August 1, 2011

Shifting Gears: A Swiss Service Station Turned Gallery

The contemporary-art world knows Basel, Switzerland, as home to outstanding public museums, blue-chip private collections, and, each June, the Art Basel fair. But what’s pretty much impossible to find in this idyllic Rhine city are the kinds of old industrial spaces where avant-garde commercial galleries like to set up shop. Unless, that is, you’re Stefan von Bartha, the 30-year-old scion of an established art family, and you happen upon a former gas station and auto shop just outside the city center.

Von Bartha’s parents founded the Galerie von Bartha in 1970, presenting an array of material from Piet Mondrian and the Hungarian avant-garde to Swedish mid-century glass. Now a Basel institution, it has always occupied the same 1870’s neoclassical house, where his mother, Margareta, also lives. In 2006, Von Bartha added a barn in the countryside as a project space for experimental work. But he still sought a site for regular shows within city bounds to further boost the contemporary program. It was through a friend that he discovered the gas station and auto shop, which Voellmy Schmidlin Architektur has turned into the Von Bartha Garage.

Its trapezoidal corner site is in fact a tangled compound of buildings built and joined over decades into a boomerang shape: not only the gas station and auto shop but also two car showrooms and three low-rise apartment buildings, with a small tree-shaded courtyard wedged between. Making the gallery cohesive would be the main challenge for Lukas Voellmy and Chasper Schmidlin. “It just hit us, the complexity of it,” Voellmy says. “But the first step was to decide on the main entrance, which was easy. We chose the gas station as the gallery’s icon.”

Voellmy Schmidlin left the signage and pumps intact while adding a?steel canopy painted, like the rest of the facade, in an olive-black. “It’s an elegant contrast with the bright white interior,” Voellmy says. Inside, he and Schmidlin proceeded to tidy up and unify the jumble of ceiling heights, floor levels, and room configurations to create an appropriate setting for modern and contemporary art and design. With the 16,000-square-foot interior mostly gutted, a new concrete floor was poured, sloping gently down from the smaller front gallery to the larger rear gallery to compensate for a slight difference in grade. An L-shape white reception desk sits at the galleries’ junction, rather than at the entrance, to provide a single vantage point for monitoring both.

To show art and design to best advantage, light is, of course, paramount. Fortunately, the gas station and auto shop came with plenty. The front gallery had a square skylight that Voellmy Schmidlin enlarged. Even more dramatically skylit, the rear gallery has a sawtooth roof that zigzags from 121⁄2 to 21 feet above the ground. “It’s perfect for looking at art—lots of smooth northern light,” Schmidlin says. There’s so much sun­shine, in fact, that the resulting strong shadows required evening out with rows of fluorescent tubes discreetly mounted beneath.

Retaining the skylights in one of the car showrooms, adjacent to the rear gallery, Voellmy Schmidlin was nevertheless able to rejigger the space considerably, parceling it in four. Smallest is Von Bartha’s office, where a glass door opens onto the courtyard. “You can now look out and understand better how the entire compound is oriented,” Voellmy says. A private viewing area is behind the office. To the side, connected to the street by an entry just wide enough for one car to drive in, then be ferried 10 feet down by a car-lift, is what the architects call the “heart of the gallery.” With walls painted the same olive-black as the gas-station facade, the space serves a number of purposes, from receiving deliveries to hosting dinners. The latter are served from a kitchen shared with a studio apartment that also has a separate street entrance—a nice amenity for clients, particularly during Art Basel, when hotel rooms are notoriously scarce.

Transforming an unwieldy industrial complex into such a finely detailed gallery was an especially remarkable feat, given that the architects hadn’t yet graduated from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich when they got the commission. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Von Bartha had been friends with Voellmy since they were teenagers. Nevertheless, he says, “This was our first project, and we had to convince Stefan’s family to work with us. The main question was: Are we going to be friends afterward?” Better than ever.


CH. Keller Design: Lighting Consultant. Hartmann Schweizer: Graphics Consultant. Fankhauser Architektur: Structural Engineer. Etavis-Gruppe: MEP. Max Jäggi: Woodwork. Sigg: Flooring Contractor. Bianco Gipsergeshäft: Drywall Contractor. Stamm: General Contractor.

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