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Headquarters get a makeover at Novartis

The Novartis site and the St Johann neighbourhood. Novartis

Pharma giant Novartis is pushing ahead with its Campus project, which aims to transform an industrial zone in the city of Basel into a major research centre.

This content was published on March 15, 2006 - 13:44

Top architects, who want to remodel a whole neighbourhood and turn it towards the nearby River Rhine, are designing the company's new headquarters.

To get inside Novartis' front door nowadays involves getting past a row of trucks waiting to cross the nearby border into France. The St Johann neighbourhood is grey and not particularly welcoming.

But all that is about to change. Traffic will be shifted underground with the opening of a new motorway in 2007.

And Swiss architects Diener & Diener, Peter Märkli, Austrian Adolf Krischanitz, Japan's Frank Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, as well as Canadian Frank Gehry are about to propel Basel into the top league of European architectural destinations.

So far there is not much to show for their efforts. "Sometimes, we have busloads of architecture fans who want to see the construction site, but it's simply not possible," explained Felix Raeber of Novartis.

The problem is that besides the building efforts, Novartis is still running production facilities on the site. "We still have to ensure people's safety," added Raeber.

According to the company spokesman, Campus is not an architectural project, but rather the master plan of a new work philosophy for research, development and innovation.

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Novartis is not working on a prestige project either, Raeber told swissinfo, since it hasn't renovated or built anything in St Johann for some time. The firm's laboratories and offices are in need of replacement or renovation in order to be more functional.

Around 5,000 people work at Novartis in St Johann now, but in ten years' time, that number should have doubled. Besides boosting innovation, the company hopes that by bringing researchers closer to the marketing staff, they will also work together more closely.

The neighbourhood has been an industrial zone since 1906. But after Ciba and Sandoz merged to become Novartis ten years ago, the area has slowly begun to undergo change.

Old buildings have either been torn down or renovated, and new ones built. But it is not one architect's projects, but rather a host of individual ones. More often than not, one architect is responsible for one building.

Novartis boss Daniel Vasella is the driving force behind the change, yet he does not decide who builds what, according to Raeber. "For that, we have internal and external commissions," he said.

To work faster, the company has also chosen to go out and hire the best architects for each project, rather than to spend time on traditional architectural competitions.

Expansion

The pharmaceuticals specialist isn't merely renovating the area it already occupies, but expects to reorganise it as well. The St Johann docks will be moved further up the Rhine, releasing a zone that will be turned into parks and pedestrian areas.

Canton Basel City's parliament is expected to decide on whether it wants to co-finance this part of the Novartis project.

Similar plans have failed in the past because of the costs involved. But this time, the government is confident it will get approval.

"This common project with Novartis makes it affordable," said the government in a statement. The authorities hope the planned changes will boost business in the city.

"The project will attract new companies in the pharmaceuticals and life sciences sectors, as well as their suppliers," they added.

As part of the deal, Novartis would take over abandoned residential buildings that the canton must demolish. With the freedom to decide how to position its buildings, the company will cut off the main road that runs through the campus area.

"The campus will be a creative urban entity, and movement between buildings and sections will be more comfortable for people," said Raeber.

swissinfo, Andreas Keiser in Basel

Key facts

Novartis will be investing SFr2 billion ($1.5 billion) over a seven-year period for the Campus project.
In ten years' time, the number of employees working on the site should have doubled from 5,000 to 10,000.

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In brief

Novartis is redeveloping the St Johann zone of Basel where it is headquartered.

The industrial area is to be transformed into a research and development site, with offices the company's marketing services and administration.

The St Johann docks will be removed, making way for open park space and a pedestrian zone.

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