July 25th 2018

“It’s About Time”

July 4th 2018

Exhibition at Somerset House, London

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Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin

NOVARTIS Campus – Forum 3, Basel

October 5th 2021

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER– Gerold Wiederin


Working with Helmut Federle is not an experience of only one aesthetic practice, his reach into architecture has been a life-long part of his oeuvre. And it is also not coincidental that so many architects are profoundly attracted to his singular way of mesmerising the eye with profoundly deep painting.

The week of ART BASEL I had the opportunity to visit the collaborative work he did with architects DIENER & DIENER (and Gerold Wiederin) in the Novartis Campus; it was a building I saw annually from any taxi driving past the 20 hectares campus, the colourful patchwork of glass panels lining the facades of the five-story building were like a painting in three dimensional space. From a distance on the road, it resembled aspects of suprematist experiments with blocked forms.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin

Close up its warm seemingly random double hung glass skin, around the building, was much less hard-edged than the view from the roadway. On a sunny morning the light was almost blinding at times, trees had grown-up around the campus, and around this first building of the newly designed pharmaceutical headquarters twenty years ago, which today seemed as fresh and iconic as it surely did when it opened in 2005.

That this was a team effort, could not be stressed enough, not only the façade, but the fixings inside, and the design in general were made collaboratively. When approaching the building, the color warms what otherwise could be seen as an industrial complex. The one room wide building is full of modernist elements, cantilevered concrete slabs balanced upon concrete pillars that line the outside of the ground floor and rise into the five stories like tree trunks. There is a comfortable nod here to Mies and the International Style that he launched into the world. Curtain walls in glass are visible behind this double hung grid of glass panels, none of them bigger than a large painting actually. But together they  make a melody.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin


In fact I had come upon the architecture of DIENER & DIENER during my first visit to Basel in the very early 1980’s. Again working with John Gibson Gallery, and at a dinner party there was an array of people from Basel, including one of the two architects—father and son—; I cannot recall which one. But there was our host, the President of Swatch which was brand new at the time; I have a strong memory of going to visit a new housing project that was a mix of early modernist ideas and urban thinking. (Had recently left the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in 1981 to become Director at John Gibson, NYC) so this residential development on Hammerstrasse was at the time indeed noteworthy. Something I remember still.

Its typology felt so fresh—apartments and rooms, along with a floor plan of apartments all opening into a shared courtyard with gardens like townhouses, featuring 88 apartments 8 studios, kindergarten and shops. It was one of Diener & Diener’s earliest architectural projects that contributed to their rising attention in Basel as up and coming architects. It was a time when we imagined we were all up and coming, I could say looking back.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin

Decades later I am looking at these remarkable glass panels along the outside of a building that still has elements of Diener & Diener’s early interest in clean lines and light, wrought to a human scale. Federle appeared in my orbit just a few years after this first building; he had his first exhibition in NY. So in a funny way this experience of seeing NOVARTIS is a bookend of a kind, with my early interest in both painting and architecture. Here in this unlikely marriage these creative people found common language that in a way pulled the logic of Federle’s painting forms directly out from the ground plane like an axonometric drawing. I kept feeling that I was neither walking nor lying down, but in a zone where I could be in more than this horizontal or vertical relation to the glass itself.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin


Often we talk about a painting being three-dimensional. Here in the NOVARTIS building we have a five-story architecture that is both a sculpture and a painting at the same time. Glass by nature of its transparency adds a sense of time to this image. This is also important because in daylight, this skin shimmers and changes depending on the height of the sun.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin

Architecture has a striking visceral impact on us; such a large building could make you feel unimportant and fragile. Instead there is something determinedly human in this project. I am not sure how the color and its movement in the light functions exactly, but I felt like being in front of a Federle painting actually. There is an emotional charge that we can’t put our finger on. Oddly it is very much like that. You know you are looking at architecture but your emotions are responding like his paintings do. The eye is drawn in, then it settles as if in a random decision. Here or there.

But the totality is immersive, like his large paintings. There is a glorious painting of ochre, dusty yellow, tan, perhaps slightly olive browns filling one wall across from a grand dining table of two joined tree trunk slices by Nakashima. In both objects there is a deliberation of scale and pace. The simplicity of this interior with strong International Style references sets off the painting as almost playful, or rather heartfelt. Which is exactly what the building is saying from a distance. It is possible to make an architecture that is upright, simple, dynamic and colourful without insisting on playfulness Federle has found a tonal alphabet of square colors hanging on two levels of stainless steel fixings that seem to offer the men and women who in a pre-pandemic world filled this building daily with another kind of alternative vision of the outside world. Which is after all the purposeful work of great art and architecture, such transformation.

Helmut Federle, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, Architects: DIENER & DIENER – Gerold Wiederin

© All photographs by JSVCprojects

More info:

Diener & Diener Architekten, Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel