Last year was a watershed one for the Basel-based architecture firm Christ & Gantenbein. Their large-scale renovations and expansions of the Swiss National Museum in Zurich and the Kunstmuseum Basel—similarly monochrome, hard-edged blocks attached to historic buildings—opened within a few months of each other, bringing the 20-year-old firm a wave of international attention for mixing contextual grace with a severe style.
This year, the practice is being celebrated for something considerably smaller. Christ & Gantenbein designed furnishings for the Mwabwindo School, a pro bono project in Southern Zambia organized by the nonprofit 14+ Foundation, with architecture by Selldorf Architects and a site-specific artwork by Rashid Johnson. The project and the group behind it has won this year’s Panerai Design Miami Visionary Award—the first time the prize has gone to a team, rather than an individual—and the concept for the school, including prototypes of the furniture, is on view at the Design Miami fair and at the Panerai boutique in Miami’ Design District from Dec. 6–10.
As the firm gains renown, it has strived to branch out with projects at different scales, even as it refines the ideas and forms that put it in the spotlight. “The bottom line for us is an interest in the architecture of the everyday, whether it’s an urban planning assignment, a large building, or even a piece of furniture,” says cofounder Emanuel Christ.
Christ met his partner in the firm, Christoph Gantenbein, when they were both architecture students at ETH Zurich in the late 1990s. They were collaborating on an academic project when—following many a young firm that found its first clients close to home—Gantenbein’s parents commissioned them to design a residential project. Not only did that building, with a design derived from generic industrial structures common along railroad tracks in Swiss suburbs, establish an approach and aesthetic that would come to characterize the firm—it cemented their collaboration, and they decided to set up shop. “Right after school we started collaborating, without any further experience in other practices,” Christ says. “Which also means there was a high degree of autodidactic working and learning. We literally grew up together.”
Christ & Gantenbein aimed high from the start. One of their first competition entries was for the Swiss National Museum, which pitted them in a blind contest against many established firms. “We had nothing to lose,” Christ says. They came out on top with a design that connected a zigzagging gray structure with porthole punch windows to the museum’s existing building. “That project had a lot to do with what was already there: a museum of the late 19th century. It’s sort of an awkward, historicist building. You can’t really tell if it’s good or bad,” Christ says. “Our scheme was very contemporary—self-confident—but at the same time clearly paid respect to what was there. It’s quite a brutal new building, but it acts like a sculpture that is intimately related to the existing building.”
The commission allowed the firm to grow—it now numbers 50 people—but the politics of a high-profile national project caused delays and design changes. In the intervals, Christ & Gantenbein worked on smaller projects, from housing developments to office buildings, while continuing to be involved in academia (both currently teach at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design). “You can’t say one is a dreamer and the other is a realist. One day I’m speculating and he’s the one critiquing. Then we switch,” says Christ of the duo’s collaboration methods. “When it comes to creating ideas, [and] when it comes to killing ideas, we both do it.”
Their second big break came with the 2010 competition for a renovation of and addition to the Kunstmuseum Basel. On their home turf, the firm was competing with Atelier Jean Nouvel, OMA, Zaha Hadid Architects, and SANAA, among others. “There were at least five Pritzkers,” Christ says. They prevailed in another blind competition with a design that once again connected an existing building to an angular addition, this one rising out of the Basel streetscape with striated brickwork in contrasting shades of gray, like unearthed layers of ancient construction. “Good architecture has a very strong physical expression. It is not hiding,” says Christ. “Though it can be modest or gray, it does not have to be neutral.” The Swiss Museum’s delays finally abated around the same time ground broke in Basel, and the two museums opened in the spring and summer of 2016, respectively.
The design for the Mwabwindo School furnishings came out of a table and stools that Christ & Gantenbein designed for the Brussels gallery Maniera as the museum projects were wrapping up. The school’s versions are designed to be assembled without the use of nails, glue, or other fasteners, and to fit into multiple contexts and uses within the project, which is slated for completion in 2018. It is the second school in Zambia backed by the 14+ Foundation, a New York–based organization founded by stylist and Zambia native Nchimunya Wulf and Joseph Mizzi, president and COO of Sciame Construction.
Like their larger work, Christ & Gantenbein’s furniture has sharp angles and muted finishes, but describing several projects currently under construction—including an art museum in Cologne, a residential development in Paris, and a facility for Lindt chocolates in Kilchberg—Christ insists that there is a humanism in the work’s severity. “Most of our buildings somehow are variations on the gray scale,” he says. “And these grays are related to the architecture ultimately being a backdrop for the color of urban life.”