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On 5 October 1967, Walter Gropius was visiting Selb. He attended the opening of the Rosenthal am Rothbühl factory, which he designed with his Boston-based firm The Architects Collaborative (TAC). During a tour of the factory, the two men talked animatedly and became engrossed in a heated discussion about the colour of a particular design. When Gropius saw a black edge on the rim of a plate, Philip Rosenthal insisted that the black edge would turn gold after the piece was fired – and Gropius didn’t want to believe him. But the head of the company was proven right and Gropius had to pay for losing the bet – by designing accommodation for Rosenthal’s pet pig. The pig went by the wonderful name of RORO (for Rosenthal am Rothbühl) and was a gift to commemorate the factory’s inauguration.
The outcome of the spontaneous bet is fairly unusual, just like the finely crafted sketch by Gropius. In it, an adult is holding the hands of two children and looking over a fence, behind which the portly pig RORO is grazing. He should count himself lucky having such a luxurious home: a cubic-shaped, flat-roof building surrounded by a stone wall and mirroring the design of the Rosenthal am Rothbühl factory.
The most eye-catching design features include two high, thin window strips to the front and rear, the wide entrance area and the circular porthole set into the narrow end of the structure. The building looks more like a bungalow than a filthy pigsty, especially as Gropius added external walls, fencing and green spaces to the outdoor enclosure as an integral part of the architecture. However, he never got round to fulfilling his wager because the porcelain painters at the Rosenthal am Rothbühl factory went on strike. Out of the shear fear that the sulky piglet RORO would distract them from focusing on their work.
Although the modernistic pigsty remained unrealised, fortunately Gropius also completed a few architecture and design concepts for Rosenthal. At the end of the 1960s, together with his architecture firm TAC he designed the factory buildings in Selb and Amberg as well as the TAC tea service. The collaboration was brought about by the Swiss graphic artist Josef Müller-Brockmann, who was working on a book about The Architects Collaborative and suggested Gropius as an architect. He quickly agreed to the project and developed his interest in porcelain during the planning phase at the Rosenthal am Rothbühl factory.
At first, Philip Rosenthal did not even dare ask the architect for a design. “Perhaps I can ask the Pope to christen my daughter too,” he is reported as saying. But things worked out differently and it is no longer possible to imagine the Rosenthal design canon without the TAC tea service, with its geometric shapes, bow-shaped handles and striking bayonet catches.
There are two things that Philip Rosenthal and Walter Gropius have in common: a sense for forward-looking design and the belief in improving the social environment through architecture and design. Someone had actually suggested to the entrepreneur a simple factory hall for porcelain production, but Philip Rosenthal didn’t want to expose his employees to this “mechanical monstrosity that kills the mind and the soul”. Instead, the am Rothbühl factory conceived by Gropius is almost picturesquely nestled into parkland with lakes. Designed as a one-storey, reinforced concrete skeleton structure with prefabricated components in amongst the “green fields” of Selb, its flat roof is supported by enormous concrete columns. The front gate featuring a suspended concrete slab extends the full length of the wall front and impressively marks the entrance to the factory. Right next to it is the two-storey “Feierabendhaus”, which is equipped with a library, billiard tables, table tennis tables and a climbing wall.
The production hall, which is built with a grid-like design, is geared perfectly toward the premises of industrial production: optimal flow of materials, option to expand, flexibility. All product types are now produced under one roof, at one level and fully automated in a single cycle. A particular design highlight – a greenhouse in which pink flamingos roam freely about – is located in the middle of the production hall. Gropius had inspected the workplace in depth beforehand and found that a bit of green was important in amongst all the white porcelain. The second building that Gropius also designed for Rosenthal, but which was only completed after the architect’s death, is even more spectacular in an architecturally different way. The factory hall of the former Thomas glassware factory in Amberg is set so deeply into the ground that only the gables protrude from the earth and the roof surfaces become a kind of façade. The unusual design has its origins in air supply and extraction technology, which function exclusively by means of the building’s design.
A tea service, a porcelain factory, a glassware factory – so much still remains of the encounters between these two men who were passionate about good design.
But what became of the cute little piglet RORO, who very nearly wrote architectural history? Well rather than living a life of pig luxury in a cool Bauhaus bungalow, he lived out his days differently than planned but happy on a normal farm in the Upper Palatinate.
When architects and designers get together to discuss God and the world, sometimes this has an astonishingly creative outcome. One evening, Alex Probst, Ralf Schlachter and Bartek Wieczorek from the Frankfurt- based architectural firm “unique assemblage” were sitting together with Sebastian Herkner. The designer, who has already created a few products for Rosenthal, was telling the other three quite a riveting story: at the end of the 1960s, Walter Gropius was visiting Selb and lost a bet with Philip Rosenthal. Because he lost the bet, he had to construct a sty for the adorable Rosenthal pet pig RORO – in the Bauhaus style with an adjoining outdoor enclosure. But the sty was never built, and the sketch was almost entirely forgotten. Until someone at Rosenthal remembered it and finally decided to turn the sty into a reality in commemoration of Philip Rosenthal’s 100th birthday. The architects at “unique assemblage” were immediately enthusiastic about the project, especially as Alex Jobst grew up on a pig farm in Baden-Württemberg and has a real love for the animals: “Pigs are wonderful creatures, and are extremely similar to us humans. They have a great character, know exactly what’s going on and are very playful.” All good reasons to take on the ambitious project, especially as the three architects have a penchant for conceptual work. From the outset, it was undisputed that the sty should not simply be transposed 1:1 but should be much more of an interpretation. “We tried to convey the poetry of the bet story within the structure and keep the sty true to the sketch,” explains Alex Jobst, who spearheaded the project. Based on the original layouts, profiles and
sketches that were available to them, the three architects developed two different concepts. Version 1 gives the impression of a spatial sketch. The sty is rendered true to scale including the outdoor enclosure, but not in the original reinforced concrete version, instead using a frame-like physical structure made of two-centimetre- thick aluminium bars that have been welded together. Version 2 is made up of an exterior and an interior structure. While the interior structure is made from elegant golden rods, the exterior structure looks like a billboard that is displayed above a motorway.
A photo-realistic image of the sty in reinforced concrete is projected onto this. It quickly became apparent that version 1 should be made because it has a more lightweight feel and is also more poetic. This is because you can see through the square aluminium bars. They are also powder-coated in white on the outside and gold on the inside. Gold is in keeping with the anniversary theme and is the visual highlight of the interior. A series of custom-made, glass-fibre reinforced boxes in a vibrant petrol colour display Sebastian Herkner’s RORO Collection alongside the new TAC design Palazzo RORO by Ewelina Wisniowska – a subtle interpretation of the traditional gold rim and the sty sketch drawn by Gropius. They also feature photos, plans, drawings, a film of the bet story and a making of. The summary of this unusual architecture project by the architects is an enthusiastic one: “The sty would have been a pig’s paradise” – Alex Probst is firmly convinced of this.