The Swiss have long held a reputation for creating products of impeccable precision. Tilo Herlach, Simon Hartmann, and Simon Frommenwiler, partners in the Basel-based HHF Architects, have found early international success by turning that stereotype on its head. That’s not a knock on the firm’s work. In the short time since the opening of their studio in 2003, the young trio’s focus on simple, straightforward, and buildable design, rather than a fastidious attention to detail on projects whose construction they had very little control over, has helped them swiftly complete eye-catching structures in Europe, Mexico, the United States, and China.
Among the first of these projects was a children’s pavilion, Baby Dragon, built in 2006 in Jinhua, China. HHF had been recommended by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron — those other Basel-based architects — to prominent artist Ai Weiwei, who invited over a dozen young, international designers to create structures for a park in memory of his father, the poet Ai Qing. The Swiss newcomers and the Chinese impresario hit it off and began collaborating on a number of projects. Together they completed the Tsai Residence and Artfarm, a private home and a gallery in upstate New York for two different collectors of contemporary Chinese art. For Ai’s Ordos 100 project in Inner Mongolia, HHF is the only firm to design two houses, one of which is finishing up construction.
HHF recognizes that collaboration, both with well-known figures and with other young architects, has been a key to its success. Working on the Jinhua and Ordos projects gave HHF the opportunity to meet colleagues from around the world. “For Ordos, there were over 200 architects gathered together in the middle of nowhere,” says Frommenwiler. “We did a lot of talking over table tennis.” They struck up a friendship with Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao (Vanguard 2007), which led to a design for a lookout point along Mexico’s Ruta del Peregrino pilgrimage route. As with Baby Dragon, HHF combined simple concrete construction with tantalizing geometry to create a stunning pavilion in a far-off land.
A similar approach led to a competition win for the firm’s largest project to date, the Labels 2 Fashion Center, completed earlier this year in Berlin. Its striking simplicity and completely fresh form are a large part of its appeal. Though HHF focuses on uncomplicated design, the firm does not shy away from the ornamental. With Labels 2, it reinvented the run-of-the-mill warehouse building with what appear to be permanent, albeit sinuous, drapes cascading over the facades’ straightforward windows.
For work that is closer to home, HHF relies on a different strategy. Tackling the renovation of Confiserie Bachmann, a celebrated chocolate shop and café in Basel, HHF oversaw all aspects of the design, including furniture, fixtures, and finishes, to give the historic brand a contemporary look. In a project closer to their hearts, Herlach, Hartmann, and Frommenwiler converted a former factory building into their new offices. Everything, even detailed touch-up work, was carefully carried out in order to maintain the industrial character of the building while providing a bright, open space for the growing studio.
LOCATION: Basel, Switzerland
DESIGN STAFF: 12
PRINCIPALS: Simon Hartmann (left), Simon Frommenwiler (center), Tilo Herlach (right)
EDUCATION: Hartmann — dipl.Arch., ETH Lausanne, TU Berlin, and ETH Zurich, 2000. Frommenwiler — dipl.Arch., ETH Zurich, 2000. Herlach — dipl.Arch., ETH Zurich and ETH Lausanne, 1998
WORK HISTORY: Hartmann — Rolf Furrer Architekten, Basel, 2000–03. Frommenwiler — Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York, 2001–03; ARchos Architektur, Basel, 2000–01; Bearth & Deplazes, Chur, Switzerland, 1997. Herlach — Rolf Furrer Architekten, Basel, 2001–03; d-company, Bern, Switzerland, 1998–2001
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Lookout Point for Ruta del Peregrino, Mexico, 2010; Labels 2 Fashion Center, Berlin, 2010; Confiserie Bachmann, Basel, 2009; Artfarm, Salt Point, N.Y., and Tsai Residence, Ancram, N.Y., 2008 (both in collaboration with Ai Weiwei); Kirschgarten cafeteria, Basel, 2008; Infopoints for SBB Swiss Railways, throughout Switzerland, 2007; Restaurant Bar ONO, Basel, 2007; Baby Dragon, Jinhua Architecture Park, Jinhua, China, 2006
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Dune House, 2010, Ordos, China; Studio Tsai, Ancram, N.Y., 2011 (with Ai Weiwei); Five Houses, Long Island, N.Y., date to be determined (with Ai Weiwei); HHF House, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, 2012; Apartment building Byfangweg, Basel, 2013
WEB SITE: www.hhf.ch