Tag Archives: switzerland

Pedestrian Connection in Chur

Pedestrian Connection in Chur, Switzerland, by Esch Sintzel Architects, 2012

All photographs by John Hill

On a recent trip to Switzerland I was fortunate enough to visit Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals, a masterpiece of light, dark, and water. It was an experience equal parts stimulating and relaxing, thanks to both the architecture and the gorgeous valley setting. The town and baths are most easily reached by car, in a route that takes one past the city of Chur, the capital city of Graubünden, the canton that also encompasses Vals. In Chur I visited a more recent project by Esch Sintzel Architects, a pedestrian connection linking two parts of a school separated by a vertical expanse of 35 meters (115 feet).

The architects wove a stairway along and across a funicular, which allows people without the means of using the stairs to ascend and descend the ten stories separating the school building at the base and the one next to the Cathedral of Chur. Visiting on a Sunday, the funicular was not in operation. No bother, since the stairs offer plenty of opportunities for rest, particularly through the way the walls frame views of the surrounding city and countryside on different sides.

Both human and mechanical means of access tunnel through the landscape, making the voyage one that veers from open and light to enclosed and dark. From bottom to top, the stairs start in a straight shot toward the top, paralleling the funicular; then they take a right away from the funicular, only to turn another 90 degrees and meet up with it again for the final ascent to the top. A plan of the stair's route would look like a loop with straight lines at the ends. This detour functionally allows more ascent than would be possible with only a straight run, but it also lets the architects put the urban and natural scenery on display, perhaps the most important aspect of the design.

Not surprisingly, concrete is an important material in the realization of the project. But so is weathered steel, which is used for the walls and roofs of the portions that just from the rock at the bottom and the top. On the sides these thin plates (only 12mm, or 1/2", thick) are cut with hexagonal openings that affect how one looks at the surrounding landscape; it's like a skewed picture window that adds some dynamism to fairly idyllic views. While the outside of the steel is weathered (rust) the inside faces are painted white. This lightens the series of spaces and enables the perforated corrugated guardrails to stand out a little bit, their color echoing the rust.

While the pedestrian connection by Esch Sintzel Architects may not be able to compete with Zumthor's Therme Vals—both in the evolving canon of contemporary architecture and in my memories—perhaps that is an unfair comparison. More praiseworthy is the way the piece of infrastructure in Chur manages to utilize its surroundings to great effect, just as the windows in Zumthor's bath elevates the beauty of the hills around Vals. Chur may not have as much natural beauty as Vals—it is a city rather than a small village, after all—but through the openings of Esch Sintzel's walls of weathered steel, the city is turned into something special, a place to be celebrated.

Three Buildings in Chiasso, Switzerland

M.A.X. Museo and Spazio Officina by Durisch + Nolli (2005) and Double Scholastic Gym by Baserga Mozzetti Architetti (2010).

Chiasso, a Swiss border-town, can hardly boast of the architectural treasures that neighboring Como, Italy does, but on a recent visit I was impressed by an unexpected contemporary urban assemblage. Three buildings -- a museum, a multi-purpose hall, and a sports center -- are individual design statements that still have an interesting conversation going on. The outdoor space they share is more parking lot than piazza (empty save two cars on my visit), but this surface unites the glass, metal, and concrete buildings.

Two of the buildings come from architects Durisch + Tolli -- M.A.X. Museo and Spazio Officina -- who referred to the site as a "no-man's land" when they received the commission in 2003. M.A.X. Museo was established by the wife of the late Max Huber, Aoi Huber-Kono, and appropriately it is focused on graphic design. The building, covered in translucent channel glass, meets the sidewalk, giving this precinct of contemporary architecture an urban presence. A dramatic cantilever signals the entrance, which faces away from the shared lot that connects the various buildings.

Spazio Officina is set at an angle to M.A.X. Museo, meaning that it is hidden on the main approach but that its picture windows come into view once past the museum. The four projecting lightboxes do a good job of tipping off to people that something special is happening inside, though on my visit it looked like the skylit interior was being used for an architectural jury, given the carefully ordered models and drawings ringing a long table with chairs. The open space is clearly built for flexibility, unlike the third and last element on the site.

