Densification as a cultural duty

Interviewed by Margarete von Lupin
in Architecture Dialogues, 2011.

Today, we can look back on about 60 years of an increasingly animated discussion on the old desire for longevity and the new concept of sustainability. The current climatic changes, the atomic disaster in Japan and the increasing cost of resources are compelling citizens, developers, design professionals and you as architects and urban designers to deal time and again with the energy consumption and CO2 emissions caused by both new and existing buildings. Certain approaches that utilize countermeasures have proven inadequate. The need to avoid the trap of dealing with symptoms in isolation when their cause is systemic poses a significant challenge to you as architects. The energy balance of single or groups of buildings falls under your area of responsibilities. Where do you see fresh leverage and how do you apply it?

Daniel Niggli (DN) Because economics has become a meta-discipline that completely controls social thinking and behavior, I am convinced that, in the future, environmental

protection will be regulated increasingly through taxes and monetary flows – in other words, through economic incentives.


Mathias Müller (MM) Ideally, that means, for example, that we as an individual office do not need to make any additional contribution to the

enforcement of stricter limits on CO2 emissions. We will inevitably have to deal with a reduction in CO2 emissions in the form of regulations

and laws. Our buildings comply with the latest requirements. We have nevertheless ascertained that such requirements as Minergie-P carry typological and morphological consequences, the

implications of which for the city cannot be assessed clearly as yet. This is where we see our true role as architects: in designing

good architecture within the context of a heated debate on the environment.


DN There are – and always have been – many contradictions in the energy discussion. The big picture is missing. We should avoid tunnel

vision focused on individual topics without questioning their relevance. We allow ourselves technically complex luxury solutions when we build instead of considering energy issues

in such relevant areas as spatial planning. We install mechanized ventilation systems in all apartments, which have to be regulated with the additional effort

of electronics and BUS-systems. On the other hand, many of those who live in Minergie houses drive through the country to work in the

city every day. Where is energy being saved there? Therefore, it borders on absurdity to discuss all of this for a single building. Unfortunately,

in Switzerland we can afford to subsidize the insulation and window industry by installing the most expensive systems while we continue to shy away

from the really difficult spatial-planning crossroads.


MM With respect to sustainability, we should also be interested in how technical subsystems age, such as ventilation pipes encased in concrete. What will

renovation look like in 20 or 40 years? We become skeptical when an overly narrow thematic field becomes a generally binding dogma. In the

1960s, architects built for the lower social classes. Today, we tear down these buildings or painstakingly renovate them – a warning against pigheadedly implemented

energy conservation?


Is there not a demand placed on you as architects to find architectural solutions to replace the technology again?

MM That would certainly be the goal, but we do not have the capacity for it. These are research questions that are way beyond

our resources as a single architecture office. To give you an example: In our project for the Toni complex (conversion of Toni milk processing

complex to mixed-use campus, Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Zurich University of the Arts, estimated completion 2013), we defined one of our propositions

for the building as 'low tech' or 'rawness', that means robustness in the materialization and simplicity with regard to technology. But what can we

do when the standard requirements of the Canton or the SIA norms for the hottest summer month specify comfort values which, combined with the

enormous internal loads, necessitate the installation of cooling units? Is it not just common sense to accept higher temperatures during the school summer vacation,

considering the effort required to meet these norms? Instead, technology is installed in excess. As paradoxical as it sounds: It is because we can

afford the highest and best standards in Switzerland that we prevent the radicalization of architectural solutions through institutionalized comfort standards.


Fig 1: Toni Site, Zurich, Switzerland. Conversion of Toni milk processing complex into mixed-use campus: Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Zurich University of the

Arts, additional users, apartments, restaurants.


(Medium green) 'Pearls' such as a library, concert hall, movie theater, etc.
(Bright green) Public zone comprising entry hall, stairs, hallways.
(Grey) Private uses such as

offices, seminar rooms, studios, apartments.


