Roundabout at Novartis Campus

Basel, Switzerland
Peter Regli

Roundabout art

oundabouts offer numerous advantages: they improve the flow of traffic, reduce the complexity of traffic hubs and are associated with a far lower risk of accident than other unregulated crossings. At the same time, they require quite a lot of space and create a central area which is cut off from the surrounding environment. Meanwhile many cities have discovered that these central islands can be used for drawing attention to typical local features, increasingly including sumptuous flowerbeds, jagged steel sculptures or other tasteless examples of "art". Novartis Pharma AG had nothing to do with this when they commissioned Peter Regli to redesign the centre of a new roundabout right in front of its St. Johann Werk St. Johann plant in Basle. The Swiss artist is renowned for his anonymous interventions in public spaces known as "Reality Hacking" where he temporarily intervenes – like a computer hacker – in the familiar systems of everyday life, cities or landscapes. For example, he sent an oversized marble snowman from Vietnam off on a trip around the world, painted white letters on American cows to see what kind of sentences they would form and planned loud recordings of a clock ticking away in a railway station. Previously sparsely adorned with flowers, the roundabout island in Basle is now causing some irritation as it appears in the artist's catalogue of works as No. 287 – as roundabout art as it were.

Those approaching this roundabout by car from one of the four access roads see nothing at first. Between the surrounding grey industrial and sorting halls, there appears a slightly raised platform bordered by a slim concrete edge depicting flecks of colour which are not yet definable. Once in the roundabout and if you have time to do a few extra rounds, it all looks quite different. What car drivers can only guess at soon becomes a certainty for truck drivers and especially for those in the high-rise in the direct vicinity of the roundabout: the platform with a diameter of 12.5 metres does not bear a puzzling colour pattern but rather a wellorganised mandala, carefully arranged using triangular ceramic tiles in a total of eleven blue, red and white shades.

For Project Manager Markus Bucher, who has already realised many reality hacking projects with Peter Regli, the strength of this work of art lies in the various perceptions thereof depending on the respective perspective. On the other hand, he is certain that any three-dimensional sculpture would have looked pathetic against the neighbouring high-rise buildings. The mandala however comes across as an equally confident and identifying landmark on the north-western edge of the Novartis site – company premises which have seen restructuring and new buildings by international star architects for many years. Although Peter Regli is eminently familiar with Far Eastern culture thanks to some projects realised in Asia, including one currently underway in Bhutan, the mandala motif selected for Basle does not directly refer to any historical models. On the contrary, it generally symbolises traditional rituals and a mythical-religious balance – which is somehow rather subversive considering the fact that pharmaceutical corporations such as Novartis are more committed to the principles of western medicine based on facts.

Within the framework of researching materials for the slightly convex surface of the mandala platform, Regli and Bucher examined numerous alternatives. One consideration, for example, included metal panels mounted on a substructure which would however have expanded and contracted too extremely on the horizontal area exposed to weathering in summer and winter alike and would nevertheless have faded over time. In using glass, strong reflections would have been a problem which would have caused the brilliant colours on the back to fade. In contrast, ceramic tiles from Agrob Buchtal offered three essential advantages. First of all, the coloured silky-matt glaze is on the top side enabling the surface and colour to form an inseparable unit. Secondly, the eleven colours specially developed are not only based on Regli's exact ideas but they also stay absolutely colour-fast for long periods of time. And thirdly, the tiles can be laid across a surface and without a substructure, ultimately providing the impression of a monolithic object instead of a building facade simply folded over and framed by a ring of concrete.

The 900 ceramic tiles merely display three different triangular shapes – just about large enough as to prevent a mosaic comprising tiny pieces yet still small enough to cover the slightly convex surface of the platform with a consistently wide joint and without any high spots. And because the tiles in various colours expand at varying degrees, somewhat thicker elastic joints made of black polyurethane sealing compound were required in order to reinforce the optical effect of the "lines" between the colour areas. Another challenge was represented by the sharp angles of the tiles which could not be simply cut on site but rather required precise water-jet cuts by the manufacturer. All of the installation work was performed within three months under the protection of a large sealed tent and without any interruptions to traffic. As a result, the relief of numerous passers-by was all the greater when the unveiling did not reveal an oversized tablet sculpture or steel interpretation of the Novartis logo in August 2013 but rather a mandala representing a little piece of perfection in a heterogeneous environment such as this one.

Photographer: Reality Hacking 287_2013 ©p.regli 2013