Resistance Required – About building, Switzerland and the generation question

A discussion between Roger Diener, Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli
by Andreas Ruby
in EM2N Both and, 2009


Roger Diener, we would like to talk about your relationship to EM2N and the relationship between the older and younger generations of architects in Switzerland. What was your first encounter with EM2N?

Roger Diener (RD) I first experienced them at their presentation of a competition design for the Hürlimann site in Zurich. I was utterly astonished

by the way they presented their project. I had certainly never experienced this kind of thing in an architect’s presentation, but maybe from a

performing artist, say a rapper. That was a real performance. They hammered away non-stop at the public and hammered home their text, demonstratively committed

to the content, i. e. their project, and with the greatest confidence in their well-structured presentation. I felt challenged in the best sense of

the term …


How do you see the position of EM2N in the context of recent Swiss architecture? An objection commonly raised in Switzerland to the work of EM2N is that their architecture is ‘pragmatic’. As you, too, practice a way of building that is very much focussed on what is feasible, it would interest me to know whether you see this accusation of pragmatism as criticism or as a kind of inverted praise.

RD I tend to see it as praise, of course. I believe that you can’t take criticism of pragmatism seriously. First of all this

deliberately unheroic approach of Swiss architecture has always been regarded as one of its qualities. And, secondly, the projects by EM2N don’t only convey

the circumstances under which they were produced, but create the architecture itself out of these circumstances. Examining the given situation is just one aspect,

which EM2N combine with a truly inventive way of handling this situation.


Daniel Niggli (DN) In the context of Swiss architecture acting pragmatically is, generally

speaking, regarded as offensive. But pragmatism in fact means being capable of acting. For us pragmatism has actually something to do with realism. For

example: if you are designing an office building – must you really heroicise it and try to make it into a statement? Many practices

shirk from this kind of mundane commission, as they are simply not interested. But we are interested in them and, therefore, we have to

examine and deal with these circumstances.


Even though Swiss architecture never had this tendency towards heroic visions, it, too, has its own ‘major narratives’ (Lyotard). Whereas architects elsewhere were perhaps fired by a vision of a new society, in Switzerland this vision was replaced by a very strong belief in extremely high quality in building, belief in material, in a well put-together construction. EM2N put this heroicising of building quality (that can even become a fetish) in perspective, as they always relate the impact of an architectural effect to the expenditure required to create it and they regard the appropriateness of this relationship as a valid and relevant criterion. Where do you think that this criticism comes from?

Mathias Müller (MM) We have something of a problem with the fact that a number of Swiss architects seem to regard a patronising attitude

toward their client as a precondition for good architecture. The architect explains to his client: ‘What you actually need – that is, not what

you want but what in my opinion you need − will cost twice as much. Therefore go along to your bank and see if

you can crack open a piggy bank so that we can start to make decent architecture, otherwise you are not our client.’ There is

probably no other country in Europe where such large budgets are spent on building, without this being noticeable, because the money is spent on

extremely elaborate constructions that, while they may be irreproachable in terms of building physics, could probably have been erected for around two thirds of

the budget. This is a specifically Swiss phenomenon and we ask ourselves how long our society will be able to afford this kind of

compulsive luxury.


RD In Switzerland this tradition of elaborate production technology is also related to the training of architects. Until recently, the training as a

construction engineer had a central importance. In conjunction with the high level of quality and relatively low amount of industrialisation in the skilled building

trades in Switzerland this led to continuing the design process into the area of construction. This consensus in architecture is actually the single common

factor that shapes the identity of Swiss architecture. Architects like Peter Zumthor or Mario Botta either themselves learned a skilled trade or, like Herzog

& de Meuron or myself, from the very start worked closely together with excellent-skilled building workers or extremely well-trained professional colleagues. Now the conditions

under which architecture is produced in Switzerland are growing increasingly similar to those in the rest of Europe and consequently it will become impossible

to continue pursuing this idea. And when a commission to build is not only seen as a game of putting together preconceived constructions and

products that are available on the market, then in the areas of design and construction we need an unconventional architectural approach to the elements

of construction, materials and building methods that is liberated from outmoded traditions. EM2N has developed a central position as regards how to handle these

specific circumstances and how to derive an architectural form from them. And they haven’t developed this position under pressure abroad, but here in Switzerland,

fired by their own enthusiasm and interest. I think that in the future this will become increasingly important, as here, too, it will become

more and more difficult to justify these horrendous building costs in terms of an invisible classiness.


