A house in Bern, Switzerland, marries high-tech production with high-end customization thanks to a bespoke building system by architect Ali Tayar.
While studying architecture in the United States and Europe, Ali Tayar fell under the spell of Fritz Haller, a Swiss architect known for his building systems—kits of parts that proved far more elegant than their industrial origins suggested. Though he designed many buildings using such components, Haller became most famous for his sleek storage units assembled from chrome steel rods and ball joints. Beloved by architects, the pieces have been marketed under the name USM Haller since the 1960s.
Tayar’s small Chelsea-based firm, Parallel Design Partnership, won an award from the Architectural League in 2002. He gave a talk about the debt architects such as Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, and Norman Foster owe to Haller, as well as Haller’s influence on his own designs, which at that time included several widely praised furniture
systems. A USM employee heard the talk, and soon Tayar was on a plane to Switzerland, where he began working for both the company and one of its top executives. The company tasked him to design not just a line of tables, but also a hotel in Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn. There, Tayar managed to turn standardized metal and plywood parts into an extraordinarily luxurious environment. More recently, the executive asked him to design a house on the outskirts of Bern. Not only was the site inspiring—offering views of the Alps just a few miles from the city center—but the client “was open to the idea of systems like no client was ever going to be,” said Tayar. “It was a bit like answered prayers.”
And so Tayar began two simultaneous projects: creating new building systems and then designing a home using those systems. As a result, neither the main volume of
the house or the projecting living room has a conventional frame. The larger volume is supported by a series of stainless-steel columns that are so thin (less than three square inches) that they don’t look structural. Arranged at the perimeter of the building, they function perfectly as mullions, holding windows, air vents, and elegant teak panels in a wide variety of combinations, recalling the work of Jean Prouvé. The resulting interiors are column-free.
A sofa designed by architect Ali Tayar dominates a carbon fiber-framed living room in Bern, Switzerland. One side of the sofa is meant for reclining; the other for sitting. the rest of the furniture is from USM Haller Systems. (Courtesy Simon B. Opladen)
Emerging almost defiantly from the main volume is the living room. Its entire structure is made of carbon fiber, a material most often associated with boats. Tayar found a boatyard on the Adriatic Sea that could make the room in five near-identical pieces. The pieces were trucked to the site, where they were joined together by carbon fiber frames. The result is a room that, reduced in size, could pass through an airport metal detector. “There’s no difference between structure and surface,” Tayar said. “It’s like the hull of a boat.”
But Tayar was determined to make the house equally livable and impressive. He covered the living room floor in felt, its panels cut into lozenge shapes that mimic the room’s geometry, and made the ceiling out of perforated aluminum panels that follow the same outlines. Paneling, including large cove moldings, fit into the carbon fiber shell like a hand into a glove. The main event furniture-wise is a vast two-sided sofa designed by Tayar and covered in Maharam fabric; on one side, it’s proportioned for lying down, on the other, for sitting. The rest of the living room furniture is USM Haller.
Architecturally, the main volume is a sophisticated take on the split-level, with stairs leading up to the kitchen and baths. The floors are covered in a continuous surface
of terrazzo. Little furniture was required beyond a few large Tayar-conceived pieces and the Arne Jacobsen chairs around the Haller dining table. Tayar designed the owner’s bed with its rich leather headboard. Flanking the bed are built-in night stands lit softly through panels of mother-of-pearl, reminiscent of panels Tayar loved when he visited Tokyo’s Hotel Okura (which is now demolished). In the bathroom, he built a tub from limestone, one of the few remaining pieces at a Swiss quarry founded by the Romans. Like the tub, everything inside the house is custom—cabinetry is the same teak as the walls, while drawer pulls are made of leather. Hinges were made at the USM factory.
Whenever possible, Tayar worked with companies, such as Maharam, that have something in common with USM: Family businesses that have focused on doing one thing, and doing it well, for generations.
Tayar is philosophical about the gap between what mass production could achieve (affordable housing for millions) and what he achieved in this case: a single, high-end dwelling. And he knows his ideas may seem retro in an age of parametric design, when the latest technology allows buildings to be made of thousands of different parts and mass customization has eclipsed mass production. But he doesn’t regret his experiment. Designers need to edit, and Tayar used the ideas of mass production—what can and can’t be made from standardized components—as a guide to editing his work.
And other architects may follow. Someday, “after people have made every nutty shape possible, they’re going to want to start to edit,” Tayar said. And when they do, they may take a close look at his experiment in Bern.
Note: We’re saddened to add that Mr. Tayar passed away in early 2016.