We’re City Freaks – Swiss duo EM2N criticizes comfort levels and celebrates the city of Zurich
Text by Katharina Marchal
Published in MARK Magazine No. 28, 10/11.2010
On first impression, both Daniel Niggli (1970) and Mathias Müller (1966) are stereotypic Swiss architects: correct, reserved and possessed of good economic sense. They
founded EM2N in 1997 and now have a staff of 52. They have taken part in over 100 competitions, many of which they have
won, allowing them to build their designs. Yet behind this sedate, professional façade is an adventurous team that does not shy away from architectural
experimentation, as long as the context permits and the challenges are there. The firm’s oeuvre contains a remarkable number of renovations, extensions and conversions.
Two renovation projects not far from the office in Zurich are the Hardbrücke railway station and the Letten viaduct. The architects want to stay
close to the city and ist changing history. Their office is located just around the corner from the central station, near the drug and
red-light district, in the trendy ‘Kreis 5’, a revamped industrial area. In this quarter of the city, with its distinctive turn-of-the-century perimeter blocks, one
meets people from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds. The architects value heterogeneity. It wasn’t for nothing they named their recently published
book Both And.
Both of you studied at ETH Zurich (science and technology university), but you also gained experience abroad. Is Zurich the ideal spot for your
Mathias Müller (MM) Zurich has developed in parallel with us, and vice versa. When we founded our office in 1997, new building regulations consistent
with those of GATT/ WTO came into force, and a lot of official competitions were held. It was an opportune time for young practices
like ours to take their first steps. Surveyors’ offices, consortiums and privately owned companies have promoted the competition culture in Zurich, and the organization
and execution of these competitions are of a high standard.
Daniel Niggli (DN) This has meant that the young scene in Switzerland has not necessarily
been obliged to rely on connections.
MM We value the concentration of architecture offices in Zurich. Competition is always a good thing. We’re livelier when
there’s a lot going on around us.
‘It’s important to understand what makes other architects tick’
How and why do you seek out a constant exchange with other architects?
MM We have an aversion to set lecturing formats, so we started
organizing our own lectures early on. As yet, there have been 15. The last guest was Joshua Prince Ramus of REX. Once or twice
a year, we push the desks in our office to one side or find another suitable venue, serve up beer and provide architects from
all over the world with a platform. Some people think it’s cool. After our colleague, Jens Studer, attended a lecture, he invited us to
submit a design for the housing project at Hegianwandweg in Zurich. We won the competition and built the project.
DN These lectures are our way
of establishing a national and international network. We think it’s important to understand what makes other architects tick, what subjects and themes interest them.
For competitions, we’ve often formed a temporary office unit with fellow architects for strategic reasons: when we needed extra people or anticipated having a
better chance with a joint presence. The competition for the Rietberg Museum is one example. Purely out of curiosity, we collaborated with Peter Märkli
on the competition design of a car park for Zurich’s opera house.
What interests you about this city?
MM We’re city freaks. We’re not interested in the ‘mush’ in the landscape, the expanding urban sprawl. We’re intrigued
by the relationships between house and space, between black and white, between filled and empty surfaces. That’s what makes the city for us.
In the city, life, programme and traffic converge. We’re more interested in the complexity within a crowded space than in the dialogue between house
and landscape. Even the holiday home at Flumserberg was conceived programmatically.
MM For urban space to be activated, it needs public space, the programmatic
Fig. 1: Flumserberg Holiday Home, Flumserberg, Switzerland, 2003
Fig. 2: Basement, Sleeping floor, Living floor
‘We maintain that architects have something to say to everyone’
Cost-saving projects aren’t an obstacle for you, but rather a source of inspiration. Which projects were the most attractive challenges in that respect?
11, for instance, a competition that encompassed a whole project. There the principals wanted more than was possible with the fixed cost ceiling. We
take such conditions very seriously and work with them, not against them. With the resources available, we couldn’t have made a new building without
overspending. So we ‘cannibalized’ Theatre 11. We kept whatever we could use and gutted the rest. We didn’t choose that approach for conservation reasons
but for cost optimization.
Fig. 3: Theatre 11, Zurich, Switzerland, 2006
Fig. 4: Longitudinal section
MM The good thing about ‘planning with costs’ is the possibility to sharpen a project, to radicalize it, to heighten the focus. When Central
Europe – and particularly Switzerland – has a problem, there’s that lukewarm ‘everything must work perfectly’ attitude. Comfort above all else. All the rough
edges are smoothed away; nothing’s allowed to age. In the end, we’re living in technically perfect sterility.
DN For the Aussersihl Community Centre project, we
persuaded the clients to accept our critical attitude towards comfort levels.
MM There’s a functions room at the top of the building and a
restaurant below. We decided to omit impact sound insulation and to create a monolithic structure, contending that a restaurant would have to withstand the
Fig. 5: Community Centre Aussersihl, Zurich, Switzerland 2004
Fig. 6: Ground floor (restaurant), First floor (activity room), Second floor (meeting rooms), Roof terrace
DN The viaduct arches are a more extreme example. The walls there are permanently damp.
