By Edwin Heathcote
Published: November 25 2005 17:17 | Last updated: November 25 2005 17:17
As you roll into Basel station (smoothly, cleanly and, with a barely audible swish of cliche, perfectly on time), you pass a reddish cube clothed in ever-so-slightly twisted copper bands. This is a signal box, the copper ensuring that nothing interferes with the delicate electronic machinery inside, the twists admitting natural light. Where else would a building as mundane as a signal box be the work of Herzog & de Meuron (architects of Tate Modern), almost certainly the finest architects in the world today? Probably nowhere. This is Switzerland, where architecture, and building, are taken seriously. Orson Welles may have said that in 500 years of peace and prosperity all the Swiss ever produced was the cuckoo clock, but in architecture, as in pharmaceuticals and banking, they canâ€™t be touched.
In the rest of the world, cities clamour for iconic buildings, blockbuster museums and galleries, which they desperately hope will put them on the map. Our everyday surroundings, however, new houses and out-of-town shopping malls, streetscapes and utilities, are virtually untouched by architects, a saddening, immature blend of Noddy-houses and big sheds, anonymous boxes and ominous CCTV poles.
In Switzerland there are few icons. Instead, the average is executed with thought and skill, and the whole is consequently raised to a sublime where even the signal boxes are designed by world-class architects.
The reasons for this exemplary situation are worth exploring, as they may help us escape from a position in which architects are exerting, paradoxically, less influence on our environment at the same time as design consciousness burgeons.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the Swiss did not suffer the destruction that damaged so many European cities during the second world war. This meant that Swiss town centres remained physically intact, coherent and consequently attractive, but it also meant that there was no wholesale modernist reconstruction. As a result, the country did not suffer the ravages of the more brutal and insensitive aspects of the modernist project, particularly its largely ineffective, often disastrous approach to urbanism and city planning. The countryâ€™s famous wealth is also, it is important to remember, a relatively new thing. Only a century ago, Swiss migrant labourers crossed the border to work in industrialised Germany. Switzerlandâ€™s industry and banking developed in tandem with the rise of modernism and, as its cities grew, modernist structures were inserted seamlessly into their historic centres.
And modern architecture was not attached to a particular political movement or intention, in the way it became associated with social housing (and its social and structural failures) in some countries, or with socialist municipalities elsewhere. Modernism was never discredited in Switzerland, and so it developed organically and consistently - there was no need to waste energy defending it; that intellectual energy was instead ploughed into thoughtful design.
Then there is the profound influence of local culture. Each of the countryâ€™s 26 cantons is fiercely protective of its distinctive traditions. Architects are careful to build appropriately using materials, forms and iconography drawn from local traditions, so that even the most striking and architecturally sophisticated contemporary concrete house, in the most picturesque historic village, does not jar, and rarely calls attention to itself. Sensitivity to context precludes â€œlook at meâ€ architecture. The blobs, wings, towers and brightly-coloured pastiches that have become internationally familiar - and interminably boring - are actively discouraged and thankfully absent. This devolution also produces distinct architectural centres: Basel, home of Herzog & de Meuron, is the epicentre, but Zurich comes in close behind and Ticino, in the Italian-speaking Alps, has its own elemental version of post-modernism, exemplified by Mario Botta (whose monumental churches can currently be seen in an exhibition at the RIBA gallery in London).
Finally there is the critical, if seemingly blindingly obvious, acknowledgement that architects are involved in building. Anglo-Saxon culture is imbued with a snobbery that distinguishes between architecture and building. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as the difference between a cathedral (architecture) and a bicycle shed (building). In Switzerland the distinction is not drawn - the whole of design, from graphics and signage to utility boxes and toys, is taken extremely seriously. A bike shed, a signal box: these things add hugely, if almost imperceptibly to the quality of our immediate surroundings. Swiss cities may be denigrated for being a bit boring - but for architects, theyâ€™re paradise.
Edwin Heathcote is the FTâ€™s architecture critic.
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