One aspect of the criticism is the contention that the projects by EM2N are not conceived architecturally but by working through a series of circumstances such as programme and budget. How do you see this objection?

DN There are colleagues who still relate only to the autonomous building and find fulfilment in creating these wonderful buildings. They have an architectural

vision – whatever that may be – and they can practically make architecture develop out of itself. We, in contrast, always start with the

city and work away at it until we arrive at an architectural object. To enable the ‘difficult whole’ – to use Venturi’s term –

to develop we need resistance. And if we don’t have it, we ultimately have to create it ourselves. We have thought about what we

would do if we were given the chance to build in the desert. It’s very likely that we would search for every potential form

of resistance that the desert reveals, in order to develop a specific architecture out of it.


RD I think that this kind of criticism isn’t

really applicable to EM2N, as it views these so-called circumstances only as an external obstacle to architecture and fails to see that a great

deal of architecture has, in fact, been provoked by examining precisely these circumstances. In architecture, too, resistance is productive and therefore should be regarded

as a part of it. I’m reminded here of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a parody of a western in which

Paul Newman and Robert Redford play a pair of outlaws who hold up trains transporting money that they then distribute, but who are eventually

forced to flee to Bolivia where they make an offer to a mine owner to protect the transports of gold from his mine –

they are, after all, pistol-packing heroes. But when, in order to demonstrate his abilities, Robert Redford has to shoot at a bottle he misses.

He gets the permission of the mine owner to move while he shoots. He then, while somersaulting three times as if trying to avoid

a hail of bullets, fires three or four shots at the bottle and all of a sudden he hits it each time. And with

regard to architecture it really is true that architects need this kind of resistance and if they don’t find it then they search for


Fig 1: Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969


DN Do you see here a big difference to the way you work?


RD Our programme was different. First of all, we had to find

ourselves as architects. In the 1970s we began to question the ability of the architecture of Modernism to relate to the city, we tried

to develop rules without directly referring back to the architects who worked immediately before us or our contemporaries. Initially this was an attempt to

jump back a generation and to orient ourselves more on classic Modernism. And then we attempted to apply the knowledge and wisdom of Modernism

to the conditions of the city – something that had not actually interested classic Modernism itself. In this context I can recall an interview

that the Berner Zeitung made with Mario Botta, Jacques Herzog and me, a good 25 years ago. In this interview Mario Botta says at

someplace that he is afraid of not living long enough to be able to build all the concepts that he has in his head.

I don’t feel the same way. A formal idea emerges only in the examination of a concrete programme at a specific place. In this

field of tension you seek for what is special, come across new traces, discover interesting tracks that you want to follow up. In this

regard I see no difference to the way EM2N work.


MM We’ve already determined that Swiss architecture is significantly shaped by the high standards of

execution, professional training, the ethos of building and the ensuing control of production on thebuilding site. But now the reality of building is developing

in the opposite direction: first of all, there is the construction industry, which increasingly succeeds in ensuring that only standardised products are used –

and no longer details designed and drawn by architects. A second factor is the growing number of regulations that makes not the architects but

other specialists into the real generators of the project. The constant flood of new regulations in the areas of fire safety or building physics

alone mean that an architect can no longer have a grasp of everything and is therefore dependent on specialists, to at least some extent.

With regard to this situation Jacques Herzog recently predicted the development of a premium market for architecture: at the very top the star architects,

in the middle nothing and at the bottom the production of buildings that, under certain circumstances, have nothing at all to do with architecture.

