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Neither a museum, gallery or traditional art storage facility, the Schaulager, near Basel is a unique contemporary art institution designed by Herzog & de Meuron. We showcase its pioneering approach to "visibly storing" art.

The German word Schaulager translates as ‘showroom’ or ‘viewing warehouse’. Which is perhaps the best way to describe the Schaulager, an unusual contemporary art institution located outside of Basel. Conceived as a place to store the collection of the Emmanuel Hoffmann Foundation, a minority of which is always on show at Basel’s Kunstmuseum and Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, the Schaulager was designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron to “visibly store” over 650 artworks under ideal climatic conditions and in a way that they are accessible for conservation and research.

When it opened in 2003, the building redefined the way that art is both conserved and viewed. Herzog & de Meuron created a space across several floors, all of which the viewer can immediately see when they enter the building. On each floor, a series of vast wall spaces sees artworks placed side by side (and above and below), with limited space between each piece. Rather than distract the viewer’s eyes, the placement feels domestic, like art might be displayed in a private home, and gives a new context to each piece. Moreover, the response from Herzog & de Meuron not only solved the problem of “visible storage” but also created a strikingly beautiful container in which art can be appreciated in a different way than if it was hung in a gallery.

Because of the climatic conditions required and the sheer number of artworks on display, the Schaulager was never intended to be open to the public. Instead, appointments can be made by students and academics working in areas related to the Schaulager’s collection. Usually, the institution opens its doors once a year with a temporary exhibition, but for 2011 the Schaulager is exhibiting for the first time outside of its building. At the Haus zum Kirschgarten, Basel, which it describes as a “prestigious showroom of bourgeois daily life”, the Schaulager has installed over 370 images of Saint Fabiola from the collection of artist Francis Alÿs. It is by remarkable coincidence that Alÿs insisted on placing some of the works closely side by side, in a way that resonates with both the philosophy and placement inside the Schaulager.

Though the Schaulager will not be accessible this year to those outside of the art world, it continues to showcase specially commissioned works on its two large LED screens, which are placed on its external façade. These screens, position in a polygonal entrance that was derived from the internal geometry, were intended by Herzog & de Meuron to reinforce the public nature of this unique institution. Storage? Gallery? Research facility? The Schaulager cannot be defined, not even by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.


Schaulager: A New Building Type?
By Herzog & de Meuron

“What is the point of a Schaulager, of a building in which art is stored but still accessible to public view? What ideas about art and collection strategy does it involve, and what is the best architectural and urban development concept for it?

We were not aware of any comparable building type that could address and express all the problems posed, so of course we felt fascinated and challenged, and had an equally rigorous dialogue with the clients.

The brief: a warehouse for contemporary art, where works take up considerably less space than in a museum because they are hung side by side on the walls and placed closer together on the floor. The art is to be stored with the best possible climate control and will be accessible by arrangement. There will also be a few tailor-made spaces for installations that cannot be shown to best advantage in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (Museum of Contemporary Art) in St. Alban Tal because of their unusual dimensions or special technical requirements. Offices and workshops, an auditorium and the necessary loading and unloading facilities round off the spatial program.

In our initial designs we tried to condense the idea of storage into a single vertical and a horizontal area. A gigantic wall would have accommodated all the wall-mounted art somewhat like a junk-shop; the rest of the work would have been distributed over a floor area without dividing walls. A complete overview of the collection would have been possible at one glance in this vertical and horizontal storage area. But technical and curatorial considerations regarding conserving and transporting the works of art soon pointed the project in another direction: it turned out that a proper warehouse with robust floors and walls and large spans would offer the most advantages and paradoxically the greatest flexibility as well.”

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