Descending into the basement cloakroom of the Swiss National Museum is an experience in itself. The fine metal balustrade is a magnet that invites you down the stairs into a dark room characterised by undulating board-marked concrete vaults arching over elegant strip lights. These same lights are used in the back-of-house corridors, as well as flanking the impressive large doors of the main entrance. Zürich is the evidence that special design is not just reserved for special places and that quality has to be maintained throughout an entire building for everyone to enjoy.
As we ascended the landscaped stone path to Therme Vals or wandered around the outskirts of Zürich’s industrial quarter, new and old buildings, public and private spaces all displayed their unabashed quality through a banquet of carefully manipulated materials. Everything is designed with legacy and longevity embedded into its DNA, with buildings painstakingly maintained and cleaned long after they have finished being built.
A trip through the new Europaalee showcases Swiss urban-scale thinking. Even within a large masterplan full of gargantuan blocks, there is very little duplication. From metal, to stone, to timber, to glass and to concrete, the facades are drawn into a continuous conversation with each other through their proportions, but all clearly distinguished from one another through their materiality and detailing. A typical block can be enjoyed at many different distances and scales. Each building constitutes part of a composition within the streetscape but also has its own unique characteristics as a piece of architecture in its own right.
Peter Markli’s Im Birch School forms the heart of the town with the playground and running track open onto the street and with no fences surrounding it. Climbing frames, paddling pools and fountains are sited in the centre of public squares with everything open and visible. Private boundaries are suggested using changes in surface, colours and planting, but without any physical barriers that say ‘keep out’. In the city, most residential blocks enclose impressive and vast landscaped courtyards, which are open to walk into and are shared by its many residents.
Zürich gives little gifts back to the city’s occupants through a variety of simple and meaningful gestures. For example, colonnades enclose open, public corridors and blocks are often designed with chamfered corners that bevel away from the street in order to give space back to the public realm.
Our trip also coincided with the opening of ETH Zürich’s ‘Pavilion of Reflections’, a floating timber structure built and designed by students. The pavilion was free and open to the public and included a roped-off section of the Zürich sea allowing visitors to jump into the lake before drying off on the bleacher-like steps. The pavilion heaved with residents enjoying the bar, cinema, the Swiss landscape and each other’s company, whilst enjoying the feeling of inhabiting a structure that was gently bobbing along on the surface of the water. To us, the pavilion represented a gesture of generosity to Zürich’s residents, and a true device for creating meaningful memories between people within the city.
Our final thoughts
There is significant value in seeing the work of others in order to inform one’s intuitive decision making and to refresh one’s thinking. There is no substitute for physically inhabiting great buildings and walking around inside their skins, observing all their details spatially and three-dimensionally, touching them and experiencing how they change with the light and with the movement of your body around them. In contrast with the most common way we digest buildings - through strategically choreographed photos, a visit to a building truly sharpens one’s way of observing, thinking and designing.
The many wonderful examples of architecture in Zürich taught us the value of embedding the qualities of generosity, open-ness and uniqueness in our work and firmed our resolve to fight just that little bit harder for quality. Everyone who is emotionally invested and involved in making the built environment a better place, should visit and experience the thoughtful spirit of Swiss architecture - you will not be disappointed.