Fig. 7: Refurbishment Viaduct Arches, Zurich, Switzerland, 2010
MM When rain penetrates the layer of ballast, water runs through the quarry-stone piers, exits the wall from the interior of the structure, and
runs off into one of the channels we placed in the ground. Of course, the SIA (Swiss Association of Architects and Engineers) standard does
not address the issue of rain inside buildings.
DN It’s not the SIA standard that’s the problem but the users, with their absurdly demanding comfort
MM It was more important for us to leave the stone structure of the viaduct exposed than to remove the water from the space.
Insulating the viaduct had proved to be prohibitively expensive and difficult to press home to the railway company. The viaduct has listed status, so
there were also special conditions.
Fig. 8: Section (part 4), Section (part 1, market-hall)
Your repertoire contains a vast range of conversions, refurbishments and extensions, as well as temporary structures. Why is that?
DN We value the overlapping of
stories, the urban and cultural concentration.
MM Our works are building assignments that represent only one chapter of a story. We would never maintain that
our projects should not be remodelled in ten years’ time. That would be the end of architecture.
DN To our mind, architecture is an evolutionary
discipline. The nice thing about working with existing buildings is that the existing material always offers some resistance, regardless of whether you work with
or against it.
What’s your take on the City Garden Hotel, which is to be used ‘temporarily’ for 12 years and had to meet four-star standards?
temporary aspect was hard for us. We didn’t want the building to look like an asylum-seekers’ centre. In view of its limited useful life,
planning and construction could not take too long, so we conceived a timber-frame structure. We were keen to see how we could design something
poetic using the modular principle of building in wood and the serial nature of hotel rooms. By turning around the customary arrangement of one
room next to another, we produced corridors featuring a special ribbed effect – rather like a crocodile – and a jagged exterior façade.
façade echoes the luxury of the building – it gleams like a pimped-out Lamborghini. The sumptuous, sensuous appearance does not give the impression of
a provisional structure. You’re drawn from the bright surroundings of the park into the dark yet elegant lobby and led into the ‘serrated’ corridor.
The rooms are very bright and airy.
Fig. 9: Hotel City Garden, Zug, Switzerland, 2009
Fig. 10: Ground floor, First floor
How do you manage to comply with general terms and conditions and convince your principals, or the jury, without detracting from the design?
don’t make recipe architecture. We try to tell a story that is convincing in itself and doesn’t have to solve everything. We draw up
propositions for the story, from which hypotheses emerge. Interestingly, politicians often adopt our theories and pass them on.
MM For the Aussersihl Community Centre we
drew up the following proposition: all trees had to remain. Forget the building – the park is actually the community centre. Also, we check
out the general terms of every competition …
DN … as we did with the viaduct arches. We explained to the jury that we believed
the viaduct should develop out of the neighbourhood. We provided economic arguments for our ideas. Would Gucci or Prada be renting the retail spaces?
Or would it be better to build reasonably enough so that ordinary tradespeople could afford the premises?
MM We consider each job as a whole
and, if possible, interpret it comprehensively. What is its significance for the city, for the clients and users? How does it position itself socially?
We maintain that architects have something to say to everyone. Since clients often don’t know what they want, we explain it for them.
What projects were positive surprises for sceptical principals?
DN Because the budget for Theatre 11 was tight, the project eventually acquired the character of a
factory. Initially the proprietor, Freddy Burger Management, had problems with its industrial character – the bare concrete floor, for instance – assuming that it
was not in keeping with public performances. Today they’re very pleased with the building and its atmosphere.
MM For the opening, they put a larger-thanlife
statue of Freddy Mercury in the foyer. It looked awesome.
DN The large numbers of visitors prove that a lot of different people enjoy going
to this theatre and appreciate its ambience.
MM And it’s easy enough to decorate the building without completely ruining it.
‘Trips abroad are profitable only in the premium segment’
You’re gradually starting to build outside Switzerland. What has deterred you so far?
MM There’s no scope as regards remuneration for Swiss architects abroad. They
have to pay out more than they earn. Trips abroad are profitable only in the premium segment. Then, too, it’s almost impossible to monitor
a project – a good example being our project for a school in the new Mongolian city of Ordos in China. It looks as
if our project will simply be transposed, without any countermonitoring. In addition, we like to experiment with building materials and types of construction. In
Switzerland, this isn’t a problem, but in Prague, for example, even the use of insulating concrete or the installation of a faceted aluminium façade
represents a big challenge.
DN Our projects abroad are due to our love of adventure. If we had to depend on such projects financially, we’d
have been bankrupt long ago. Nevertheless, we would like to discover new places for experimentation.
What would be your dream project?
DN An appeal to all principals: we’re looking for a potential client who would like to have an experimental
luxury villa built.
MM How about an unusual museum …
DN … or an intelligent, CO2-free building that would allow us to scrutinize all that ‘eco
madness’ from an architectural perspective?
Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in MARK Magazine No. 28 on pages 74–83.