The "Double Scholastic Gym," designed by Baserga Mozzetti Architetti houses, as expected, two gymnasiums, meaning the building is a wrapper for a large space. But the volume is lower than both the M.A.X. Museo and Spazio Officini because the architect placed the courts for basketball, volleyball, and other sports (there is some flexibility, after all) below grade. Concrete walls on four sides are propped above glass walls by V-shaped columns located at the halfway point of each side. Five years after the two cultural ingredients, the gym is a great addition to the architectural complex in Chiasso.


Löwenbräu-Areal in Zurich, Switzerland by Gigon/Guyer & atelier ww, 2012.

Recently I received a press release indicating that "Switzerland’s leading contemporary art organisation, the Kunsthalle Zürich, will open to the public for a preview week between 10 -17 June 2012 in its new permanent home within the Löwenbräukunst. The official reopening will take place in August 2012." The Löwenbräukunst, it turns out, "also houses the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and a number of international leading galleries." But it is also part of the larger Löwenbräu-Areal, which is comprised of the arts center, a residential tower, and an office building.

Design by Zürich-based architects Gigon/Guyer with atelier ww, the project is, not surprisingly given the name, the renovation of a former Löwenbräu brewery. Existing galleries are added to, and the office and residential buildings are new, from the ground up. In the top rendering, the pieces from left to right are the arts center (white), residential tower (black), and office building (red). As the photo above left attests, the gallery addition is complete while the other elements are still under construction, expected to be complete later this year.

The arts addition is a minimal, smooth concrete volume above the existing brick building at the site's southwest corner. On the north, the concrete box extends to the ground, such that old and new are two interlocking volumes. The apertures in the concrete walls are few but fairly large. Within the white-box gallery spaces, the openings have a sizable impact, as can be evidenced in the photo at left.

Where the gallery addition is solid and colorless, the residential tower and lower office volume are punctuated by regular grids of windows in respectively black and red facades. Their power lies in the way they are sited on either side of a central courtyard. The residential and office buildings also interlock with the existing brewery to create this space, almost touching each other at one corner. Inside, the regular grid of openings is made special by operable windows that retract inside like garage doors.

Architectural Concrete in Detail

Architectural Concrete in Detail: Four Buildings by Miller & Maranta edited by Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Design and Building Construction Chair Michael Loudon, Florian Kirfel and Daniel Reisch
Quart Publishing, 2011
Paperback, 88 pages

My initial familiarization with Basel, Switzerland's Miller & Maranta -- the duo of Quintus Miller and Paola Maranta -- was ten years ago with their Market Hall, a wood building inserted into the urban fabric of Aarau. The simple open-air building is defined by a repetitive grid of tightly spaced wood fins, but the structure and overall form inflects to follow the street it occupies. The site and program make it a unique piece of architecture, but the blending of simplicity and contextual response is found in other Miller & Maranta buildings as this excellent book with case studies of four concrete structures attests.

The four buildings are: Volta School Building, Schwarzpark Residential Building, Villa Garbald, and Spirgarten Home for the Elderly. Each project is explained through photos, drawings, and text from the larger contextual picture down to the layout of spaces, the construction system, and the technical composition of the exposed concrete. Full-page, close-up photos are an important element that allows the finish of each exterior surface to be easily compared and grasped in their small-scale intricacies.

At first glance each building exhibits a simplicity that is off-putting, as if their grids and flat surfaces are devoid of character and life. But the presentation of each project reveals the careful work of the architects in not only crafting the concrete but in creating some remarkable spaces within forms strongly linked to each site. The conviction of each building also stems from the clarity of the presentation; the text, photos, and drawings (all in a consistent format) work remarkably well together to tell the story of each building in a way that understanding of them in the book's context of concrete is maximized.

