High on Drugs - Issue 2 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s after midnight on Grenzacherstrasse and the office buildings are dark. Only one is still fully lit, and a low hum emanates from its smooth, glassy shell. Closer up, you can see that each floor is filled with shiny steel tanks with gauges and tubes attached to them, like a giant brewing kit. What is being made inside, however, is not beer but Avastin, a powerful colorectal and lung cancer treatment.

Its manufacturer is Roche, and this complex is the company’s global headquarters in the city of Basel.

The fight against cancer is not, however, the only battle taking place here. Another war is being waged in which this humming building, the profits from wonder drugs and the historic city all play a part. For Basel is home not just to one major player in the pharmaceuticals business, but two. Just a few kilometres away along the Rhine is the global headquarters of Novartis, Switzerland’s biggest manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and the largest manufacturer of generic medicines in the world. Formed in 1996 by the merger of two Swiss companies, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy, Novartis immediately posed a threat to Roche – and not just in the field of drug production.

In 2002 Novartis announced its plan to spend $1.5bn (€1.1bn) on the redevelopment of the former Sandoz site in the north of Basel to create a campus for research and management, employing some of the world’s most famous architects along the way. There would be contributions by Frank Gehry and the Japanese architects Sanaa and, closer to home, from the Swiss architects Peter Märkli and Roger Diener. The result would lure corporate talent by providing smart places to work, and also establish Novartis as an organisation of sophistication and taste – a position historically occupied by Roche.

The gloves were off. Roche bided its time before making a riposte and then, last September, announced its plans to spend €480m on two new buildings, including a 40-storey office tower. Designed by home town architects Herzog & de Meuron, at 160m it would be the tallest building in Switzerland. Things were heating up. But could there be a winner in the race to be the world’s most cultured drug company?

The current Roche complex is an average-looking collection of buildings, but one which plays an important part in the drama. It was on this Grenzacherstrasse site that Fritz Hoffmann established his first factory, in 1896. His idea was to produce products like cough syrup, hitherto made in the pharmacy, on an industrial scale. The company was named F Hoffmann-La Roche & Co, but it was the shorter name of Hoffmann’s wife, Adele La Roche, which stuck.

The business soon grew and, in the 1930s, the first major architectural projects were undertaken, all designed by the distinguished Swiss architect Otto Salvisberg. Much of Salvisberg’s work at Roche remains today, and the current director of the site, Matthias Baltisberger, likes it that way. “We’ve always had a corporate approach,” he says, “with just one architect working on the site to make sure there is the same ‘handwriting’.” In Roche’s case, this means the kind of tasteful, clean-lined moderne style introduced by Salvisberg.

Baltisberger distinguishes what happens at Roche from the approach of Novartis. At Roche, he says, they never use the term “masterplan”, but talk about “site development”. And there should never be a building “which takes your breath away” – instead, everything should be carefully considered to fit into the company’s stately tradition. Finally, the site must never be referred to as a “campus”, a word which implies a closed, controlled area like Novartis’s (there’s even a no-fly zone over its campus, as our photographer found out when he tried to take photographs from a helicopter). Roche likes to see its site as an extension of the nearby city, with staff free to come and go as they please.

Until now, Roche has stuck to its guns. Even when Herzog & de Meuron were appointed as consultant architects almost 10 years ago, they built only well-mannered buildings which fit closely into the Salvisberg plan. Two such buildings have now been completed: the first is a glass box containing a lecture theatre and laboratories; the second is the humming building containing the Avastin production facilities. Given this polite environment, the announcement that Roche now proposes to build the Herzog & de Meuron skyscraper – to be called Building One – came as something of a surprise.

Giving his reasons for this scheme, which looks like a crumpled cylinder criss-crossed by a double helix of stairs, Baltisberger explains that the Roche site is now so dense that the only way is up. With increasing numbers of staff and 1,700 already in rented offices, additional space is essential if the company is to stay in Basel. But can such an audacious building fit into the discreet corporate culture?

Baltisberger is quick to reply. “There have always been exceptions here. The main question is, ‘Does it fit into the total composition?’ We think the answer is yes. The other question we asked ourselves is, ‘Can we negotiate about the prices of our products in that building?’ It must not be too rich.” These are the facts as Roche sees them. But what is at stake here is more than a fight for extra office space.

A Swiss sociologist, who wished to remain nameless, has visited both the Roche and Novartis sites and assessed their cultures. In his view Novartis is a corporation which likes to move its staff all over the world without fuss. “So if they build a campus here, which has its own shops and social places, then when they relocate staff to America or Japan, they won’t miss Basel.” In Roche, however, he sees an old Basel firm in which the descendants of Fritz Hoffmann – the Oeri-Hoffmanns, generally ranked the richest family in Switzerland – still own the controlling share (Gisela “Gigi” Oeri, married to a great-grandson of Hoffmann, is something of a local celebrity). This family firm, says the sociologist, seems bemused by the go-getting culture of Novartis and its CEO, Dr Daniel Vasella. Ignoring it, however, is not an option – especially since Novartis indicated its takeover plans for Roche in 2003 when it announced it had bought 32.7 per cent of the voting rights in the company. Vasella said Novartis wouldn’t make a hostile bid – but it could come at any time. The new skyscraper could be seen as Roche’s statement that it is an independent company, determined to stay that way.

Visiting the Novartis campus in the company of Roger Diener, the architect of the first building completed in the new masterplan, gives an insight into the company’s architectural strategy. Like Jacques Herzog, Diener was born in Basel and trained in Zürich in the 1970s. For both architects these projects are on home territory, and perhaps feelings of rivalry come with that.