Fig 2: Stadthof Süd, preliminary study, Rapperwil-Jona, Switzerland. City center, mixed-use meeting center passable at street level: conference halls, shops, restaurant; tentative: multiplex cinema

and new res idential forms such as senior communities.


(Medium green) 'Pearls' such as playhouse, movie theaters, etc.
(Bright green) Public zone comprising entry hall, movie theater foyer, stairs, hallways.
(Grey) Private uses such as

offices, seminar rooms, shops, senior apartments.


Fig. 3: Holiday Home, Flumserberg, Switzerland. In contrast to conventional series of separate rooms, temporary use of large open space.


(Bright green) Vertical, continuous sequence of living areas comprising garage, spiral staircase, sleeping level, living-dining-kitchen level.


DN The expectation among users that it should always be spring inside a building also remains unquestioned. At the same time, no one has

to sit right next to the window in the winter. Nevertheless, we are required to minimize the cold exhaust air by technical means for

the sake of comfort. Plus there is the inflexibility of the norms: A minimal energy building without mechanical ventilation could meet the Minergie standard

in terms of its insulation, but it will not get certified without the ventilation. However, clients can only receive the best mortgage rates with

the Minergie certification; for that reason alone, the ventilation has to be installed. Our architect associations SIA and BSA are needed in the discussion

of such overriding real constraints. ETH Zurich might also step in, discuss such overriding real and spearhead the revision and further development of ecological

and energy-related standards towards low-tech standards. There is little we can do as an individual architectural practice.


Your responsibility consists more in practically determining where problems arise from current standards and requirements, and actively engaging in the discourse with your observations and conflict descriptions.

MM Yes, that is true. As architects, we have reclaimed the urban development components that have found their way into the hands of all

kinds of technical planners; for a while, it looked as if we might lose hold of them. Now we need to regain 'air supremacy'

in the field of energy problems, too. As soon as it gets cheaper to produce enough energy using alternative sources, we will also be

able to build the way we want to again. As long as company technicians or fire-safety experts dictate to us what the design is

supposed to look like, architectural and urban-development considerations will continue to take a back seat. Unfortunately, the technicians seem to have the upper hand

since technical solutions can easily be quantified pseudo-scientifically. Alas, the criterion of the suitability of a technical solution is often lost sight of in

the process.


In the fall of 2010, the architecture professors at ETH Zurich organized a conference entitled Towards Zero-Emission Architecture, where they unanimously presented the theoretical basis for various technical implementation possibilities. According to them, the quantity of energy consumed should no longer be evaluated as a top priority, but rather CO2-free energy production. Recommendations included a case-by-case combination of the heat storage capacity in the ground and the production of solar electricity and thermal energy, which is to be weighted differently. If energy were produced without CO2 emissions, it would be possible to forgo covering buildings in often problematic insulating materials.

DN We fundamentally support ETH Zurich's new impact direction. The professors are thus offering an alternative energy model to the Minergie approaches, which have

practically become nationalized. It is interesting to follow how much the presentation of the zero-emission model has stirred up the energy scene; a philosophical

war has almost broken out. As is so often the case, the truth probably lies in an intelligent synthesis, that means harvesting, storing and

sensibly insulating CO2-free energy. Nonetheless, we were particularly impressed by Werner Sobek's talk, which addressed the problem of grey energy and the comprehensive use

of material resources throughout the building's life cycle. How, for example, should we deal with increasingly more hybrid building materials and the energy contained

in them? And how can buildings be constructed with the minimum possible use of materials and just as easily be recycled again?


It is important for you to consider your projects first and foremost in terms of their urban context and use this as the basis for your subsequent considerations. Which tasks at the interface between architecture and urban development are a top priority for you?

MM In general, there is a huge misconception in Switzerland: Urban development is often confused with architecture. However, urban development creates the context and

parameters for architecture.


But you are architects.

MM With an urban development vision. For each project, we make our own readings of the surroundings and the city, which we then respond

to directly. Either we reinforce what we find on a site or the site needs reordering because it offers too little.


