Earlier this week, the doors opened to Herzog & de Meuron‘s latest project, Messe Basel. The project is a new convention center on the outskirts of H&dM’s hometown, Basel Switzerland. Convention centers aren’t usually something to get too excited about, they’re big dumb boxes that are often so big they’re hard to integrate into the surrounding urban fabric. But this one is somehow different.
Is it big? Yes. Is it a box? It’s actually a series of boxes stacked on top of each other. It also helps that these big, stacked boxes are anything but dumb. In their project description, the architects describe how carefully they worked to be smart about the scale of the building in its context, saying:
“The two upper exhibition levels are offset from each other as separate volumes allowing them to respond and shift to specific urban conditions. From each point of view, the New Hall offers a different perception and thus avoids the repetitive monotony typical of exhibition halls. This constant architectural variation is reinforced by applying a homogeneous material (aluminum) over all exterior surfaces.”
It seems counter-intuitive to apply a single material across the surfaces of a large volume and expect that single material to “avoid the repetitive monotony typical of exhibition halls” but here it works. Instead of making the building appear more monolithic, H&dM’s playful and creative use of the building skin helps give the building variety and visual interest. The aluminum skin is used almost like a fabric, its malleability exploited to generate transparency along the facade and giving way to a huge oculus between two portions of the project.
It’s usually hard to get too excited about the architecture of a new convention center. But convention centers usually don’t look this good.