According to this prediction our future strategy should be focused entirely at reaching this premium area, but this is something we are reluctant to

do because, on the one hand, we can’t reconcile it with the way we developed, and, on the other, we would see the fulfilment

of this prediction as a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of architecture. And therefore we repeatedly ask ourselves; to what extent can and

must we exert an influence? How can we deal with these forces productively and produce something powerful – something that is recognisable as architecture

and not just building? For us this is a level of discourse where ‘Swissness’ – if such a thing has ever existed at all

– could still fulfil an important function, outside this premium segment, of course, as otherwise the only international demand for Swiss architects would be

from wealthy people who want to build exclusive houses.


RD Happily, I don’t agree with Jacques’ prediction. Nor, I think, does it reflect the most

recent developments. I can see that the challenges are becoming increasingly demanding, but this hasn’t yet led to the people in charge leaving it

up to investors or general contractors to develop cities purely according to economic interests. In the professional area where we normally operate quality solutions

are still called for, generally in the form of competitions and studies. And throughout Europe the public representatives of urban development, the public planning

and construction authorities still aim at astonishingly ambitious goals. The way I view the situation these planning authorities must try harder than ever to

persuade the investors and developers of the importance of such procedures. Although developers can only build at a prominent location if they work together

with a good architect’s office within the framework of such a procedure, this does not liberate the offices from merciless economic constraints under which

such operations take place. We are not in a position to judge whether the developers themselves are always under such great pressure as they

maintain. After all, as an architect, even in this so-called premium segment one is not immune to this pressure – unless one’s focus is

on private houses for the rich that we have already referred to. This economic situation is unlikely to change. And it will become all

the more difficult if we aim at an identity for our architecture that is to a certain extent process-related, that is not restricted to

the production of prototypes in the luxury sector. In the 1970s we were able to improvise here and there, we used industrial kitchens for

private houses or had window frames made to order. Today this is no longer possible. Only certified products are allowed. But conversely I believe

that, even under the new conditions, committed architects are in a position to make good architecture. Perhaps this is what will really separate the

wheat from the chaff.


DN Perhaps the understanding of the profession of an architect plays a central role here. We have always understood architecture as

an integral discipline. Economic questions form part of this, as does the history of the city or of architecture, which always plays a role

because we see architecture as an evolutionary discipline. The question is how well the architect as the mediator can maintain the different levels in

a balance, without allowing them to be marginalised by inherent functional constraints. We would like to direct the whole thing and to understand the

underlying processes, so that we can
remain operational.


RD Yes, but this has become very difficult. Developers who run the big projects today don’t envisage this

role for the architect. They want to direct the projects themselves and view the architect as the person responsible for transforming a marketable product

into anattractive design. But this does not mean that the architect is allotted a central role – quite the opposite in fact. It is

unbearable how architects are being increasingly excluded from the decision-making processes. But I am also somewhat sceptical as regards a number of our BSA

colleagues (Association of Swiss Architects) when they persist in seeing themselves as the client’s agents, and depict the general contractors on the other side

as the ‘evil ones’ who only pursue their own interests. After all, as architects we naturally have our own interest in architecture. If we

take a risk in the area of building physics because, on the basis of our architectural concept, we judge this to be acceptable, then

we are not invariably representing the client’s deepest interests. In such a case the annoying truth is that the ‘idiotic’ building contractor or the

‘conservative’ building-physics expert represents the client’s interests to the same extent, at the very least.


Mathias and Daniel, how do you tackle this problem? You work under very different conditions, for example you are building a large school complex in Ordos in China. Does your architectural strategy prepare you for not being able to control a project as closely as was possible in your previous projects in Switzerland?

DN The strategy for China was clear from the very start. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to control or influence

the building process and the execution of the details. Therefore we had to design something that was very simple and that defines the architecture

by means of the urban layout. We couldn’t really worry too much about the finishes or the window details, we had to make our

design so robust in terms of spaces and programme that it can tolerate poor detailing and alterations.


