Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

The campus of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis features a gleaming new visitor pavilion on the banks of the Rhine river and buildings designed by some of the biggest names in the architecture world. But it has been off limits to the public for the better part of the last two decades.

That changed last month when the campus opened to the general public in Basel, lifting the veil on Switzerland’s secret city.

In 2001, the company set out to transform a bleak industrial production facility into what it calls a campus of knowledge and innovation. The buildings were meant to encourage encounters between researchers, potentially leading to pharmaceutical discoveries.

The 1996 merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, which created Novartis, sparked the idea of a place where scientists could freely exchange ideas. The company commissioned the top architects of the era to create new workspaces. Today it features buildings designed by David Chipperfield, Fumihiko Maki, Rafael Moneo and Frank Gehry.

Why build these architectural gems only to keep them hidden for more than 20 years? The company designed its new campus with a purpose: to push its scientists and other employees out of the office to interact with each other. And it’s not just the buildings that are doing it. The Novartis campus also features open green spaces with ambitious public art by sculptors like Richard Serra and neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.

“The whole campus was designed to encourage maximum encounters,” says Nelly Riggenbach, head of Novartis campus communications.

This is not a typical corporate campus. It’s more of a city within a city. There are cafes, an Italian restaurant, and a grocery store.

On a late November morning, the streets are quiet. Although there are three riverboats filled with tourists docked only a short walk away, they have not discovered Switzerland’s secret city — yet.

Riggenbach says the company’s corporate culture has shifted to one of openness, particularly with the opening of the new Novartis Pavillon. With its competition, she says the company was ready to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward visitors.

You can access the campus on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (The pavilion is open Wednesday through Sunday.) Most of the buildings remain off-limits to visitors — they are working labs and office buildings — but you can still admire them from the outside.

Novartis has a long and sometimes controversial backstory. Its predecessor companies developed the first birth control pill and synthesized LSD. Novartis researchers also developed the iconic Ferrari red paint and gave the world Ovaltine.

The Novartis Pavillon, which opened in April, houses a cafe, classrooms and interactive exhibits on the company’s history and the development of pharmaceuticals. Of course, the pavilion is a work of art unto itself, with a facade of lights powered by solar cells.

The company is currently creating new drugs to treat heart diseases, cancer and neurological disorders.

The Novartis campus isn’t on any tourist maps yet, but that will almost certainly change in 2023 as more visitors discover Switzerland’s secret city — which is now an open secret.

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