The Picassohaus is a steel and glass office block located on an oblique corner plot overlooking Picassoplatz in Basel, designed by Peter Märkli and completed in 2008. This project may not be an obvious “masterpiece” within the architect’s oeuvre; nor is this selection intended to be subversive by highlighting an underdog. While many of his more recent works (post-La Congiunta) have been the subject of wide praise and conversation, this seemingly subtle Miesian building contains the rich mastery of history, context, and tension that have become synonymous with many of Märkli’s more celebrated projects.
A central detail of Picassohaus revolves around one of architecture’s most debated, studied, ignored, and embellished moments: the “knot”, defined simply by Märkli as the intersection between horizontal and vertical, column and slab. His captivation with “the column” is well documented and can be traced through his interest in the decorative and dematerialized Greek column capital, the reductive Palladian order, and Rudolf Olgiati’s Casa Radulff to name a short few. More recently, his (re)discovery of the courtyard façade of Palazzo Barbarano during a trip to Florence with his students in 2000 provoked a concentrated study on this horizontal/vertical relationship. Palladio’s use of reductive and omitted classical elements on the less dominant façade at Barbarano hint at a more traditional composition, reducing the graphic connection between horizontal and vertical to its most fundamental elements. A series of drawings Märkli produced following that visit offer a fascinating look at the evolution of his experiments with “the knot” and its relationship with an overall building order. This exploration is perhaps most evident in his Synthes headquarters in Solothurn, where two rows of pre-cast concrete reliefs are placed at the intersection between the loggia roof and colonnade, and near the base at a human scale, gesturing to both the city at large and the user.
For an element so celebrated in Solothurn, the knot has a more subversive and subtle presence in Picassohaus, a consequence of the specific and more contemporary urban context of Picassoplatz. It is treated with far less aesthetic prominence, almost dissolving entirely within the overall composition of the façade, save for its minimal depth and seamlines with adjacent slab and column cladding. The knot here is also less of an applied motif, and more complete architectonic object. It navigates an ancient architectural dilemma with technical prowess and material honesty, and most significantly, it does so rather simply. The horizontal and vertical elements are literally woven together, bent at specific junctures, and monolithically welded at the seams to provide an airtight and waterproofed connection. No “foreign” components are needed; no silicone, no additional flashing. The depth and relief of this detail are dictated by the material thickness, which in this case is just a matter of millimeters. The result is a singular act that resolves technical issues of the building typology while adjudicating a more philosophical dilemma.
This detail, even if only perceivable from up close, is instrumental in the overall perception of the project. This duality is characteristic of the “second phase” of Märkli’s career, which consists of larger, more complex urban commissions, as opposed to the smaller-scaled, more rural buildings of his earlier, pre-2000’s work. This new era is informed by his interest in the proto-renaissance city, a period filled with a great deal of optimism, creativity, ambition, and empathy for urban life. That spirit is expressed through the larger volumetric gestures of Picassohaus as well, which contain traces of more ancient conversations. The building utilizes a tripartite sectional organization, with a single-story ground floor tracing the perimeter of the plot, a piano nobile consisting of two partially connected vertical office volumes, and is capped with a double-height “entablature” that acts as a collective social space for the tenants. When combined with the vertical emphasis articulated in part due to the “knot”, these classical techniques convey an aspirational scale synonymous with the high-rises of the contemporary urban center, despite the building only being eight stories tall. These strategies also offer a complimentary service to the user. For example, the stretched upper floor serves as a luxurious sky terrace; a living room perched above the city. The orientation and footprint of the oblique vertical volumes acknowledge the axis of the adjacent streets and immediate context, but also provide more dynamic floorplans and a courtyard-like relationship between the two towers.
There is much more that could be extracted from Picassohaus; the Smithson-esque use of a large void between the two vertical volumes, the design of exposed lighting and technical elements evoking a Lewerentz-like play on ornament. Then there are also the numerous historic and cultural references and lessons embedded throughout, ranging from Medici to Strozzi, Greek columns to Palladian courtyards, and Assyrian reliefs to Corbusian plasticity. All of it is contained within this building with great nuance, extracted and articulated with humility and evocation. As architects, it is exciting to trace Märkli’s journey through history to arrive at such an appreciation of his works, but in many respects, it may not even be the most important take-away from Picassohaus. The mastery here is in the distillation of this wealth of understanding to the core of its emotional essentials. The result, quite simply, is a beautiful building. A completely alluring structure with refined proportions and a combination of materials, finishes, and details that are as technically proficient as they are aesthetically pleasing. Picassohaus sits on the plaza with immense confidence while being entirely accessible. While it may, at first, feel understated and less provocative than many of Märkli’s other works, when you enter the lobby and see the characteristically rugged bust by the architect’s longtime friend and collaborator Hans Josephsohn proudly displayed, you begin to understand that this humble office block may actually be thousands of years in the making.
Authors: Peter Märkli in collaboration with Gody Kuhnis
Place: Basel, Switzerland
Photographs: Walter Mair, Petr Šmídek
Pamela Johnston, Peter Märkli: Everything One Invents is True, Quart, 2017
Giorgio Azzariti, In Search of a Language. A Journey into Peter Märkli’s Imaginary, Cosa Mentale, 2019
Nobuyuki Yoshida (ed.), Peter Märkli: Craft of Architecture, A+U n.448, Japan Architect Co, 2008
Jeff Kaplon is an architect and curator based in Los Angeles. He is the founder and editor of Subtilitas, an online platform exploring craft, detail, and precision in contemporary works. Together with Kristin Korven, he is also co-founder of Part Office, an architectural and interior design practice.