The Art of Building

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 


27 June 2012

Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge

Rose like an Exhalation………

…………Not Babylon,

Nor great Alcairo such magnificence

Equall’d in all their glories………

The hasty multitude

Admiring enter’d, and the work some praise

And some the Architect……..

John Milton (1608-1674). Paradise Lost. Book 1,

Line 710 et seq.

As usual for the past 22 years, we took the tram from the Barfüsserplatz in central Basel to the top of Clarastrasse in Kleinbasel, the street that normally segues effortlessly into the Messeplatz (Exhibition Square).

Ye Gods!

Where were we?

Where the open square used to be stood a giant new building resting on huge concrete piles and festooned with metal ribbons. On either side of this leviathan, in two immense holes, the bowels of the earth were being gouged out by countless mechanical diggers. Workers in bright yellow hard-hats scurried about over the reddish soil like so many industrious ants. Huge caterpillered vehicles with claw-tipped booms were clawing up giant mounds of earth. Below were light-grey Tatlin-like derricks, above towered sky-high yellow cranes swinging ominously back and forth over the heads of the earthlings beneath. Everywhere bulldozers, supply trucks, earth-movers, blue-and-white cement-mixers, mechanical shovels, lorries laden with slabs of concrete and wooden shuttering, all racing back and forth about their business.

This was not the Messeplatz that we knew and loved.

Where were we?

In fact, we were bang in front of a building-in-the-making, 32 metres high, that will provide a new grande entrée to Exhibition Square, part of a comprehensive remodelling and remaking of the existing fair complex.

The construction work, naturally, was a major talking-point among visitors and journalists at Basel’s annual international art fair, which has just ended. In fact, the joke going round was that the building site was, far and away, the fair’s biggest exhibit – a marriage of installation and performance art – dwarfing the large-scale sculptures in the exhibition halls. Be that as it may, crowds of rubbernecks thronged the site viewpoints non-stop from noon to dusk.  To keep them happy, the sole contractor, HRS Real Estate AG, had posted up high-minded slogans on billboards surrounding the site. These included “Fantasie ist wichtiger als Wissen, denn Wissen ist begrenzt” (Imagination trumps knowledge as knowledge has its limits) and “Kapital lässt sich beschaffen, Menschen muss man gewinnen” (Money you can get your hands on, somehow or other; people you have to win round).

Many of the existing fair buildings, including a 1999 hall by architect Theo Holz, are being retained and will be combined with  this new three-story building on the west side of Exhibition Square to provide a total of 141 000 square metres of exhibition space, including 83 000 metres for multi-storey stands.  This compares with the present 161 000 metres of exhibition space, including 45 000 square metres for multi-storey stands. While this means a reduction in exhibition surface area, the volume of space available to exhibitors will not change unduly as the new build will have higher ceilings than at present as that is what exhibitors want.

The budget is 430 million Swiss francs. Work started in June 2011 and will be completed by April 2013. This being Switzerland, a country where the trains run on time, the project is running to schedule and within budget.

The architects are Basel’s very own Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, winners of the Pritzker, Schock and Stirling Prizes and renowned for prestige international projects, such as the Beijing National Stadium (for the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the Allianz Arena football ground in Munich and London’s Tate Modern art gallery. Both born in Basel in 1950, the pair also have their international headquarters in the city. The developer and owner of the site is MCH Messe Basel.

The cynosure of the new rectangular building is the outer façade of the first and second storeys.

To get an idea of the configuration of these two storeys, imagine two large oblong metal cake tins with high everted sides. Turn them both upside down and plonk one on top of the other, haphazardly rather than symmetrically, so that the sides of the top tin jut out beyond, and then retract within, the perimeter of the tin below.

The façade of the two storeys consists of horizontal ribbons of silvery grey aluminium. It is not clear from the computer-generated image of the completed building whether these ribbons will shimmer in the sunlight but in any case they are bound provide a startling eye-catcher that terminates the vista as one approaches the Messeplatz up Clarastrasse.

Another distinctive feature is the circular light well located at the centre of the new building. This will be open to the elements and provide natural light to all internal spaces surrounding the well. Having visited Rome recently, we were immediately reminded of the open oculus at the top of the dome of Hadrian’s Pantheon – and also of the compluvium opening in the roof of the atrium in a Roman town house, such as you find at Pompeii.

The new building will be energy-efficient. A photovoltaic array will be installed on the roof, which will also be greened over.

Besides Art Basel, held in June every year, the other most important fair at the Messe is “Baselworld”, the leading global exhibition for watches and jewellery, which is held here every spring. This year it attracted 104,000 visitors, 
1815 exhibitors and
 3300 journalists. Other regular events include Swiss Bau for the construction industry, an education fair, and a hotel and catering exhibition.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich(6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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