Forget cheese and chocolate. Switzerland’s latest successful export is architects.
The Swiss have proven that architectural prowess needs no translation, with Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron creating the “Bird’s Nest” for the Beijing Olympics and converting a London power plant into the Tate Modern Museum. Bernard Tschumi designed the New Acropolis Museum in Athens and Mario Botta crafted San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.
“In a certain sense, we’re the new luxury exports,” Botta, 68, said in an interview at his Mendrisio, Switzerland, office in the southern Alps. “Swatch helps the image of Swiss architecture as well even if it only makes watches.”
Switzerland’s wealth, quality of construction and reputation for precision have promoted a style of architecture that started with Le Corbusier, whose face adorns the Swiss 10-franc note. Yet in the land of Alpine peaks, the tallest building is the new Swiss Prime Tower in Zurich at just 36 stories. Switzerland’s limits on size means architects often go abroad seeking new challenges on a bigger canvas.
“You cannot become a star in Switzerland, the country simply is too small and there aren’t that many big projects where architects can reach international fame,” said Christian Schmid, who teaches at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology or ETH. Still, “there’s a very lively architectural scene in Switzerland with many good architects.”
Swiss Architectural Stars
Since 2001, Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor and partners Herzog and De Meuron have won the annual Pritzker Prize, the most important global prize in architecture. This year’s award went to Chinese architect Wang Shu, whose works feature recycled bricks and salvaged roofing tiles.
Past laureates include Americans such as Frank Gehry, feted for his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, France’s Jean Nouvel, designer of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and Norman Foster, whose iconic Gherkin building in London’s financial district was commissioned by Zurich-based reinsurer Swiss Re.
“We Swiss are not so susceptible to trends,” Zumthor, 68, said to explain Switzerland’s architectural successes after winning the 2009 Pritzker.
Zumthor built the Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London last year, a summer structure commissioned annually. This year, childhood friends Herzog and De Meuron along with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whom they collaborated with in Beijing, are designing the pavilion amid the run-up to London’s Summer Olympics.
Important architects are chosen for the pavilion, “and among the big names in the world, there are just very many Swiss, which is incredible,” Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery and Swiss, said in a phone interview.
“The constraints that Switzerland has, such as the topography, create very interesting and dynamic architecture.”
Such topographical challenges in a nation where 40 percent of the terrain is mountains proved little issue for Zumthor, who built the Vals thermal baths southwest of Davos using 60,000 slabs of local rock.
Besides terrain, costs in a country of almost 8 million residents are also important after the Swiss franc reached near-parity with the euro last year, denting exports.
Local acceptance is crucial to the Swiss style of democracy, with popular votes held to approve large projects. Switzerland’s last big concert hall survived four referendums before it was finished in 2000 by Nouvel on Lake Lucerne. Nouvel also designed packaging for Nestle SA to revamp a chocolate brand.
Switzerland’s populace can be “perplexed by large and expensive projects,” Schmid said.
Voting on Projects
While plans for a new Kongresshaus conference center in Zurich were voted down, deemed as too expensive, Bern’s museum for painter Paul Klee by Italy’s Pritzker-winner Renzo Piano, architect of London’s landmark tower the Shard, won the go-ahead from voters who admired its rolling design.
Swiss architecture has developed differently than the rest of Europe as the country didn’t suffer the vast destruction of World War II that Italy, France, Germany and Britain did.
“In Switzerland, there was a vacuum out of which in the 1980s came a group of new starters, including Livio Vacchini, Zumthor, Herzog and De Meuron and myself,” said Peter Maerkli, 58, a design professor at ETH who built La Congiunta, a minimalist sculpture museum in Ticino, and the visitor’s center for drugmaker Novartis AG in Basel.
With the exception of Zumthor, all studied at ETH, founded in 1855 and a source for homegrown architectural talent.
“At ETH in Zurich, from very early on you are asked to work with the design and the construction at the same time,” Lausanne, Switzerland-born Tschumi said in a phone interview from his office in New York. “Many other cultures separate the two.”
For his New Acropolis Museum at the foot of the ancient Acropolis in Athens, Tschumi did just that, designing a structure infusing concrete and glass with history.
“The approach to the build was very Swiss” as the site was set amid delicate archaeological excavations in a hot climate and quake zone, Tschumi said. “These conditions moved us to design a simple and precise museum with the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greece.”
Roche Holding AG, the world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs, has hired Herzog and De Meuron to construct what will be Switzerland’s tallest building in Basel. When done it will top the Swiss Prime Tower by Gigon and Guyer by 4-5 stories.
That project may mark a paradigm shift for Swiss architecture as younger architects find a toehold at home.
Harald Echsle and Annette Spillmann, for example, built the Freitag flagship retail store in Zurich’s former industrial west with 17 used shipping containers.
These architects may pave the way for a new generation that integrates architecture with urban Swiss zoning where limited building land leads to higher buildings. “This is where the future lies,” Maerkli said.