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School of Design Basel, Herman Baur, 1956-1961, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

General School for Trade & School of Design Basel

Bauhaus spirit meets modernist art & architecture to create a cutting-edge postwar Basel icon whose significance still resonates.
Picture of Karin Bürki

Karin Bürki

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

It is the ultimate hotspot of Basel’s concrete modernism. The sleek modernist campus comprises the School for General Trade and School of Design. The delicately folded Masonry Hall is probably the most beautiful concrete origami in the world. Designed by Hermann Baur in close collaboration with artist Hans Arp and graphic design legend Armin Hofmann, the school set new standards in postwar architecture, uniting architecture, art and nature to create a Gesamtkunstwerk of international renown.

Its historical and cultural significance still resonates today. Reason enough to have a look around and find out why the school’s unique aura has lost none of its appeal.

The origins of the institution date back to 1782. From the 1920s, the city began to consider various scenarios for a new central campus combining design and vocational education. In 1938/39 it held two rounds of competitions. Hermann Baur’s design, titled ‘Order in Freedom’, emerged as the winning project.

Order in Freedom

Baur wanted something modern, different from the intimidating barracks-style school architecture he had experienced. He proposed an ambitious, deliberately pared-down, non-hierarchical structure, devoid of ornament and authoritarianism, with easy access to art and nature to create a positive learning environment.

Like many progressive-minded architects of his generation – Baur was born in 1894 – he was strongly influenced by the Bauhaus and the German New Building movement.

Founded in Germany in 1919, the Bauhaus was both a school and a movement. Its founders sought a unity of architecture, design, art and craft. Its main ethos was pushing boundaries, being modern and innovative. It embraced experimentation and creative collaboration. The Bauhaus laid the foundations for today’s art and design education and produced many design classics, such as Marcel Breuer’s cantilevered chairs.

In terms of architecture, the Bauhaus building in Dessau embodied the key principles of Neues Bauen or New Building: plenty of air, light and a radical reduction of the architectural vocabulary. The first Bauhaus directors, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, went on to become leading figures in modernist architecture.

A ”School Palace” in the middle of the Second World War?

Back to Baur’s proposal. Although it won acclaim in professional circles, it was rejected in a referendum in 1943. Public opinion was against the “school palace” and “mammoth project”. With the Second World War raging and the school site a stone’s throw from the German border, this was clearly not the time for ambitious educational structures.

In 1946 the project was officially resumed as a collaboration between Hermann Baur, his younger brother Hans Peter Baur and the office Breuning and Dürig. After several revisions, the complex was given the all-clear. Construction began in 1956 and was completed in 1961.

The campus comprises three wings, loosely grouped around a central courtyard. Each has its own distinctive character. The School of Design is five storeys high, with smooth concrete slabs and striking ribbon windows. In contrast, the auditorium and the delicately folded Masonry Hall – possibly the most beautiful concrete origami in the world – are in exposed concrete, which lends them a highly sculptural quality. The corrugated iron roofs of the workshops emphasise the more technical orientation of the School for General Trade.

Cementing Basel’s status as the Swiss capital of art and architecture

This time, Baur’s artsy, cutting-edge design school was a perfect fit: It was the beginning of the economic boom years; a time of radical renewal, unprecedented prosperity and great social change. Concrete, with its fluidity and cost-effectiveness, was the building material of choice.

In postwar Basel, there was a huge demand for design professions and skilled technical and craft workers. At the same time, the city reinvented itself as the Swiss capital of art and architecture, benefiting from generous art loans from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Blurring the lines of architecture, art and nature in a resolutely modern way, the school campus resonated with the burgeoning local art & design scene and cemented the city’s new image.

But what is it that made the school so groundbreaking, new and innovative?

The great site-specific art certainly contributes to the timeless appeal of the complex. Baur was one of the first architects in Basel to see art as an integral part of architecture. For the school, he teamed up with the renowned artist Hans Arp and graphic design legend/tutor Armin Hofmann.

Concrete Stele, Hans Arp, School of Design Basel, Herman Baur, 1956-1961, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

 © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Concrete pyramid, Armin Hofmann, School of Design Basel, Herman Baur, 1956-1961, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Hans Arp’s biomorphic concrete stele ‘Column with Interchangeable Elements’ takes pride of place as the main courtyard’s centrepiece. The iconic eight metre high cross between a chess piece and a sundial enjoys cult status. Arp also created various wall elements with wave-like cut-outs.

Another student favourite is the stepped concrete pyramid. Nicknamed monkey’s rock it is the work of Armin Hoffman. The graphic designer and long-time tutor at the school revolutionised visual design education in the 1960s and made the school’s graphics department world-famous. He also contributed several wall reliefs in the staircase of the main building. Applied directly into the raw concrete, they depict typographic and geometric shapes, complementing the architectural theme. But the best ones are located on the large rooftop terrace on the fifth floor, which unfortunately is only accessible to select members of staff.

Armin Hofmann, Wall Relief, School of Design Basel, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on

 © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Wall relief, Armin Hofmann, School of Design Basel, Herman Baur, 1956-1961, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Modernist Nature

Landscaping and garden design was another area Baur sought to modernise. He eschewed the rustic and rural style that still dominated the Swiss scene, opting for loosely structured layouts and concrete slabs instead of natural stone. While the area around the main entrance is all about a clean, modernist take on Mediterranean vibes and Scots pines, the lush, unmown greenery and deciduous trees between the workshops add a welcome touch of urban wilderness.

Concrete cosmetics and enduring appeal

A thorough but considered refresh in 2006-2011 replaced the original windows and heating system with more energy friendly replicas. State-of-the-art concrete cosmetics have removed the ravages of time and the architectural crimes of the eighties (the external folds of the Masonry Hall were painted over!), while allowing the power of patina to shine through. Now a Grade II listed building, the school has lost none of its appeal and draws huge crowds when it opens its doors to the public every May.

Maurerhalle, Masonry Hall, Karin Bürki / Heartbrut. Explore more on

 © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

School of Design Basel, Herman Baur, 1956-1961, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut