The Building as Generator of the City – EM2N’s building projects from the viewpoint of urban planning

Text by Gerhard Mack
Published
in EM2N Both and, 2009

 

Recent Swiss architecture exhibits a marked preference for individual buildings. Examples of this tendency include Mario Botta’s early villas in the Ticino ‘Tendenza’, as

well as the concrete-built architecture that developed later in the German-speaking part of the country and has become an international trademark under the label

‘Swiss Box’. A series of general factors probably played a role in this development. One of these is Aldo Rossi’s teaching at the ETH

Zurich in which the significance of the concrete design and building the city occupied a central position. This theory countered Lucius Burkhardt’s largely sociological

examination of architecture and urban planning conducted within the framework of the 1968 movement and concentrated attention once again on the core business of

the discipline. Rossi did this, however, by shifting the typology of the city into the foreground and aiming at using its history to develop

current concepts. This typological way of thinking inevitably focussed attention on the individual building and its historical possibilities. Further concepts that accompanied this conceptual

tendency include the purism that, is invariably cited, mantra-like, in relation to Protestant Switzerland with its weakness for architectural minimalism and its tendency towards

perfectionism. This perfectionism finds its basis and expression in the high standards of the Swiss skilled building trades that, despite the deterioration due to

the world-wide phenomena of standardisation and industrialisation in the building industry, are still clearly superior to levels abroad. It is therefore selfevident that the

career of the ‘Swiss Box’ in its many forms, from transformer station to private house to museum, is inconceivable without the unique quality of

the concrete poured by Swiss concrete builders. This striving for the perfect object now characterises the buildings by a middle generation throughout the country’s

agglomeration belt. It has also become evident very recently in a number of relatively independent positions. Examples of these include Valerio Olgiati’s Swiss National

Park Centre in Zernez that started operations in 2008, as well as the Leutschenbach School Building in Zurich by Christian Kerez, which opened in

summer 2009. The standard line of argument is that, up to and including such examples of high-end architecture, it is only by withdrawing to

or condensing the object that makes it possible to offer the kind of quality in architecturally undefined surroundings that can later serve as an

anchor for future developments. There may occasionally be a certain truth to this argument, but in the majority of cases such freestanding buildings are

erratic blocks that, on account of their foreigness, are not only unable to establish any kind of relationship to their surroundings, but clearly have

no wish to do so. Individually they emanate the strange flair of agglomeration icons of a contemporary modern architecture stranded in a featureless mush

of development.

Fig. 1: Mario Botta, House, Riva San Vitale, 1971–1973

 

Fig. 2: Aldo Rossi, Gallaratese Housing Development, Milan, 1968–1973

 

Fig. 3: Valerio Olgiati, Swiss National
Park
Centre, Zernez, 2008

 

If one is unwilling to make do with this, all three points referred tom are open to discussion. The strategy of the pure object

that flirts with artistic positions, as represented by Donald Judd’s ‘specific object’, and aims at using the energies of art for architecture, can, instead

of being a goal that must always be implicitly striven for, be seen as just one tool in a kit of architectural approaches. In

such a situation the task would be to think of the individual building in terms of the nature of the surrounding urban mesh, to

define the latter’s needs and to use them as a scale. In such an approach the interplay between what already exists and the perspectives

of repair and further development takes a central position. The typological dimension of a design would obtain its framework from the topological location. And

perfection would no longer be judged in terms of the maximum possible as regards technology and skills, but more in terms of the greatest

possible degree of functional efficiency within the framework of this urban planning development.

Fig. 4: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984

 

A number of different counterpositions have formed that reject the fetishisation of the building object, some as a result of taking a look at

the urbanist discussion in the Netherlands. The most prominent reaction has been the founding of the ETH Studio Basel. In its Swiss study the

factors that shape the dynamics of development throughout the country are first of all crystallised and subsequently specified in focussed examinations. EM2N are among

the architects of a younger generation who enrich this broad horizon by developing solutions for concrete building commissions. Their designs amaze one with the

self-assured manner in which they take up the approaches available and combine them in unorthodox ways. It is no accident that Mathias Müller and

Daniel Niggli bring with them experience in both Dutch and Swiss offices and feel committed to Robert Venturi’s view of the difficult whole, as

formulated in his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Consequently the contradictory, rapidly
changing life experiences of the users and the demands of society, as well

as transformation, conversions and further development occupy a central position in their design approach. For the architects in this practice that was founded in

1997 it is not the master plan developed from abstract parameters, but rather the selective starting point of a concrete building commission with all

its complex implications for its surroundings that becomes a lever which they have already used in a number of projects.

Fig. 5: Publication of ETH Studio Basel, Basel 2006

 

Fig. 6: Publication Robert Venturi, 2nd edition, New York 1977

 

The extensions to the neighbouring Hardau Schools finished in 2005 are examples of this selective starting point and of the variety of strategies used.

