Smooth and rough: Brendan Woods revisits Switzerland’s cultural centre to enjoy the work of a new generation.
Photo: Valentin Jack
I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Swiss architecture, but I have made a number of study trips involving the obligatpory pilgrimages to Basel to see Herzog & de Meuron and Diener & Diener, to Graubünden to see Zumthor, Caminada, Bearth & Deplazes and Olgiati. In Zürich and Winterthur I have visited the work of Peter Märkli and Gigon & Guyer. And of course, one detects certain correspondences between the work of architects working in the same cutural and environmental conditions. But while the influence of Märkli (in his Sargans apartment building where plastic spacers were left in the concrete walls), or Gigon & Guyer’s signal box might be visible in the Üetliberg apartments by Andreas Fuhrimann Gabrielle Hächler Architekten, I’m not sure that there is a ‘Zürich school’ to rival Basel and the Ticino. Rather, the evidence suggests a much looser federation of talented architects – all affected, perhaps, by factors such as Miroslav Sik’s teaching at ETH in Zürich, but developing in quite different directions.
Such a thesis is borne out by a recent trip to visit the work of a younger generation of Zürich architects in the company of Werner Kreis. Some of the most admired qualities of Swiss architecture are evident even on the walk from the plane through the newer section of Zürich airport: the phenomenal quality of Swiss concrete, an apparently seamless material miraculously smooth and frequently without boltholes, is evidence of a way of building that is the envy of most other nations. It was something of a surprise, therefore, to find myself on the outskirts of town an hour or so after landing, climbing the very roughly shuttered concrete stairs of the Üetliberg apartment building by AFGH. Not only was the roughness startling, but the labyrinthine character of the stair was very dramatic. I was reminded of Loos’ house for Tristan Tzara in Monmartre, although outwardly the building bears no resemblance. A sleek galvanised steel and glass deformed rectangular prism sits against the hillside with its huge glazed openings giving panoramic views back over Zürich.
The combination of materials is unexpected but handled with consummate skill. The interior circulation spaces – communal entrance hall and stairs to each apartment – are in rough grey concrete; the contractor was told to make the walls as he chose, employing whatever methods made most sense to him, hence the roughness with the marks of the different shuttering lifts clearly visible. It was strangely liberating after smooth machine-made concrete to literally feel the concrete and see its birthmarks, and the exquisite contrast between the smooth stainless steel electrical switch plates and the gritty textured surface. In Smooth and Rough (1951), Adrian Stokes talks of ‘carving’ as opposed to ‘modelling’ and these staircases feel like carved labyrinthine spaces from which one is released into the world. The contrast between them and the timber-clad living spaces is intensely pleasurable, and recalls Paspels school by Valerio Olgiati. If one can characterise the psychological experience of the physical world as a modal encounter between being held and being released, being merged and being independent, then this project describes those feelings. The staircases do have the character of umbilical cords connecting the communal entrance hall (from which one issues out into the world) to the womb-like living spaces where one floats in a sublime amniotic space suspended over the city. I have always found the Swiss strangely psychological and this building seems to confirm that view. As the night drew in the panoramic view of Zürich below reminded me of those photographs of 1950s LA houses perched on the hills looking out over the twinkling metropolis – an iconic aspect of modernism here tempered by a Calvinist sense of materiality.
In Forsterstrasse, on the outskirts of Zürich, is an apartment building by Christian Kerez. Situated on a quiet, one-sided street, the building immediately impresses by its sheer elegance. Composed of immaculate white concrete cantilevered slabs, large areas of glass and white full-height curtains, it had the quality of an apparition amongst the flurries of falling snow. It was as if we had willed the building into being – had willed this phenomenological merging of Helmut Federle, Mies’ Farnsworth house and sublime concrete into existence. It is a truly outstanding piece of work.
We were kindly escorted round the building by Christian’s father (who lives in one of the apartments) and who carefully and deliberately led us from the underground garage – which was more like a car museum with its five by three metre bolt-free panelled smooth concrete walls and ceiling – via the boiler room, which took advantage of geothermal power, to the beautiful entrance lobby with its stainless steel slatted stair and clerestorey cills in line with the sloping site. In his apartment the five metre cantilevered slabs create a calmness, since there is continuous light but no glare, and a sense of space that I have rarely experienced. When we later visited Kerez’s office he explained that he wasn’t interested in construction, just space, and these apartments demonstrate that. All the internal doors are either full-height storage walls or fold back into them creating a sense of continuous space. Electrical sockets appear miraculously out of the smooth concrete walls.
