Positions - Emanuel Christ - A Box of Chocolate

A Box of Chocolate

Emanuel Christ

Christ & Gantenbein, Lindt Home of Chocolate, Kilchberg, 2015–2020. Photo: Stefano Graziani.

November 2019

Nikolaus Hirsch Your practice is known for museums, such as the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, or the upcoming extension to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. Where would you situate the Lindt Home of Chocolate, which is currently under construction outside of Zurich in Kilchberg, within the context of your museum work?

Emanuel Christ In a certain sense, the Lindt Home of Chocolate is a museum. It corresponds to a very contemporary idea of a museum: a place of contemplation, entertainment, and interaction. It's not a public place, but a civic space where artifacts and processes are on display. If we look at the program, there are traditional elements of a museum, like exhibition spaces. But the building is also a place of production, where Lindt is experimenting with new types of chocolate. Visitors will be able to learn more about these activities and engage with them. Therefore it is a museum, a place of production, and a laboratory at the same time: a highly multifunctional venue.

NH How are these different programs reflected in the organization of the building?

EC The building houses a variety of programs: an auditorium, exhibition spaces, production facilities, offices, meeting rooms, a lounge, a “chocolateria” where visitors can make chocolate themselves, a shop, a café, and so on. To allow for these activities to evolve over time, we conceived the structure with a certain robustness and flexibility. It is very simple. It's a box with a big atrium in its center, and all the different uses gather around this core space. I wouldn't say it's a specific type, but rather a very general, even primary type.

NH When you use the word "box" to describe the building, it's partially true, but it's also a bit misleading due to the extent to which the geometrical figure of the circle is used within the interior. The columns are topped with a wide circular capital, and the skylights themselves are circular. The entrance in plan is also defined by a quarter circle.

EC Let’s call it an animated box. Since the site is set within a historical industrial context, our building has embraced the logic of the place’s urban fabric, which is defined by factories and warehouses; or in short, simple boxes. The new volume is a red brick box, which reacts to its spatial setting by bending one of its corners inwards along a quarter circle contour. Moreover, this curved part of the façade is clad in highly reflective white brick layer, which gently folds around the corner along the adjacent sides of the building. It is also slightly higher than the red brick walls. These adjustments add a certain subdued monumentality to the ensemble. Like a decorated shed, or a Renaissance façade, the exterior wall is an artifice; a kind of “fake” façade, or even a set-design performing the role of the entrance. Devoid of any load-bearing structure, the entrance is designed as a long horizontal opening on the ground floor which leads the visitors in towards the atrium in an embracing gesture. Inside, the space is not structured by a regular set of pillars or walls, but by eight monumental columns that ensure vertical movements through the building, housing stairs and lifts, as well as technical services. Architecture and structure are thus united. What you see is what you get.

Christ & Gantenbein, Lindt Home of Chocolate, Kilchberg, 2015–2020. Photo: Walter Mair.


Nick Axel There certainly is a tension between the regularity, the orthogonality of this box and the curvilinearity one encounters when inside the atrium. What effect do you think this will have on the experience of the space?

EC I would relate this contrast, or this combination of two opposed systems—the orthogonal, rectangular logic of the box versus the atrium with the circular columns and stairs—to the relationship between the rather rigid urban structure of the site and the movement of the public through the building. There is also another contrast between the interior and exterior: the façade is expressed in laid brick, whereas the interior is cast concrete. Both have a different structural and formal logic. In this sense, the curved shapes are also a means to express the physical, material quality of the building.

NH Can you speak further about the material strategy of the exterior?

EC The exterior reflects its context, the site where Lindt & Sprüngli first started to produce chocolate more than one hundred years ago, and where it still does today. It also hints at the wider tradition of industrial architecture. On the other hand, it stands out with its own logic of expression. We chose bricks in a warm shade of red, and the color of the mortar is the exact same as the one of the brick. From afar, it looks like a completely uniform red façade, an abstract field of color, which counteracts the shiny white façade. Drawing nearer, one discerns the joints and the material becomes real.

NA It is monochrome, yet it has texture.

EC It is mainly flat, but a frieze-like element that runs around the whole building ties it all together. This is done by means of bricks alternatively protruding and receding in order to cast a shadow. This is also where windows are punched into the wall. The strong opacity of the façade combined with this frieze element suggests an almost classical composition.

NH The name of the building is also on the frieze, on the white brick front, which references some of your earlier work, like the Kunstmuseum. How will this element be expressed?

EC Gilded letters sit on the frieze, and thus slightly disturb the horizontality of this element. It's an interesting question: how do you brand a building? How do you give it a name? How do you put letters on top of it? How do they find their place?

Christ & Gantenbein, Lindt Home of Chocolate, Kilchberg, 2015–2020. Photo: Walter Mair.


NA Very often buildings are designed without the brand, and then this comes as an afterthought. You seem to be trying to include it very early.

EC Yes, there is a thin line between branding a building and allowing the brand to become a protagonist of the whole building. What should be given primacy is the structure of the façade as a whole, the element which binds the different sides of the building together. But here, as I said before, the main façade is an artifice, a decoration which clads only a specific part of the building. The lettering plays the same game and adds another layer of artifice by simply being anchored within the bricks.

NA Is this a result of the fact that the building is for a commercial client—a brand—whereas your museum projects have been for public institutions?

EC If a building houses activities that in one way or the other are meant to address the public, its architecture should communicate this potential for interaction. With this I don’t mean that it must be transparent to display what happens inside. On the contrary, I find it much more interesting if the building stays rather closed. Actually, one could say that the fewer windows there are, the more public it looks. The building can communicate by other means. Traditionally, building façades follow very precise standards in order to reflect their given function. Styles and composition follow an established language made of allegories, or ornament, that would also speak about the content. Today, we mostly make use of text or less immediate means like materiality to guide visitors and let them understand what's happening inside.