The two complexes stand between four residential tower blocks up to 92 metres high, built between 1976 and 1978 to a design by Max

P. Kollbrunners above a shared plinth storey, and a few lower slabs of a housing development that dates back to the 19th century. Both

the Vocational and Primary School were to be extended and adapted to meet contemporary educational requirements. The Vocational School was designed by Otto Glaus

in 1963 / 64 and is a listed building. Here young people were intended to gain experience in different skilled trades and to find

a practical approach to professions such as carpenter and locksmith. Working according to the principle of the Modulor, Glaus, who had studied under Le

Corbusier, designed a complex reminiscent of a monastery that in terms of its atmosphere recalls the Dominican friary of La Tourette (1953) by Glaus’

teacher. Four large wings for the workrooms and three smaller service buildings define courtyards and are connected with each other by open but roofed

passageways. EM2N recognise
the quality of this ensemble and look for ways of translating it into a contemporary language. Consequently they do not choose a

confrontational strategy, which would emphasise their own extension and make it into a kind of competitor, but instead continue the existing substance by ‘cloning’

and ‘mutating’ the central structural characteristics of Glaus’ complex. They add a new two-storey slab to the existing complex that closes the buildings open

to the housing blocks in the north and creates new courtyards. The concept of covered connecting passageways is transferred to the inside. The suite

of classrooms is given glazed corridors that are so wide that they can be used as teaching spaces, particularly because the escape routes were

moved to form an additional layer in front of the building. As these corridors are deeper than the classrooms, the latter can be additionally

lit from the corridor side also, through a band of high-level glazing. Along these internal routes the old building repeatedly emerges as the core

of the complex and is in a sense almost ‘framed’. The column of the roofed school recess yard represents a direct inversion. It takes

up the sculptural form of the silo tower intended by Glaus for burning left-over wood, and once again underscores the respectful but yet playful

treatment of the existing substance, which was built in what was probably a more heroic phase in the employment of modern architecture. Here the

inversion, the process of opening and the integration in the contemporary situation are given a symbol.

Fig. 7: EM2N, Hardau Vocational
School
, Zurich, corridor

 

If, in the extension of the school complex, the focus in the interior is on a sequence of quasi-monastic courtyards and connecting routes between

them, externally, too, these elements prove to be the most important tool in opening the complex towards and for its surroundings in a new

way. A covered school yard is cut out of the extension building at ground floor level, a second entrance here opens up the complex

from what used to be the rear. The new public route to the building leads into the inner private circulation of the complex and

can be used to cross the entire site. Private status and public use are overlaid, the school building no longer stands like an inaccessible

obstacle between the residential areas of the Hardau Towers, which through their plinth storey alone give a closed external impression, and the older housing.

Instead it creates a connection between them that may very likely also have a symbolic character. The school, a building type that is essentially

narrowly defined in terms of function, is used as an instrument to transform an imperceptible boundary between two neighbouring sites into common territory that

presents and stages the idea of establishing contact. EM2N have underscored this aim by a number of further measures. Together with the landscape architects

Schweingruber Zulauf they managed to implement a network of routes and a garden-like layout in neighbouring green wasteland and transformed the play and sports

areas into clearly contoured outdoor spaces that can also be used by the general public and provide an attractive meeting place thanks to the

variety of inclined planes, ramps, boundary walls and marked sports pitches, as well as a generous rhythm of compressed and extended space. Since the

completion of the project, this space has been used intensively by neighbouring residents.

 

The Primary School is also integrated in this semi-public, semiprivate school-oriented network of routes and squares. The striking coat of blue paint alone gives

a better presence to this building, which stands directly beside the northernmost housing tower block. It was built in 1985, (also by Glaus’ office),

and later given an additional storey. Two interlocking slabs accommodate the day nursery and the kindergarten as well as new classrooms. They are staggered

in relation to each other by one floor and at the centre they form a common zone that, using sliding partition walls, can be

allotted to either the kindergarten or the teaching area, as required. The roof terraces for the day nursery and the newly created courtyards create

an individual outdoor space for each of the three areas. Stairs and route provide an additional connection to the forecourt, which is terminated by

the new sports hall designed by weberbrunner architekten.

 

Those aspects of the Hardau Schools that are of particular urban significance reoccur in a series of further projects by EM2N. The Viaduct Arches

extending over a length of more than 500 metres that they restored in Zurich were given simple insertions for a wide palette of uses

and make a meeting place for local residents out of an infrastructure building that slices through the city. By means of economical interventions combined

with clear use of signs and the basic colours of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) logo EM2N made Hardbrücke Railway Station easily recognisable as

what it is: a central transport node for commuters who use it daily to change between the tram, bus and rail services. They also

indicated the weak points that need to be remedied in a future, more dense use of the surrounding area.

