BASEL, Switzerland — Daniel l. Vasella, the chief executive of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, was standing at the center of his imposing new corporate campus this fall, describing the lengths he went to in order to realize his architectural vision. “I made them move the border crossing,” he said pointing toward France just across the Rhine. “It interfered with our plans. I put 100,000,000 Swiss francs on the table and said: ‘Move it over there. Tear down these silos and cranes.’ “
Such grandiosity may bring to mind Louis XIV, whose own architectural creations, from Versailles to his summer residence at Marly, were expressions of seemingly unlimited personal power. But Vasella’s agenda could be considered even more sweeping. A fit, youthful-looking 56-year-old, he has made Novartis into one of the most innovative and ferociously aggressive drug makers in the world.
And the campus can be read as part of its carefully tailored image. In eight years Vasella is halfway through completing a plan to transform a dilapidated chemical complex into one of the most ambitious undertakings in a decade — one known for its architectural one-upmanship. He has built 10 research and office buildings and has plans to complete up to seven more. Mimicking a formula that has become the norm for big-money development in cities as disparate as Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, he has hired an army of world-renowned architects — from Frank Gehry to Rafael Moneo to Alvaro Siza and the team of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa — to design the individual buildings.
The procession of architectural treasures is laid out like jewels in a display case. And Vasella has effectively placed it behind a velvet rope by severely restricting access to the campus. The site is sealed off from the city, and he has refused to allow outsiders to photograph it until now. “We can’t say that people cannot write about it,” Vasella said, “but we didn’t make it easy. The problem is that if you talk too much before you are able to show something, you create more resistance to it.”
But despite the Who’s Who of architects that Vasella’s campus now boasts, he wants it to be about more than pretty spaces or corporate branding. From the very beginning he saw the design as a way to reorganize the entire social fabric of his company and foster better communication between those who develop and market his drugs. Office floors would be laid out to prompt cross-disciplinary interaction; parks and courtyards, decorated with artworks, would be conceived as places of private contemplation. Every square centimeter, in essence, would be designed to encourage the flow of ideas.
More than any project of the new millennium, in short, Novartis crystallizes one of the central challenges in corporate architecture today: Is it possible to make a rigidly controlled, insulated environment that is also human?
Vasella was certainly not the first corporate titan to recognize architecture’s use as a tool for social engineering. A century ago Henry Ford built factories in which lighting, ventilation and cleanliness were used to promote employees’ health and speed production. At one point Ford even proposed the construction of an entire city modeled on the assembly line in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. (It was never built.)
In some sense the Novartis complex is a Muscle Shoals updated for the realities of a post-millennial economy.
When Vasella created the firm in 1996 from the merger of two smaller drug companies, it was a culture of white-collar scientists and businessmen. The headquarters for the new company were grim, a collection of aging office buildings and mostly boarded-up chemical factories.
“We were not up to the standards that the people we hire have come to expect,” Vasella explained. “But I didn’t want to build before we had a vision of where we wanted to end up in 20 years. By pure chance I sat at a dinner next to Vittorio Lampugnani and shared with him that we were planning to do this. He said: ‘I am an urban planner. I know how to do this.’ “
That dinner took place in 2001, and soon the two men were conspiring to wipe away every trace of the complex’s industrial past. They decided to demolish all of the old buildings except one — the 1939 headquarters building that now houses Vasella’s office. Not that there weren’t challenges — the road that led to the border crossing with France cut diagonally across his site (and would be moved). Basel’s main port would be relocated to make room for a 1 1/2-hectare waterfront park.
The result is a master plan organized along what had been the old factory complex’s main thoroughfare, Fabrikstrasse. The main entry is guarded by a crystalline glass pavilion, where uniformed guards check identification. From there visitors pass underneath a glass-covered walkway before arriving at a 610-meter-long white granite promenade, punctuated at its far end by a rust-colored sculpture by Richard Serra. The buildings are arranged along this axis with classical symmetry. A row of nearly identical office buildings, each by a different architect but all conforming to the same five-story height requirement, extends along the east side of the promenade. To the west is the unadorned masonry facade of the original 1939 office building and a small park dominated by a perfect grid of trees.
Over the next few years, as construction continues, the grid of new buildings will be extended toward the river, reinforcing the plan’s relentless symmetry.
The starkness of the urban composition — with its deep shadowy arcades and repetitive street grid — is reminiscent of projects like EUR, Mussolini’s urban fantasy on the outskirts of Rome. There, the rationalized plan and allusions to classical tradition contribute to the district’s haunting emptiness. Novartis’ buildings are more clinical. Both projects, however, reflect a desire for extreme order; anything that might detract from the overall purpose has been carefully filtered out.
And at Novartis that feeling is further reinforced by a degree of isolation that is unusual even for a corporate campus: There are no poor or homeless people walking the streets, no children, no parents with strollers — no outsiders of any kind.
“We have had many attacks, like many other companies, especially by animal-rights extremists,” Vasella explained. “They burned down a vacation lodge I own. They attacked the graves of my mother and of my sister. So inside we want to feel completely free of controls.”
The result is an exclusive and somewhat cool aesthetic oasis in which Vasella can observe how the social ambitions behind his design play out.
From the entrance, the building that first catches one’s eye is an elaborate composition of colorful glass panels designed by Diener & Diener with the artist Helmut Federle. The mismatched panels, suspended from steel rods and colored in different shades of blue, green and yellow, transform the entire building into an enormous cathedral window. At times, when the light is just right, the building seems to be dissolving into the heavens.
Inside the forms are solid and muscular. The big floor-to-ceiling windows are set in heavy chrome frames; a row of over-scaled white columns march down the lobby. Further inside, a gorgeous elliptical staircase, made of wood, spirals up through the building.
These architectural elements are a way of humanizing the conventional glass box. The columns help to break down the scale of the lobby; the staircase, which is extra wide, is conceived as a place to stop and mingle. Even the colorful glass panels outside are more than decorative, as they shield narrow balconies extending along the exterior of the building.
One of the most surprising effects of the design restrictions is that each architect’s vision is revealed through minute, precisely calculated decisions — the exact width of a corridor, the choice of material, the refinement of a detail — rather than through big gestures.
The building directly across the street, by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, looks comparatively simple at first. Its exactingly thin concrete-and-steel frame is mostly hidden from view, so that all you see is vast expanses of clear glass. Once inside, only a few meters separate the entrance from a gravel courtyard that occupies most of the building’s core. The feeling of compression continues once you reach the office floors, where workers are suspended in a strange interstitial space between the tranquillity of the courtyard below and the activity on the street outside. The only relief is a series of bridges that span the central courtyard and serve as a cafeteria and lounge areas.
It is a cheeky — almost perverse — play on Vasella’s idea of the campus as a place of social exchange, one that subtly wears down the formality of the conventional office space.
After we left the building, which was one of the first ones finished, Vasella said that many of the workers don’t like it. “They are too exposed. It makes them feel a bit agoraphobic,” he said.
He led me across the street to a more recently completed building, a visitor’s center by Peter Markli. The building’s front facade is decorated with an LED scroll by the artist Jenny Holzer. Inside, the furniture is a mix of styles: Chinese sofas, Navajo rugs and African sculptures that Vasella bought at auction. He seems particularly proud of the auditorium, whose cognac-colored leather seats look as though they were manufactured for a luxury sports car.
Vasella said he had been conscious throughout of considering the buildings’ effects on his staff. Full-scale reproductions of the offices were built so that employees could examine them before they were installed. A Harvard psychologist was hired to explain the effects of different colors and spatial configurations.
“We build for real people,” Vasella said. “We don’t build for machines. The idea is to create an ideal atmosphere, one where workers feel at ease and can communicate with each other easily. So the warmth is very important. When aesthetics intrude on other things, that is not the intention.”