That is what most architects say. What are your approaches?

DN Our approach is relatively unsystematic, often with a kind of vague, seismographic feel.


What does that mean?

DN Many years ago, for example, we read a newspaper article about the space problems of the freestyle scene in Zurich and Grasshopper Soccer

Club's juniors, which had to be relocated to Niederhasli because there were not enough playing fields. A month later, we noticed a feature in

the paper about the lack of demand for vacant allotments. Our spontaneous analysis revealed that most allotment areas were right next to sports grounds.


MM In addition, we discovered that many of these complexes are located in the most privileged locations with the best views in Zurich.

We looked for a spatial and functional combination of both problems and asked ourselves whether contemporary, urban allotments could be developed. In doing so,

we envisaged a new form where less will be planted in future to have more structural or programmatic design freedom. Moderately anarchistic zones, so

to speak ... From that, we developed a project comprising layered allotments and playing fields. We presented the scheme to Elmar Ledergerber, who was

the mayor of Zurich at the time. While judging a sustainability prize awarded by the city, one of the judges calculated that, including all

of its allotments, Zurich had a land reserve worth several million Swiss francs that was not actively cultivated and had almost gone unnoticed thus



MM Through the apparently irrelevant analysis, enormous urban-development and programmatic concentration potential opened up. In retrospect, we recognized that we had developed a

new method by combining two seemingly unrelated problems.


In the context of urban development, concentration often becomes a central, albeit controversial theme that is strongly influenced by interests and discussed highly emotionally. And not just because the overdevelopment of the landscape is assessed differently, but also due to infrastructural and structural-political contradictions. In order to overcome an obsolete rhetoric, contemporary approaches to concentration are necessary. This would require us to reopen the debate on the existing restrictions on building height, for instance, as well as mixed uses, social mix, infrastructure, transport, accessibility and the energy-related advantage of urban building density; then we would arrive at a place where we would also need to face a shift in cultural values. Where do you set your priorities?

MM Our trips, for example to China, vividly showed us the different use of density in different cultures. The need to offer housing for

the majority of the population inevitably leads to a radical discussion on density. If we do not want to continue to destroy the landscape,

we have to respond to the demands for concentration in greater measure and in different ways according to the needs of the times: with

regard to the density of infrastructures, land use, the development of compact building and shell forms for energy issues, and the limits of social

density, which can become completely overwhelming when people live too closely together. In a figurative sense, we speak about atmospheric density, which is necessary

for urban living.


DN Here in Switzerland, we have to develop our own ideas and understanding of density. We, too, will have to live more densely -

a cultural challenge with far-reaching consequences we have never had to face historically. In the process, however, we should not import unfiltered images from

New York or Shanghai. Instead, the form of the concentrated city in Switzerland should build on our cultural, social and spatial background.


MM In this sense, concentration is also a cultural task for Switzerland. Above all, however, density evokes deep-seated fears of claustrophobia and a lack

of privacy, founded in ideals of a separate, individualized way of life and in our rural, barely urbanized history. Nonetheless, Switzerland is developing into

a city. We need new typologies which, on the one hand, accommodate the increasing needs for individualization and, on the other hand, protect the

resources, while also maintaining the image of Switzerland as a cultural sphere marked by agriculture. The continuing overdevelopment we are currently experiencing and the

consumption of the landscape are causing the disappearance of what, for many, is the most significant feature of their 'homeland'. Only a structural concentration

can guarantee the protection of 'untouched' nature. Here, we need a fundamental process of cultural recognition and a paradigm shift.


But the question is how that can happen. The suburbs are built and continue to expand, especially with the aid of ideas like an idyllic and desirable life in your own affordable house or apartment. The suburbanization of trade is successful because of its accesibility practicality by car and lower prices. Is all this counterproductive to a sustainable, concentrated development of the city because there appears to be a lack of suitable possibilities in the city centers?