Diener’s Novartis building, Forum 3, is clean-lined and smart, the kind of office block Mies van der Rohe would have built if he’d had the technology. Inside there are acres of stone floors, Eames furniture (made by Vitra, based just outside Basel), and luxurious open-plan offices. The most striking aspect of the building is its outer coat of coloured glass panels, the result of a collaboration with artist Helmut Federle.

Across the 200,000 sq m site, formerly a scruffy mish-mash of buildings occupying two entire city blocks, the skyline is dotted with cranes. Builders are busy finishing a neat, glacial scheme by the Japanese architect Sanaa, while across the square the unmistakable organic form of a Frank Gehry building is emerging. In between, the Swiss architect Peter Märkli has completed another office building which, perhaps in an ironic comment on the wealth of pharmaceutical companies, is lined in olive wood and finished outside in gold.

It is not so much the buildings which reveal the Novartis culture, however, as the layout of the campus. The masterplan, designed by the Italian architect Vittorio Lampugnani, is based on a classical city, complete with a central forum, a piazza, streets and buildings – but none more than 22m high. The clutch of international architects must shoehorn their buildings into this plan. The end result, says Lampugnani, will promote the “construction and refinement of a society”.

What Novartis is planning is a mini city. Once you are inside this private citadel you abide by the Novartis rules (you show your pass to a camera to enter; the official language on the campus is English; no smoking is allowed). Novartis has bought the road which runs through the site and soon the docks that run down to the Rhine will be cleared and sold to the company to use as a park.

Basel developed from its Celtic origins and through the Roman period to become the great intellectual centre of the Reformation. In the 19th century came industrial growth, which gave rise to the modern pharmaceutical industry. It is the wealth gained from this industry that allows Basel, with its modest population of 200,000, to rank alongside the financial centres of Zürich and Geneva as one of the most important cities in Switzerland.

But Basel has a unique condition. It stands right on the borders of Germany and France, so close in fact that several quarters of the city stretch over the borders (from the airport, in France, it’s necessary to drive through a fenced-off corridor to reach the city). One disadvantage of this situation is that expansion is partly dependent on agreement from neighbouring countries. This is another reason for Basel to become a high-rise city, a future already indicated by the Basler Messeturm which, at 105m, is currently the tallest building in Switzerland.

A visit to the economists and planners at the town hall reveals what role the pharmaceutical companies play in their ambitions. For Dr Ralph Lewin, the minister for economic and social affairs in the canton of Basel-Stadt, the answer is clear. “The value of total net income in the region of Basel generated by this industry is about 20 per cent.” They also provide revenue, he explains, since they pay a percentage of their profits back to the city in tax. Not surprisingly, then, the local government is keen to keep both Novartis and Roche in the city, which leads to speculation that any application they make to build – including skyscrapers – would never be rejected. Lewin says he sees the Roche tower as a way forward. “Our canton is only 37 sq km. There is not much ground space left, but it can grow in height.”

Lewin’s colleague in the planning department, Nicole Wirz, concurs with this view. “Normal laws don’t allow a high-rise building like this, so we have to make special plans and parliament has to decide.” If everything goes according to plan, Roche will submit its project for approval later this year and the building will be complete by 2011.

Of course tall buildings are not the only way to grab attention. As Basel has learnt from Bilbao, any controversial architecture is a way of making headlines. No doubt this was on the minds of the judges when in January 2005 they selected a scheme by Zaha Hadid for a new city concert hall in the Barfüsserplatz.

The ambitions of this small city are extraordinary, and a tour of the Herzog & de Meuron studio throws up even more schemes for their home town, including an extension of the trade halls for the world’s most prestigious art fair, Art Basel. This will stand alongside the numerous other contributions the architects have already made to the city, including the football stadium which will host the opening game of Euro 2008. The atmosphere is one of efficient creativity, and in the workshop several scale models of the Roche tower are already in progress.

Jacques Herzog’s enthusiasm for the renaissance of his home town is clear. Although he sees a potential clash between what he calls the global phenomenon of the pharmaceutical firms with the local interests of Basel, he sweeps it aside with a convincing analogy: “There were always more open and closed areas in the medieval city – not everybody could go into the cloister, but it was the intellectual powerhouse which boosted a city.”

Herzog goes on to defend his skyscraper by placing it in the context of a revival of interest in the form across the world. “Tall buildings got a bad reputation in the 1970s and 1980s. Now we need to show that tall buildings can be great buildings.” Most seductively he talks about the “Manhattanisation” of Basel as part of a broader project which would place the city in a pivotal position at the heart of Europe. “The real Basel is only happening now,” he says: with Zürich only 50 minutes away by train or road, you could create one of the most dynamic business districts in Europe.

At 01.30 it’s time to take a last walk to the Novartis campus. The company logo is lit up against the night sky and plumes of smoke pour from the production facilities across the river. Around the campus everything is quiet, except for the occasional plop of a koi carp in the lake. The only movement comes from a digital artwork that circles the façade of the Märkli building. Looking at the glinting structure, thoughts of these two companies’ enormous financial figures come to mind: in 2006 Novartis made a profit of $7.2bn [€5.4bn] on sales of $37.02bn [€28.2]. Roche was only a sliver behind, with a profit of $7.33bn [€5.57] on sales of $33bn [€25.1]. In the business war of pharmaceutical giants there is not much between them. Is one architectural approach better than the other?

Thinking about this, I spot a text of Jenny Holzer’s artwork as it crosses the building in front of me: “Death defies the doctor. You can’t cheat death. Death pays all debts.”

It seems to provide an answer of sorts. Novartis and Roche will continue to compete and build. One may take over the other. But even with all the medicine and money in the world, there are still some battles that neither can win.

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