By Carolyn Bandel
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 (SREN).
“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 (NESN) to revamp a chocolate brand.
Switzerland’s populace can be “perplexed by large and expensive projects,” Schmid said.
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