The Volta School Building (above) is a cubic form with regular horizontal openings that express the grid that pervades the whole structure. But it does not reveal the four courtyards that punctuate the top four floors, nor the below-grade gymnasium that the classrooms and courts site above. An elaborate structural system with tensioning cables enables load-bearing concrete walls following the grid to define the spaces above the long-span gymnasium. The Schwarzpark Residential Building (below) also features a pervasive grid, but it is one that is kinked in two directions in response to its siting at the park's southern tip. Volta's flatness gives way here to deep areas where the balconies sit; all openings are also marked by operable shades that give the exterior a variable appearance. Dark-gray concrete is used throughout, most spectacularly in the stairwells which feature beautiful steel railings (primed with zinc dust and painted) embedded in the concrete treads.

Villa Garbald (above) is a freestanding building that extends the programming of a 19th-century villa designed by Gottfried Semper and run by Fondazione Garbald. The five-sided building, in plan, was erected walls first, followed by the inner structure. But what is most remarkable is the rough finish achieved by high-pressure water jetting the in-situ concrete walls. A very different appearance is achieved on the facades of the Spirgarten Home for the Elderly, which were sandblasted. Oversized aluminum frames around the continuous windows accentuates the light color of the concrete. Located in the Altstetten area of Zurich, the building inflects in response to its corner site and to green spaces at the perimeter, another example of Miller & Maranta's sensitivity to site in a minimalist palette.

US: Buy from Amazon.com CA: Buy from Amazon.ca UK: Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Coverage of Archaeological Ruins of the Abbey of St. Maurice

Coverage of Archaeological Ruins of the Abbey of St. Maurice in St. Maurice, Switzerland by Savioz Fabrizze Architectes, 2010.

In architecture an interstitial space can be simply defined as the space between two objects, be they buildings, walls, or a floor and a roof. Of course this doesn't get at what makes an interstitial space different than any other space, or what makes them special. I'd offer that an interstitial space is one that is bound by something new opposite something old, and often fairly narrow or stretched in shape. Most that come to mind are formed by walls, such as gaps between a new construction and an old neighbor, but interstitial spaces that result from horizontal planes old and new are quite special, as this new Coverage of Archaeological Ruins of the Abbey of St. Maurice by Savioz Fabrizze Architectes attests.

One that immediately springs to mind is Bernard Tschumi's Le Fresnoy Art Center in Tourcoing, France. In that mid-1990s projejct a series of old buildings are capped by a huge roof pierced by large openings; the space in between is occupied by catwalks and other platforms. More immediate precedents to this project in St. Maurice are Sverre Fehn's Hedmark County Museum in Hamar, Norway; Peter Zumthor's Protective Housing for Roman Archaeological Excavations in Chur, Switzerland; and another Zumthor project, the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany. Each of these buildings covers old ruins, existing as a means of preserving and appreciating them.

Yet there is a simplicity to the design by Savioz Fabrizze Architectes that makes it a refreshing departure from those earlier precedents; as well the cliff side that abuts the ruins further gives the space a unique presence. The cliff and the ruins are strongly linked: the cliff gave added security to the abbey that was built 1,500 years ago, but it also spelled destruction for the latter in the form of rocks falling on the building. The architects strove to express this history and the threat of destruction that came from siting the abbey next to the cliff. They covered the suspended roof with 170 tons of stones, like an elevation gabion plane.

Combined with the translucent surface on the underside of the covering, the effect of the stones is a soft, filtered light. A consistent pattern is made by the stones amongst the framing, making the reading the architects intended fairly straightforward. Yet without knowing the background, the effect is remarkable. The jagged cliff and and ruins are countered by the gridded plane overhead; its structural supports are hidden, ironically anchored into the cliff that spelled the abbey's doom.

Blur: The Making of Nothing

Blur: The Making of Nothing by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio
Harry N. Abrams, 2002
Paperback, 384 pages

Serving as a document of the 3.5-year struggle to "make nothing," this book will find more favor with architects, those familiar with the difficult process to build anything. Those unfamiliar with the design and construction processes might be enlightened, though they'll have to dig through dry correspondence, architectural drawings, shop drawings, and so forth. Regardless, I found the documentation fascinating, almost as fascinating as the project itself, a fog cloud hovering 75 feet above the waters of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, part of Expo.02. The book acts like a timeline, a literal one anchoring each right-hand page and illustrating that page's location in the process. Thematic sections give detailed information on the various components: fog nozzles, media, structure, etc. If the project weren't such an atypical building, the process wouldn't be nearly as interesting. But given the groundbreaking nature of the undertaking, even the most mundane faxes and shop drawings take on more than a passing fancy. By the end, the reader is amazed that the project turned out so successful, given the struggles and setbacks encountered along the way.