NH You mentioned that the site is where Lindt & Sprüngli production first started. Where do you see your building in the production chain of chocolate? It seems as if it is almost an extension of the final phase of the production, a transition between production and delivery. I tend to think that this is where architecture actually plays a role, and also where museification.

EC The Kilchberg campus is still where Lindt’s chocolate is produced, and some production will also happen in the building, so we found it extremely important to include elements related to the chocolate factory. But of course, when the visitors enter they will mainly experience the very end of the production chain. Visitors will be able to buy and taste chocolate, and our architecture is trying to enhance this experience as well. We imagined a promenade that people might follow after entering the building—circling up on the stairs, walking along a gangway, disappearing into a display, coming out again, observing production, following it along, going on the bridge, and then back down. Through this movement, the visitors are also “processed” in, or by the building. The building itself looks a bit like a clockwork mechanism, where visitors may feel as if inside a machine. The circular motif of the architecture evokes a soft movement, but also recalls a moment in the process of fabrication.

Christ & Gantenbein, Lindt Home of Chocolate, Kilchberg, 2015–2020. Photo: Walter Mair.

NH This reminds me of the 2002 Gläserne Manufaktur building designed by Gunter Henn for Volkswagen in Dresden. The idea was for it to be both a place of production and the place where you pick up your key, take your new car, drive down a ramp, and drive home. But of course, the reality was that just a few screws were mounted on the cars there, because the real production was elsewhere. It was a dislocated end of the production chain. But from what I understand here, it's a bit different, in that everything takes place in one area.

EC It's both. You get the final product and you're told the story that comes with it, but at the same time you see actual production as well. Part of Lindt & Sprüngli’s research and development activities will take place in the building. Visitors will not only experience the very end of the production chain, but also its very beginning.

NA You mentioned that the original Lindt & Sprüngli building on the site is about 100 years old. This makes me think of your contribution to the 2016 Venice Biennale, which was a very simple wall projection that read: “MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS.” How do you see this question of longevity with buildings? You already spoke about how the interior space is flexible, but do you see this building standing a hundred years from now?

EC In a way, yes. That doesn't mean that I necessarily believe it will stand for that whole period of time, but we strive to conceive long-lasting buildings. There is fantastic temporary architecture, but I think that a building like this one, given all the effort, and resources that are put into its construction, should have a life expectancy that goes beyond our own lifetime. Today, everyone is talking about sustainability, yet buildings tend to be less and less permanent. Here I’m not only talking of permanence in material terms, but also in immaterial ones: how can a building produce civic space on the long-term by addressing the urban realm and its users? How can a structure be open to different uses that may change over time? We would love to be able to only build with fifty-centimeter-thick stone walls, but that’s only possible in buildings that have a long life expectancy. This is also the only possibility for a building to be truly sustainable.

Christ & Gantenbein, Lindt Home of Chocolate, Kilchberg, 2015–2020. Photo: Walter Mair.

NA 100 is a unique number. Very few people will ever live that long. It really forces us to think beyond ourselves and pretty much anything we can really know. When it comes to architecture, I think there's a qualitative shift that takes place when thinking in terms of centuries as opposed to decades.

EC It goes beyond questions of sustainability, of economy and ecology. It forces us to understand that architecture, and perhaps design in general, more than so many other things in our societies, relates to a different dimension of time: conceiving something physical that is meant to last longer than we live. This is great, it’s dramatic, but it's also frightening. It's something we don't know how to deal with.

NA How do you incorporate that way of thinking into your design process? Does it have to do with the way certain details are executed? The proportion of spaces? The materials that are used?

EC The atrium, and the amplitude it provides, is, to a certain extent timeless. It refers to primary principles of space and architecture. It is an atrium building, which we can relate to Ancient Rome or to the department stores of the beginning of the twentieth century: a primary, almost archaic type of gathering space. It celebrates the presence of architecture, but it also welcomes change. The building could, at least theoretically, be transformed into a real factory, or it could become an office or a workshop building. Its sculptural and robust structure tries to articulate a hierarchical understanding of architecture. Many other elements will be added, but this spatial imprint will last. This is all possible thanks to the tailor-made structural concept developed by Jurg Conzett, the engineer who contributed to the design. The hall is unbiased by any secondary element, and so allows for many appropriations, which is a simple way to address durability. Just as important in assuring sustainability is the specific relationship the building establishes with its context. Over time the area will change, but the volume’s obvious relationship with the surroundings and its legacy anchors it within the site. Mediating the presence of the past is another way to be sustainable.

NH In a time of accelerated cultural tourism, where people have gone for decades to Bilbao just to see the museum, what then is a chocolate museum? At the Guggenheim, visitors see pieces of art, but here, in Switzerland, it’s chocolate. Chocolate may sound banal, but it isn't. Swiss chocolate isn’t yet, as far as I’m aware, recognized by UNESCO, but maybe Switzerland should make a step forward in this. Maybe in the future we'll see a broadening of the idea of art toward a very generic idea of culture. Where do you think architecture sits here?

EC Architecture should never be generic, but I see one cultural tendency for convergence, where everything becomes the same. Perhaps a building devoted to chocolate, in this sense, is the ultimate art experience. There are different models for culture. Only time will tell which way things go.

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This conversation took place as part of the talks program of Design Miami/ Basel 2019.

Positions is an initiative of e-flux Architecture.


Emanuel Christ established his architecture office in Basel with Christoph Gantenbein in 1998. He is a Professor of Architecture and Design in the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich.

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