MM But this still did not prevent a

number of surprises. Although our villa in Ordos really was architecturally simple, it was built differently to the way we designed it, because the

building workers on site couldn’t read our plans. But we did not want to place ourselves in the position of an interior decorator –

even though we could do this and in principal we enjoy doing it. But when really difficult circum stances arise or the weather suddenly

changes then the important thing is that everything on the ship is tightly lashed down.


Recently EM2N has shown a marked interest in understanding buildings not as an antithesis of urban space, but as its continuation in the interior of the building. Your project for the Toni Site offered a chance to examine this ‘inner urbanism’, simply as a means of dealing with an industrial building of this size. Roger, how do you see the added value of this strategy? Could it be that this inner urban space is dramatised at the cost of external urban space?

RD The question as to what extent this inner urbanism threatens to drain energy from urban space was considered by the jury. But I

don’t think this is going to happen. The kind of urbanity and the public realm that you propose with this building are not the

kind that could be achieved in the surrounding streets. Public space remains an obligation, and this also applies to these large former industrial areas.

And, conversely, the chances of an industrially influenced public space in comparison to a city with block-edge development are at least just as good.

Naturally, the public space in EM2N’s Toni Site is organised in a completely different way to the traditional street spaces of the 19th century

lined by buildings, but these traditional
typologies also have their limits, especially when they are built today in a ‘contemporary’ manner, like on Friedrichstrasse in

Berlin. Seen from this perspective the possibilities for public space that result from linking and opening up industrial sites and making spatially liberating buildings

of this size deserve to be rated more highly.


DN The urban aspect of your work has always interested us. Especially because your buildings have

this entirely natural quality and always create good outdoor spaces in relation to the city – what you describe with the term ‘constellation’. Your

buildings are also not excessively defined, something that can no longer be taken for granted nowadays when so much money is spent on surfaces.

In the end the analysis and interpretation of the city is more than half of the project.


MM I see genuine differences between us –

perhaps they are generational differences – as regards how we deal with what are called nonplaces. We always had a lot to do with

such non-places and we deliberately took them on, because this vague mingling of infrastructures and intermediate spaces, these oversized spaces that are architecturally almost

impossible to deal with attracted us. Then we returned to the city with concepts that we had developed on the periphery and, using these

instruments, were able to work on spaces there that for a generation before us were spaces of capitulation. Swiss architecture has found answers to

the question of building in the landscape, building in established town and village centres and, certainly, building in the inner city, especially in Basel.

But as far as the intermediate city – which you work on in Studio Basel – is concerned, in the generation before ours I

can discern a kind of puzzling over the problem, as Marcel Meili describes it, but little in terms of strategy or approach, and I

also see evidence of a kind of helplessness.


RD Certainly, your systematic work on the periphery has helped you acquire an important awareness that you

have successfully applied to the city. Perhaps here something has helped that I believe is of absolutely central importance for your work: namely this

‘cold look’ at the world and at one’s own work; the ability to step outside one’s own work and to observe it from a

certain distance. This ability leads to new areas opening up, as one understands oneself not only as the author in the narrower sense of

the term, but attempts to understand a task as what it actually is. This insistence on understanding the building job was something that struck

me in your presentation of the Zurich University of the Arts project on the Toni Site. You raise fundamental questions even before you start

to design. The question whether and to what extent the means of architecture we employ can give a valid answer is one that always

arises. As I see it, the most convincing designs and concepts and those that are most important for one’s own biography are, as a

rule, those in which one has given other strategies a precedence over a traditional understanding of architecture.


Which projects might those be?

