Between art and reality - a conversation with Simon Frommenwiler

From green building to quality of life in urban spaces and the creative process. The interview with Simon Frommenwiler, founding partner of HHF Architects.

Architects face many decisions while striving to meet the expectations of clients, investors, residents, and the public in one concept. We speak with Simon Frommenwiler of HHF Architects about stakeholders, new concepts and alternatives and Basel.

Nowadays, the architect often stands somewhere between art and functionality. How would you describe the fine line between art and architecture? For example, with the "Puzzle House" Project, on which you were one of the designers.

The beauty of art is that it doesn't have to fulfill a function. Art is allowed to stand for itself. That's not usually the case in architecture; we are problem solvers. We try to give a present idea a future form. Artists are very free and therefore have a different view of the world. That's why it's so fruitful working together with them. But as architects we always have to keep an eye on many different factors and bring them all together in the most interesting, functional and affordable way possible. We try to create identity and a great recognition value, often without even knowing how a building will be used in the future.

The "Puzzle House" is one of several playful projects and temporary structures we have designed. These pavilion-like buildings allow for a more artistic and free approach, which can be implemented quickly. Especially in comparison to some construction projects that are very time-consuming, projects like these can be exciting to work on. They’re a great playing field to try and test out new ideas that might come to light again later, in other projects and on a larger scale.

On one hand, you have often worked on projects with artists. On the other hand, you have these purely functional projects like offices or warehouses. But even then, when you see these buildings, you get the feeling that they are still or are actually "art".

A part of it always depends on the context. For example, in the case of the Artfarm, our client was an art collector and gallery owner, who specializes mainly in contemporary Chinese art. Together with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei we got the commission for an art warehouse and gallery space set on a beautiful piece of land in upstate New York. Together we came up with the idea of a building done with prefabricated steel modules, which emerges like an "objet trouvé" on the property.

Since we had a rather small budget, the notion of what we call a “no-design project”, was a direct result of the above-mentioned conditions. No element in that project was designed or developed by us, in the traditional sense of the architect's work. All the used elements were “pre-existing”, they could be found, bought and ordered online. But through its unique shape and materiality, the result has a very strong identity.

If you look at Basel or Zurich, you can see that the space has become more limited in recent decades. Nevertheless, the demands have remained high. How do you deal with that?

Densification is a big issue that must be discussed anew and Switzerland is not the only country that has difficulties with this. I believe that this is a topic that has become more delicate as a result of COVID-19 and the deriving newfound need for distance. Densification can be done in an extreme way, as seen in Hong Kong or Manhattan, for example – but it is also an issue here in Basel. For instance, we currently have a densification project under construction called Landskronhof. This is a new residential building in an existing courtyard offering 15 apartments that will be finalized in 2022.

One possibility to densify a city, which we are all familiar with, is to grow buildings in height. Another one, as it is currently being discussed in Swiss politics, is to densify the perimeter blocks. This means that you can build higher and deeper into the courtyard. Though the difficulty remains; How can developments be implemented in such a way that the largest number of people benefit from them in the end? Very often new additions only mean larger flats – very seldom creating additional apartments.

The requirements for buildings and residential settlements have changed significantly in recent decades. What kind of developments of urban space do you see, in terms of quality of life or mobility, multi-generational living, multiple uses, etc.?

In terms of mobility for example, Basel has a great opportunity to put itself in a pole position. The prerequisites are there, but we are not yet taking advantage of them. Basel is a cycling city, even if it is not flat like Amsterdam. Though as of yet, our city has failed to sustainably expand the specific infrastructure for slow mobility. This could be an opportunity to position Basel even stronger internationally, also on a city marketing level, by the creation of exciting new infrastructures, with new types of public spaces. This is a generational project, which should be initiated now. As a country with a long tradition in transport infrastructure, I think Switzerland has a duty to further develop.

Do you expect us to return to the classic office space, using it as we were before the crisis? Or do you think, we won’t go back?