Market Hall

Market Hall in Aarau, Switzerland by Miller & Maranta, 2002.

Miller & Maranta's Market Hall in Aarau, Switzerland is notable for its siting and its formal characteristics, particularly the rhythm of its wood construction. Featured in the wonderful little book Swiss Made, the Market Hall is influenced by its surroundings, yet is a unique counterpoint to the adjacent buildings, a light wood building sitting in stark contrast with the heavy limestone prevalent in the city.

Sited at an opening of streets in a dense section of Aarau, the building follows the adjacent building fronts, bending gradually on one long side and more noticeably on the other. Its location and inflection accommodate movement around the hall on both sides. When open on the short sides, the building allows free movement through itself as well as around.

The simple exterior of rectangular wood posts in a regular rhythm is split into a low and high section, the former opaque (or open when the doors are rolled to allow access) and the latter open. A flat roof, also wood, caps the building with a minimal profile. The greatest quality of the exterior comes as one moves past the building; what was opaque at an extreme angle becomes open more head-on. The tight spacing of supports creates an ever-changing face for the utilitarian structure that falls somewhere between market stand and warehouse.

The inside continues the outside rhythm through the roof structure. Only a single column and major beams breaks this rhythm and the otherwise open space. The simplicity is deceiving, as lights and sprinklers are tucked between the roof members, a consideration easier in concept than in practice. Here, the outside wall's separation of high and low makes the most sense, as the surrounding facades are framed between the low wall and roof, like looking through a window with large blinds. It puts them on display but also gives a fresh view of what could be considered the city's vernacular.

Chesa Futura

Chesa Futura in St. Moritz, Switzerland by Norman Foster and Partners.

Upon first glance of renderings for the Chesa Futura apartment building in Switzerland's Engadin Valley, it is difficult to believe it is the work of London's Norman Foster and Partners. Although the architect's work in recent years has embraced forms that veer from the orthogonal, the overt "blobbiness" and choice of materials stand apart from his recent oeuvre.

Situated on a slope overlooking the town of St. Moritz, Foster refers to the form as novel, though the building is responsive to its site in ways that dictates its form. The image above illustrates the large south-facing openings with balconies that face the lake and surrounding mountains. Likewise the north side responds to the sun, or lack of, with smaller openings and greater thermal mass. The form enables openings to wrap the building so the vista is greater than a flat wall.

Foster chose timber for the building's exterior for two reasons: timber is the indigenous architectural material in the area and it is a renewable resource, aiding the environment through carbon dioxide consumption while growing. Also, since the timber is locally forested, very little energy is used in transporting the material. Over time the larch shingles will show their age, coloring to blend in with the surroundings, appearing to grow like the neighboring vegetation.

The building is raised above the slope on angled pilotis for various reasons: to avoid timber rot from excess moisture, to maximize views and to "reinstate the rocky texture and scale of the mountain terrain beneath the building". A cylindrical core leads to a level of underground parking and storage.

Hopefully the materiality of the final product, as seen in the construction photo above, will lend the building a less "alien" quality in the landscape than the renderings indicate. Regardless, Foster's past work illustrates that a building's environmental aspects are just as important as its aesthetics.

[Google Earth link]

Yellow House

Yellow House

Yellow House in Flims, Switzerland by Valerio Ogliati, 1999.

Valerio Ogliati's father Rudolph (1910-1995) donated his extensive collection of cultural artifacts to the Swiss town of Flims, on condition that the Yellow House be preserved and used as a museum and cultural center. The elder Ogliati insisted upon a stone roof and white surfaces, two distinctive traits of his work. His son followed his father's wishes almost verbatim, though he transcended the unspectacular design of the existing house through minor interventions that create a surrealist, Aldo Rossi-esque object in the middle of town.

