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Helter skelter: a helical staircase interrupts the strict facade of PRS’s building A difficult setting – sandwiched between the train tracks and a 1980s building Aluminium and glass were used for their resistance to dust from the railway line The building rises above a single-storey hall and courtyard that unifies the site Carpeted conference areas use mesh panels instead of a suspended ceiling The sinuous concrete escape staircase, up close Swiss humour: putting a dining room bang in the middle of a car park The butterfly-shaped courtyard is shared between all the site’s buildings
18 Aug 2011

ECA/OAI office by Personeni Raffaele Schärer

Words by  Photo by Tonatiuh Ambrosetti
  • Architect: Personeni Raffaele Schärer
  • Client: ECA/OAI
  • Location: Vevey, Switzerland
  • Cost: CHF 15,000,000
  • Duration: February 2009 - May 2011
  • Floor Space: 5,347sq m

On first inspection this office in Vevey, Switzerland, appears to be nothing more than a precise piece of Miesian architecture. Delving beneath the waffle-like facade, however, reveals a building that not only provides five floors of prime-cut office space, but also repairs a redundant city block in one well-considered swoop. There are moments of unexpected humour, too – not a quality normally associated with office architecture on this scale.

The building was designed by Personeni Raffaele Schärer Architectes (PRS), a practice that seems to appreciate straight lines. Based in nearby Lausanne, PRS had emerged triumphant from a competition held by client ECA, a fire safety organisation, in 2008. The project was the third phase of the block’s development with tenant OAI occupying all of the buildings across the site.

Sandwiched between train tracks and a main road, the plot had become a car park for the pair of buildings already present. Sensing an opportunity, PRS convinced the competition jury that this void could be transformed into a single-storey main hall and communal courtyard for all of the buildings on the block – thereby creating a unified complex. A roof garden sits on top of this connecting structure, rounding off an already kindhearted intervention. PRS then shifted the five-storey extension to one side of the plot to prevent the new structure asphyxiating the neighbouring buildings. “It opens up the landscape at the back and it allows the other buildings to breathe a bit,” says Cédric Schärer, project architect.

Populated by a couple of tired-looking 1960s concoctions plus a corrugated iron shed, this formerly industrial part of Vevey is not much to write home about, but according Schärer, it is starting to mutate into a more mixed environment. PRS, however, did not seek to ignore the context, no matter how moribund it appeared. With this in mind the practice specified aluminium and glass as the building’s primary materials, expressing them in a rigid grid that frames the floor-to-ceiling windows. “I wanted to use a material that was resistant to the dust coming from the train tracks, which is very corrosive,” explains Schärer. Despite the high ratio of glass, this is not an air-conditioned building. Instead, its thermal mass, coupled with natural ventilation, help keep things comfortable for those working inside.

Schärer professes a distaste for office buildings that dominate their locale. With this building he preferred to engage with the surroundings through a mixture of reflection and transparency. Consequently, there is no grand entrance or chasmic atrium: visitors and employees enter through the existing 1980s building on the roadside. To achieve this, PRS demolished the ground-floor facade on the courtyard side of this existing building thereby extending the entrance deep into the new space. Schärer says that “it is as if our building would spread out in the courtyard and extend to the main street, inviting the visitor to experience a completely new space.”

A concrete escape stair provides the building’s most flamboyant architectural manoeuvre. Made from folded steel, it is neatly framed between two vertical lines of the grid, spiralling down helter-skelter fashion to break the facade’s uniformity. “It gave us the opportunity to give a twist to the overall look,” says Schärer. “The grid is very rigid so we decided this could be a bit of playfulness within the very strict frame of the facade.”

The single-storey ground floor speaks a different architectural lingo, both inside and out. A butterfly-shaped courtyard eschews the straight lines of the exterior, as do the rounded-off triangular skylights above the conference rooms. A direct and perhaps necessary contrast, it was a idea that evolved rather than being something the architects hit on right away. “When we did the competition, the courtyard was more rectangular. But we decided that we wanted some pockets in the space so you can have more private areas,” says Schärer. The theme is continued in the reception desk and curved glass partition walls. A carpet was laid in the conference rooms for acoustic reasons, adding a splash of colour to the monochrome aesthetic. The practice decided against the dreaded suspended ceiling on this floor, instead leaving the ducts and pipes visible through steel mesh panels to create an industrial feel. The deep-red carpets and steel mesh ceilings combine with the sunlight from the skylight to make strangely moody atmosphere. No doubt this will be dispelled when the spaces are in use.

The work of the building’s tenant involves high levels of confidentiality, preventing an open plan layout. The working areas were instead broken up into one- and two-person areas. The car park is now underground, a logical enough move were it not for the unusual addition of a timber dining room in among les voitures. “It’s kind
of a joke actually,” says Schärer. “It is a Swiss tradition that everyone has a room in the basement where they have their wine and where they meet people to have a drink. They wanted one, so we put it in the parking lot.”

The client proved receptive to this quirky feature, and indeed to PRS’s ideas in general. “It is an economical building. All the detail and materials are very simple. They were interested in engineering a good building. It has never happened to me before,” Schärer says, and despite his laughter one suspects he’s only half-joking. “I have to say, they are excellent people.”

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