One side of Kerez’s relaxed office is devoted to working models (and given his consummate skill in realising pure architectural space, the large scale models were disarmingly amateur). Among them was an extraordinary project for a three-storey double villa with the external walls entirely in glass and the internal cranked and inflected party wall in concrete, with the floor cantilevered up to four metres. Another was a model for a house which quite literally followed the slope of the site to create the maximum internal volume possible; the house a series of wide ‘terraces’ with continuous views over the lake. There was a logic to each project that was irrefutable. Kerez had recently won the Warsaw museum of modern art competition and his scheme has been ungraciously likened to a carpark. It occupies the footprint and section that the competition conditions required, but the detailed section and irregular structure of the main gallery spaces are much more playful than admitted by his detractors.
On the evidence of the Forsterstrasse apartments and the work on show in his studio Christian Kerez is an architect to be reckoned with. Perhaps his work shares similarities to that of Valerio Olgiati but the new Leutschenbach school, now on site in Oelikion, reminded me of early Louis Kahn with its poetic structure and balance. Kerez’s significance will result from his fusion of the seminal influences of twentieth century architecture – Loos, Mies and Kahn – with his own singular vision of architectural space. While acknowledging Zumthor’s search for the sublime he also suggests in his Warsaw project a connection to the everyday world. He embodies what Bernard Berenson wrote about Cezanne and Piero: ‘If they express anything it is character; essence rather than momentary feeling or purpose’.
Although I was very impressed by the two apartment buildings in particular and by Kerez’s approach in general, however, it was the Leimbach housing by Pool Architekten that of all the new buildings in Zürich seems to offer the most interesting lessons. Leimbach is a suburb and has been, since the 1960s and 70s, a test site for changing housing concepts. The project, which is two separate buildings for two separate co-ops containing 120 apartments overall, was won in a competition. It is part of a strategy to create 10,000 new dwellings between 1998 and 2008 by Zürich city council. (About a quarter of existing and new dwellings are owned by non-profit making institutions, the city council and housing co-ops).
The two building volumes are positioned on the edge of the sloping site, in order to retain and enhance the central space – an old orchard – which thus becomes its magnificent main feature. This is the communal space for all inhabitants and a prelude to the rural landscapes beyond. The two blocks are both made up of three ‘houses’, each with its own vertical circulation.
Each house is at a slight angle to the next, affording a modicum of autonomy within the larger whole. The roofline follows the natural slope of the site – a rational mechanism (to obtain the maximum building volume within the planning strictures) that nevertheless, in conjunction with the slowly shifting plan geometry, results in the organic contour of the composition. Its proposition is different from that of the neighbouring estates. This is not a juxtaposition of abstract cartesian volumes in a supposedly ‘arcadian’ landscape. The proverbial Swiss box seems to have been laid to rest here. These slate-clad cliffs are more reminiscent of the ridge of the Albis mountains behind, where the green hillside is occasionally torn open to reveal a sheer rock face too steep for any permanent vegetation to settle.
The basic module of the internal organization of the buildings is a two-storey high group of six dwellings off a common entrance space. The dwellings, some single-storey, some maisonettes, are intricately intertwined like the elements of a Japanese puzzle. The aim is to minimise the number of stair-cases and to give each dwelling aspects to both the front and back of the building. At the same time, the staircases are not just vertical shafts, but brightly lit, differentiated architectural spaces from the double-storey entrance lobby to the roof. The large landings alternate from the left to the right of the single flight of stairs and have been taken over by the tenants as forecourts, meeting places and playrooms for children. Large balconies (additional living rooms to each flat) facing the orchard reflect such alternating patterns and counteract any threat of monotony. The poché space on the top of the buildings (padding between the stepped orthogonal section of the main volume and the undulating roof-line) is cleverly exploited to provide special dwellings, including maisonettes with expansive roof terraces.
In this project Pool addresses the problem of creating differentiated dwellings for individual families within a collective on a scale that is more to do with the city than the countryside or suburb, and thereby offers more instruction than the small apartment buildings which, however intriguing and beautifully crafted, solve an ‘old’ problem. The future of European cities must be to do with economies brought about by increased density and the Leimbach housing serves as an exemplary demonstration of the way in which inner city living could rise to that challenge.
Brendan Woods is an architect in private practice. Werner Kreis is a partner in Kreis, Schaad, Schaad based in Zürich.
AT179/June 07 p16.