The main elements of Valerio's intervention include repairing the existing masonry; inserting new, deep-profile windows; creating new internal structure and floor surfaces; and adding the required stone roof and whitewash exterior. From a distance the museum/cultural center is an abstract box with square openings, but shadows cast from the rough masonry require further inspection. A closer look makes it apparent the building is a patchwork of materials expressing change over time. The stone facade is interrupted at the top floor with timbers (a previous structural solution to lighten the heavy walls) and at the windows with new concrete frames for the windows, the glass pulled back to the inside face of the thick exterior walls. The monochrome surfaces freeze the building in its current state.

Inside each of the three floors is an open plan with smooth walls, beams supporting whitewashed wood floors, and an off-center wood column (the latter revealing its true intention at the top floor). By locating the column away from the center the visitor is forced to try and comprehend that the space is created by the structure. The symmetrical roof and off-center column's disjunction resolve themselves in a bent pier connecting the roof peak and column/beam intersection. The angled timber is simultaneously playful and puzzling; it enables the column locations below but defies common sense as a structural solution. Inside (space) and outside (roof and walls) definitely do not offer prescriptions for the other.

It is not the interior of the Yellow House that makes it distinctive and memorable; it is the exterior and its white, equalizing color. While painting stone is seen as blasphemous by many, its qualities as a natural substance justifying an unadorned finish, here the act creates a strong statement: "Look at me! I'm the same and different." The Yellow House unadorned is a building of traditional character, though a simple gesture, a coat of paint (the most important of Valerio's design gestures), makes it contemporary. Underneath it is the same, but on the surface it is different.

The Hotel

The Hotel

The Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland by Jean Nouvel, .

The Hotel, a renovation in Lucerne, Switzerland by the French architect Jean Nouvel, connotes a place of fantasy. A place where dreams come true, just like in the movies. Nouvel's impetus for projecting film stills (including Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Federico Fellini's Casanova, and Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, among others) upon the ceilings of The Hotel's guest rooms may not be its connection to filmic fantasy, but a hotel, or transient lodging in general, definitely has many relationships to the medium of film.

One of the most interesting relationships drawn between hotels and film exists in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, in which a Japanese tourist in Memphis takes pictures, not of famous sites, but of his hotel room. His reasoning rests in the memorability of unique sites and attractions versus the forgetfulness of hotel rooms. To this character the transient places he moves through have just as much, if not more, significance than the notable destinations. Most films aren't as direct in connecting movies and hotels. Instead the majority of dramas use hotels as a stage for important events: discovery in Barton Fink, delusion in The Shining, deceit in Last Year at Marienbad, and death in Psycho. The hotel becomes a stage for change, as it is a transition between point A and point B: home and away, life and death.

Is Nouvel simply reversing this relationship that exists, or is he attempting to comment on people and their actions? With society's level of self-consciousness higher than ever before one thing rarely affects another without it being affected upon as well. Reality does not affect film without film affecting reality. Nouvel must be aware of this reciprocity and that hotels are viewed as places where romance will be played out "just like in the movies". The hotel has always existed as a place free from the bondage and security of home, as a escape, though reading the hotel as informed by film adds another layer of meaning that Nouvel's design attempts to explicate, or at least question.

As described on the first page, the primary design gesture of The Hotel is rooms illuminated by projections of film stills. The examples listed all have one thing in common: they deal with the complexities of love, albeit in very different ways. By focusing on love stories, and scenes that suggest sex, the guest is explicitly aware of the hotel's role as a place for romance and change, at least in the world of film. Most impressively though Nouvel articulates the public spaces of the hotel (lobbies, bars, restaurant) as a 3-dimensional continuation of the 2-dimensional gesture within the rooms (see image on page two). The transparency and reflectivity of the glass, in concert with the minimal lighting, creates a mood of voyeurism in which the guest becomes director, or actor, in a variation on the films playing out overhead.