We can't know for sure yet. People feel the need to meet again and reconnect. It's interesting, in Basel we see examples for very different and opposing trends. For example. in the pharmaceutical industry: The Novartis Campus no longer has an in-office requirement, people are allowed to work from home, even though the restrictions have been lifted. In comparison, we see Roche, which is thinking about building a third tower. This would mean they want to further increase the concentration of employees in one place. As you can see, these examples differ strongly.

In spite of this, undoubtedly, a wall has been broken as far as presence at the workplace is concerned and there’s probably no way back.

Keyword "Green Building" - combination of plants in/on/at a building. On your website the project "Jardin Métropole" in Biel is presented with gardens on the roof. Can you tell us more about it?

In any urban setting and housing project, there is a need to have personal and private spaces, but also outdoor and green spaces, which trigger social interaction and allow gatherings with friends and family. Thus, we are trying to propose and if possible, to multiply these possibilities. Because of the pandemic, certain housing typologies are going through a revival. Being outdoors is more attractive than ever. This may be of advantage in the future, when trying to convince certain clients to invest in attractive and generous outdoor spaces.

In the "Jardin Métropole“ tower building in Biel, we assumed that it would be interesting for the residents to have a whole catalogue of different outdoor spaces; like a shared roof terrace on top of the building and a private balcony for everyday use. Additionally, there is a communal terrace with vegetable gardens and a playground downstairs that is accessible to everyone. In this project we had the possibility to propose all these different types of outdoor spaces and the client agreed.

"More special forms of buildings" - What do you think will happen in the future? For example, in relation to wood, since the prices of it as a building material have risen massively. Does HHF also work with wood and how do you assess the future of it as a building material?

It has been apparent for some time that wood is becoming an even more important building material. The price has potentially doubled. When the whole world puts up a demand at the same time for the same thing, it quickly becomes a problem. It remains difficult to have a universal recipe for sustainability. I personally think, we should and are moving in the direction of hybrid constructions; mixing different types of materials – assessing what makes most sense for each individual component, from a sustainable and circular perspective. One part steel and one part wood, for example. If certain countries, such as China, move even further away from concrete and rely more on wood in the future, it is quite clear that the world market will change drastically in the long-term.

Costs are a big issue in construction. Coming to the forefront are topics and solutions like BIM (Building Information Modeling) or robots in construction, all in the name of "more efficient" construction. Do you notice that too?

We have put together several BIM projects by now. Together with a software company, we even pioneered the possibilities of prefabrication for a large-scale wood construction housing project in Weggis, near Lake Lucerne. The BIM technology generates a lot of new possibilities, new work and new type of jobs. However, you have to be careful not to get too detailed, too early in the project since a lot of the information is not really needed until late in the process. Up until now, it has not been easy to truly keep the digital chain closed. There are plenty of different programs, hardware and planning methods in the industry. Moreover, if certain companies are not equipped and do not have the staff, it becomes expensive and time-consuming to process the data. Personally, I have the feeling that there is not just a single recipe that can be applied for everyone.

Last but not least, is there a topic that particularly concerns you at the moment?

When we talk about urban planning, housing and working environments, post-pandemic co-existence will have an impact on many levels – many topics will have to be re-discussed. Though we don’t know the full impact yet, this is an opportunity to rethink the way we live and work together. It’s crucial to ask these questions, and also exciting.

Photo credits:

Portrait photo by Kostas Maros
Artfarm Gallery Storage, Project by HHF and Ai Weiwei, Location Salt Point, New York, USA, Photo by Iwan Baan

July 01, 2021


Alignment of Planets

In the latest interview, CIO Jean-Christophe Rochat gives a market analysis titled "Alignment of Planets". (You can de-/activate English or French subtitles with the = CC button)

October 22, 2021


Letter from the CIO - "A Challenging Agenda"

The October edition of our Letter from the CIO titled "A Challenging Agenda" is also available in French and German.

October 19, 2021


Letter from the CIO - "More volatility ahead?"

The September edition of our Letter from the CIO titled "More volatility ahead?" is available in English and German.

September 21, 2021

In order to ensure the usability of the website and to recognise your needs and preferences, we use cookies. Please press, "Accept" to agree to the use of cookies or press on the following link: Cookies policy to let us know your preferences regarding the use of cookies on our webpage.