trees. See photo below.
The walk is supposed to encourage people, maybe Vitra managers and guests, to slow down and to become more mindful. Maybe you need to get away from the phone a little longer. Perhaps you could process your earlier disagreement with a colleague about whether the formal language of the company should be French or German. Moreover, the footpath is so narrow you couldn’t continue your debate with your colleague because it’s not wide enough to walk two abreast. Had this path been installed on the Bentonville, Arkansas campus of Wal-Mart we might think the purpose was to better prepare people for their meetings. Here, we hope it’s merely a generous offer.
We understand and appreciate Ando’s vision. It is a very interesting connection between space and individual emotion: By walking these ostensibly useless longer distances, around three corners and along a high wall on a narrow footpath, the daily business, daily stress and the last phone call can literally become more distant events bringing the topic of the meeting slowly closer to the manager’s perception. This simple architectonical trick works very well in theory.
This brings us to the point of this essay. Ando’s technical intervention is well intended and consistent with his design. But technical fixes are not tantamount to social change. You see, there is a well-worn grass path, in a straight line, that connects the Ando building with the campus. What’s the shortest distance between two points? It’s a straight line.
While Vitra went to great expense to commission and implement this design and, alas people don’t follow it. We didn’t either. Indeed, one of us (who it was will remain our secret) in an act of knee-jerk defiance insisted on taking the worn path of dead grass that looked a lot like a cow’s path going to a favorite watering hole.
Maybe the instigator of the tantrum is an unrelenting and churlish iconoclast. Or maybe his act of defiance triggered something more important. Suddenly, along that goddamn soggy footpath that got my fair-trade, organic boots all muddy made us think: The footpath is a metaphor for sustainability transitions. A sustainable urban lifestyle is a much longer footpath, around corners and walls. It makes life a bit uneasy, more challenging, than the direct way, at least that is the way it’s perceived.
For example, many cities around the world, Chinese eco-cities, Singaporean “smart city” models, New Urbanism and Smart Growth in the US, and Freiburg and Montpellier in Europe, are clamoring to develop well-designed quarters where people can live more sustainably. In actuality, these are enclaves of people who chose these developments for the very same reasons that white, middle class Americans moved from the suburbs to the city. Today, however, the discourse is one of sustainability, not some goddamn western-centric dream. Buying into, say, The Vauban in Freiburg one seeks to purchase much more than a solar house. Rather, what they are really in the market for is the dream of redemption—that their act of hedonism is somehow good for other organisms, sentient or otherwise.
It’s a lie. While they are metaphorically “buying” the Ando’s design, they are unwilling to accept the change it requires to take full advantage of the benefits of the space. They are not taking Ando’s path to get their front door, they are, perhaps without thinking, taking the short cut. Are we just too lazy for the social change that must accompany a sustainable transition?