RD Once we were commissioned, together with a body of experts, to provide a test planning for the Zurich abattoir that was to be

given a new use as a district culture centre. The new land was already reserved, the loan calculated and this new abattoir was to

be ready on January 1, 2012. But we came to the conclusion that the old abattoir should be preserved and therefore suggested that, first

of all, the reports on the logistics and economics for this proceeding should be commissioned. As regards the building fabric it was only the

abattoir shed from the 1960s that was really obsolete. And therefore we suggested a new building in the form of an extra-tall box to

make this monument once again recognisable in the city as what it is. This helped the strategy acquire an architectural dimension. We also proposed

that the site, including the business of slaughtering animals, should be made perceptible as public space. We don’t publish concepts like this and therefore

nobody knows this work, but these are extremely interesting and important projects. In the end it turned out that the demolition of the abattoir

had never been declared a precondition. Despite this, nobody among all these experts had allowed him- or herself to consider the preservation of the

complex as a serious possibility. The architect, a dilettante homo universalis with all his weaknesses, is needed to ask such simple questions. And this

is also what I mean by the ‘cold look’: that you first of all reflect using simple common sense and only then add your

knowledge, which comes from your experience of architecture.


But aren’t there circumstances that can’t be grasped by means of phenomenological perception on site, that have more to do with the structural management of territory? For instance: how to deal with agglomeration in a country with the scale of Switzerland? Should we attempt to urbanise the periphery, i. e. combat urban sprawl by making those areas that are already settled more compact and by reducing their urban footprint where possible? Or should we follow a different scenario, of the kind once suggested by Winy Maas: concentrating all urban and peri-urban substance in the cities, demolishing the sprawling structures of civilisation and transforming these areas back into ‘nature’? Do you believe that it is possible to avoid setting a structural course, to avoid ‘visions’ of this kind and instead to decide how to handle a place solely on the basis of this reactive ‘looking around on site’? Can this help us make any progress in a question like agglomeration that is of such central importance for Switzerland?

RD One thing is certain: you cannot get anywhere with a concept that, allegedly, can be applied right across as complex an urban landscape

as Switzerland. Naturally, one must consider the larger territorial contexts, but in the agglomeration areas, too, there is a diversity of identities that can

be focussed, sharpened. There isn’t just one interesting option for the agglomeration, and this question is not always connected with the question of density

alone. Of course, all in all it is correct to say that we must use land economically, but on looking at individual kinds of

agglomerations these questions shift somewhat.


DN I believe that in this regard we see things in a very similar way. I’m reminded of a bon

mot by the former German Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: ‘People who have visions should go to the doctor.’ And I also believe in Roger’s

reversal of Karl Marx’ quote: that we are not called upon to change the world, but to interpret it. In a certain sense we

are just being extremely opportunistic when we decide not to simply erase everything, but to look for what is specific about a place and

to work with it. We have no preconceived architectural or spatial images that we wish to build; we want to use the potential identity

of a place for its own further development. This can be a typology or just the way people live there and use outdoor space.



This doesn’t mean that you develop something new by simply continuing what already exists or that you just give what you find in existence

a new cladding. There is always a reaction to the place. For example: if there is a lack of structure then perhaps you suggest

unexpectedly an infrastructure that gives an area some kind of coherence and perhaps makes it possible to understand the place through its form for

the first time. Securing the specific local qualities, transforming them, developing them into something new, remains highly topical and does not exclude the possibility

of doing the same in larger contexts also. However, these questions about structural solutions are certainly justified. In ETH Studio Basel we are exposed

to them, too. As traditional local, regional and national planning in Switzerland has vanished into thin air – and this is not an exclusively

Swiss phenomenon – the situation now is that architects have replaced the theme ‘planning’ with ‘urban design’. As a consequence there is a real

danger that we will lose sight of the major structural questions. But on the other hand we have also seen that these planning strategies

no longer work.


DN As a sole instrument spatial planning is certainly not sufficiently specific, because it operates only in a structural way. The other

extreme is a purely architectural way of thinking in which urban design becomes an object and every form of structural thinking falls by the



RD That’s right, and we both are certainly exactly in-between, in the indefinite area in-between.




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