Q&A: Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein

Q&A: Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein

For an extension to the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein turned to brick, giving the ancient medium a surprising twist with a frieze embedded with programmable LEDs. 

We’ve noticed a renewed interest in bricks. Why do you think the material is regaining its appeal?
Brick walls are timeless. They are like a manifesto for sustainable architecture, and they satisfy the contemporary need to go back to the essentials. They can be produced almost everywhere, by hand or industrially, and they can be extremely cheap or very expensive. Few building materials provide such a range of possibilities. I don’t think the way bricks are being used is changing, but nowadays they are considered a kind of noble material, and their use will probably grow because of their sustainable attributes. Technological developments, too, such as the laying of bricks by robots, might even be a step toward an unknown future.

Why did you choose brick for the Kunstmuseum Basel?
We wanted the new building to speak the same language as the old one, but to tell a new story. The concept of the homogeneous brick wall goes back to the idea of contemporary classicism, where you can’t help but associate the material with something simple and timeless. Our choice of brick, as the “poor” relation of the limestone slabs of the main building, was deliberate. We wanted to show that both buildings were built brick by brick. The difference in the materials visualizes the hierarchy between them.

What is unique, too, are the embedded LEDs that can be programmed to create text and images.
We worked with multimedia architect Valentin Spiess of IArt on that feature. Friezes have always been part of architecture, but the form here is quite new: the LED strips are sunk into the grooves of the frieze blocks, illuminating the hollows between the bricks and casting indirect light into the surrounding space. The result is visually stimulating, as the archaic-looking masonry begins to glow.

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