DN We need images to be able to conceive concentrated areas and then start a discussion. What might different concentrations look like at a

particular location? What are the spatial, logistical, technical and atmospheric consequences of a density factor of two, three or four? High densities create higher

qualitative demands for open space and buildings in every respect. This harbors immense research potential for universities. With appropriate studies and the images generated

from them, they could actively enter into a discourse with political and economic decisionmakers.


MM The discussion on density should be portrayed as a socio-political, publicly relevant concern. As the Studio Basel has ascertained, the Swiss political

system with its federalist, compartmentalized structure actually prevents a comprehensive planning-related discussion about density. Coordinated urban development is not even possible between the city

of Zurich and its neighboring communities.


DN The doubling of our current density would already represent significant progress here. Even then, we would still be a far cry from the

density of Shanghai or Manhattan. General, academic and abstract discussions about density are unproductive. In order to test hypotheses such as these, we need

to debate specific projects in concrete terms. To this end, we need alternative, concentrated spatial conceptions that are also visually tangible and materialized -

like the allotment study we mentioned earlier, for instance. This is the only way an unbiased discussion can be conducted with authorities and political



MM We also require studies on how to control density. Particularly the considerations on landscape-shaping infrastructures are politically controversial. They create development potential and

regulate what is collective and public. Infrastructures have a permanent impact over decades and define space. In the process, the impulses they generate can

be contradictory for urban development. An urban railway, for example, supports both the development of the center and the suburbanization of the surrounding region.


Public transportation is a strategic decision in urban planning and development. The level of a city's productivity is only possible today through the versatile transportation of people between the center and the surrounding regions. For example the people who are needed in Zurich on a daily basis cannot afford to live in the city, let alone all be accommodated.

DN Therefore, the positioning and organization of infrastructures are a matter for urban planning because they organize the coming together of people, and people

need spaces. We architects are indispensable in planning infrastructures. We are the only ones who bring the core competency of spatial thinking and the

evaluation of spatial consequences to the table. The project for the transformation of the viaduct in Zurich's Kreis 5 into a hybrid structure is

an enormous urban-development opportunity in this respect.


MM Of course, it is true that market dynamics and the direction of investment flows must also be considered in regulating concentration potential. As

a magnet for investment, the economic hub Zurich is central in terms of spatial planning. Pension funds and other investors are flocking to Zurich

because of the highest added value in relation to building costs - unlike in the cantons of Aargau and Solothurn. The discussion about concentration

must therefore be oriented towards the concentration pressure in the area in question. The conversion of study areas and urban planning areas into problem

areas, contrary to the federal structure I mentioned earlier with its bottom-up principle, is long overdue. We should discuss the different magnitudes of the

problems and, in all likelihood, a new interpretation.


DN For that to happen, there not only needs to be typological and morphological research on the questions of density and spatial planning based

on specific, large-scale study areas; we also need new spatial-planning and financial control mechanisms by which you could transfer densities analogously to the CO2

emissions trade or provide financial compensation. Rather than continuing to homogenize, besides political structural reforms the territory could specifically be differentiated by means of

economic incentives.


MM In all the discussions about density, we should retain one thing: an awareness of and commitment to the qualities of the European city.

For us, the quality of public places is a major concern. The qualitative loss of being excluded from the beautiful lobbies of early New

York skyscrapers or many other urban parts of the world challenges us in Europe to develop the notion of the city differently. The central

concept for us of penetrability addresses the accessibility of the city. All street and urban spaces, including public buildings like the Toni Complex, should

be easily accessible.


Why is that desirable?

DN Such achievements of the European city are central for us, which is why we champion them with our projects by viewing the city

fundamentally as both the starting point and goal of our architecture. An extreme fixation on the self-referential object - actually a full-blown fetish -

has taken hold in Swiss architecture over the past few decades. Unfortunately, this often produces somewhat autistic constructs in the landscape, which sometimes tend

to have something unexpectedly provincial about them in their narcissism. If we really want to create places that are worth living in, not only

do we need to think about the building itself but, above all, the city.


Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in Architecture Dialogues on page 246.