The architect behind this elliptical masterpiece is surprisingly frank about the complexities of the project, particularly the construction phase. “It was a nightmare,” laughs Stefan Camenzind, partner and executive director at Camenzind Evolution, with refreshing candour.
A cross between the Guggenheim in miniature and a veiled London City Hall, it is safe to say that it was well worth the effort and the surveyor’s fee (there was a surveyor on site most days to help communicate the intricacies of the design to the construction team). But you get the distinct impression that the architects will be sticking to more conventional forms in the future. “When you are designing a concept, you can come up with any shape you like, but when you come to build it, it’s a different story,” says Camenzind. “It was fun, but it did show that there are very good reasons why most buildings are square.”
There is, of course, a very good reason why Cocoon is of a circular persuasion, despite Camenzind’s good-humoured and distinctly tongue-in-cheek protestations. The owner of the building, insurance company and property investor Swiss Life, was initially drawn to the site, which is in a picturesque area on the outskirts of Zurich known as the Seefeld Quarter. Camenzind Evolution was subsequently brought in to do a feasibility study to ascertain what type of building would suit the plot and bring in the most revenue. The project was design led from the start, with the client sparing no expense to encourage the most creative result possible.
Before Cocoon landed, a dilapidated villa stood in its place. The new building has been shoehorned into the existing landscape. Not only is it surrounded on three sides by the most “majestic old trees”, but it has awesome views of Zurich Lake and the mountains on the horizon.
The challenge for Camenzind Evolution – having determined that due to the sensitive nature and tightness of the plot an office building would be the most financially profitable – was to develop a concept that would be sympathetic to the surroundings, while also making an architectural statement great enough to warrant the high rents that Swiss Life needed to charge, having lost money as a result of the size constraints. “Because it cost more than the average project, the return on investment was very important,” says Camenzind. “But there has been no problem at all in getting people willing to pay the rent.”
When the building was first completed, there was interest from a private school, a museum and a health club, among others, although in the end it was rented out, as originally intended, for office use to a Norwegian oil company.
While the Guggenheim’s distinctive atrium was famously designed to encourage circulation, the spiral form in this instance was all about creating a “3D workspace” – one that would facilitate communication free from the trappings of conventional floor plates. What the architects came up with, in essence, was one long strip of workspace that springs into life, quite literally. The levels of the building are stepped adjacent to a “gentle winding ramp, which envelopes the naturally light-flooded atrium”. Each level has the potential to be individualised, but there is also free-flowing communication between the levels, which makes the project all the more unique. “They are quite happy,” says Camenzind, discussing the new tenants. “I think it took them a while to get used to the openness of the office, but now they are enjoying the light and the fact that they are all working together.”
It’s a neat concept, and smaller than you might imagine, looking at the building from the outside. Carmenzind thinks it could fit 80 people, at a push. But it would be a shame to compromise the space by cramming in too many bodies.
The bodies enjoying Cocoon at present have the very best furniture at their disposal. Many of the products are by Vitra, but what else could they choose for the entrance space but Edra’s iconic Tatlin sofa – the Walnut Whip of designer furniture. Apart from the generous swathes of concrete, there is oak parquet flooring, which has been specially treated to look more grey in tone, while the ramp is finished in resin. Colour is used sparingly to add drama in an understated way, here and there, such as the zesty yellow on the ramp, reminiscent of a gigantic lemon peeling. More muted, mossy tones were used to reflect “the tranquillity of the outside space”.
Another creative flourish can be found in the stairwell, which features a striking weaved balustrade more like a sculpture than a safety barrier, while the application of circular peephole windows makes for an appealing Swiss cheese effect on the wall. The very top floor of the building, with its south-west orientation, has the best views via a large glazed front, but everyone has access to the stepped roof terrace, clad in oak, as well as a subtly rising green roof. Both are positioned around the striking atrium skylight.
From the outside, Cocoon is an intriguing mix of the organic and the industrial. The primary glass facade is wrapped in an overlapping veil of mesh sheets. Because the floor levels expand as the building goes up, varying widths of mesh were applied to “ensure the centre alignment of the screen netting remained evenly placed over each storey as the external radials increased”. And it is interesting to note that Cocoon by day looks quite different to Cocoon by night. The sculptural form becomes increasingly transparent as daylight fades, glowing from the inside like an anthropomorphic beacon.
The evolution of Cocoon undoubtedly proved an adventure for the design team. There was no brief and no end user in mind at the beginning of the project, which involved a fair amount of future gazing. “It is exciting in a way because you have to approach the project like an open book,” says Camenzind. “We really had to think about how the life of the building might evolve in ten to 15 years’ time.” Cocoon’s current incarnation as an office is successful enough, but it is designed to adapt quickly to a change in use. So the next time you see Cocoon, it may well be something else entirely.