Fig. 8: EM2N, Refurbishment Viaduct Arches, Zurich

 

Fig. 9: EM2N, Hardbrücke Railway Station Upgrading, Zurich

 

The conversion of the former Toni dairy in Zurich West into a university centre for 3000 students – at present the largest project in

the office with a budget of over 370 million Swiss francs – applies the topographical model to the organisation of the building volume itself.

The architects developed the exploited volume, which has afloor area about the size of the Tate Modern in London, in a honeycomb system around

five light wells and a key-shaped public core that extends vertically in diagonals through the building and accesses a compact city in the city.

At its short end this core has a public use on each level in the form of cinemas, exhibition zone and concert halls so

that even after the two main tenants, the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), have closed

down for the day, the building remains a generator of urban life. To achieve this the access ramp is designed like a boulevard that

leads to the green zone along the railway viaduct laid out by the municipal authorities.

 

The Community Centre Aussersihl (1999–2004) demonstrates how fluently and subtly EM2N can apply their topological approach to the smallest of areas and under restrictive

conditions. It is located in a densely populated part of the city characterised by a certain level of social tension. This meeting place for

the heterogeneous residential district not far from the city centre is the outcome of a hard struggle. Aussersihl was the only urban district without

its own community centre, the frequently changing alternative locations for this function led to the Bäckeranlage park being taken over by tramps and drug

abusers, making it by and large unusable for the majority of the other residents. But at the same time, in the absence of a

community building, the park still fulfilled the function of a social meeting place, albeit in a somewhat limited way. When EM2N won the architecture

competition in 1999 they sought to give due recognition to this ambivalence. The park was to be preserved as a meeting place, but altered

by the new building in a way that would restore its attractiveness for families too, and would help to fulfil its function as

a stage on which social intercourse, or at least meetings, between the various residents can take place. What was called for therefore was a

kind of recontextualisation that would enhance what already existed and preserve its essential strengths. This led to the building being conceived as a function

and an element in the park. A start was made by confining the ‘footprint’ of the building to the minimum possible so as not

to use up too much ground, instead the centre was developed vertically. The architects looked for a form that would fit in with the

existing planting in such an organic way that for three quarters of the years it almost disappears behind the foliage. The elliptical floor plan

translates the cross section of a tree into a geometric form, the bend on the inside explicitly takes an existing tree into account and

communicates the aim of fitting in with the existing situation.

Fig. 10: EM2N, Community Centre Aussersihl, Zurich

 

The integrative approach goes so far as to positioning the threestorey building in the circle of trees running around the Bäckeranlage so that it

augments and indeed almost terminates this ring. On the concave side, the centre opens towards the park in a gesture of greeting, the full-height

glazing of the ground floor restaurant and the large windows on the two floors above offer a view of the park and the people

in it. The form demonstrates an awareness of the typology of a community centre. While using individual elements such as the the programme with

restaurant and the multi-purpose room that is available for rent or the inviting opening, it does this in a very free way that is

related entirely to the topopological characteristics of the Bäckeranlage and to its function.

 

This unconditional approach, developed from the place, also proved to be extremely useful in overcoming a number of obstacles that emerged suddenly. The Zurich

municipal council reduced the budget for the design, from the original figure of 5.45 million Swiss francs, by 40 per cent to only 3

million francs. EM2N reacted to this by radically concentrating on the core of their project. The expensive glazing of the entire building was abandoned,

the volume reduced by 25 per cent. So as to avoid producing a cheap version that would have seemed to indicate a lack of

respect for this district, the architects used conventional materials, often those with dull and ‘respectable’ connotations, in unconventional ways. The round building is constructed

using economical sand lime bricks from the 1980s, and the ceiling slabs were cast in mono-beton. Striking colours give the materials a fresh flair.

The staircase hall with the cascading stairs is painted orange, the large hall yellow, the bar a poisonous green, which also turns the colour

of the foliage into something artificial. And the large areas of glazing in the facade that is built up of several layers are clad

externally with plexiglass, of the kind familiar from bicycle sheds. Where the aim is to achieve the lightness of a pavilion in a park,

a wooden facade seems obvious. Simple strategies are combined in ways that achieve unusual and complex effects. In their Community Centre Aussersihl EM2N show

how the fabric of the city can, in part, be repaired without having to view oneself as a kind of urban handyman. These architects

are successful with their intervention above all because they see the colour patterns and the gaps that, when filled, can be made to glow,

and because they first of all produce the superordinate entity into which these patterns can be introduced. Their architecture augments and clarifies in

ways that reformulate the existing, increase its effectiveness for a functioning city and, almost en passant, allow something entirely new to develop.

 

Note:

 

Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in EM2N Both and on page 235.