Table of contents:
Resolving the Hidden Core by Steven Spier
Works and Projects
Loft in the Hauserpark Building, Biel, 2000
Town villas, Witikon, Zurich, 1998-2001
Two houses, Küsnacht, 1998-2002
Multengut housing for senior citizens, Muri, 2002-2004
Rigiblick Hotel and Theatre, Zurich, 2002-2004
Housing, Herrliberg, 2002-2005
Town villas, Beijing, 2004
Am Eulachpark housing complex, Winterthur, 2003-2006
Sunnige Hof housing complex, Zurich, 2001-2005
Development of the Central Station area, Zurich, 2004
Project for the densification of Schwamendingen, Zurich, 2004
Development of the Seewen-Feld area, Schwyz, 2004
Projects for the Workplace
Remodelling of the EMPA Laboratory, Dübendorf, 1995-1999
Remodelling of the Sulzer Building, Winterthur, 2000-2001
Office building, Opfikon, 2000-2002
Remodelling of the Werd Building, Zurich, 2003-2004
Eichhof Office Building, Lucerne, 2004-2005
Onoma Expo 02 pavilion, Yverdon-les-Bains, 2002
Gottfried Semper 1803-1879 exhibition, Zurich, 2003
On Public Space. Three Historic Examples:
Gottfried Semper. Three Projects for Dresden, 1836-1878.
Geoffrey Copcutt. The Town Centre of Cumbernauld New Town, 1958-1968.
Mies van der Rohe. Three Plaza Projects, 1964-1969.
by Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Sumi
Text from the introduction:
'Resolving the Hidden Core
One of modernism's many unexpected legacies has been the growth of global culture and media industries, with a rise in our visual sophistication and a concomitant increase in our appetite for new images. Yet even within such a gluttonous environment architecture from German-speaking Switzerland has somehow sustained the world's interest for over a decade, now even presenting a new generation in the magazines. In a western architecture world also interested in theoretical and formal histrionics from The Netherlands and Great Britain, and software-philia from the United States, Swiss architecture can be taken as an antidote. That the same adjectives can be used by those who admire it and those who don't -namely minimal, uncompromising and well constructed- is a strange and noteworthy consensus. Transcending such characteristics is the work of Burkhalter Sumi, for it has as much sensuality as sense, opulence as rigour, and an architectural ambition tempered refreshingly with modesty.
Even though Burkhalter Sumi are now working on larger scale problems and projects than before, their way of thinking and working shows a remarkable consistency over the 21 years since the office's founding. Going back to their timber buildings, or studying the exhibition catalogue from 1996, reveals a lot about them. Over years of observations, mulling and simply following their personal tastes the architects had assembled a host of complicated and contradictory issues about timber architecture, which the catalogue and their work do not pretend to bring together into some grand theory. Rather, Burkhalter Sumi draw on these influences as they work through a number of issues in timber construction, such as tectonics, form and its perception, prefabrication, colour, ecology and hybrid structures. The results are encapsulated at the back of the catalogue in eight wall sections from eight different timber buildings over twenty years. These show a stunningly rigorous and innovative approach. Each section demonstrates both a different way to build and the architectural possibilities of such constructions, making timber construction in effect a high-tech material. These drawings alone demonstrate the architects' insistence on keeping the theoretical discourse as close as possible to building. They are not, however, working within aBaukunst tradition, for the architects are open to a broader range of influences, including intellectual, academic, and intuitive. While these wall sections encapsulate the inquisitiveness and rigour of Burkhalter Sumi's approach they do not convey the richness of these little buildings. In Hotel Zürichberg, for example, the interior space as the ellipse and the circle chase each other; in the forestry stations the challenge to timber construction's traditionally additive nature; in the kindergarten in Lustenau an apparent timber curtain wall. But there are more layers still, namely the hotel rooms' playful nomadic furniture and the building's timber skin that twists and peels to let in daylight or the view; the forestry stations' engagement with the idea of the primitive hut as well as gestalt psychology, making the parts of this kit both figurative and abstract; the kindergarten's reference to children's' building blocks and its balance between whole and part. Tellingly, Burkhalter Sumi put together the exhibition only when they thought they had started to have some answers, which was after 10 years' work. This is a long time to resist the temptations of a media-frenzied architecture world. In the accompanying catalogue they unabashedly cite their influences, and characteristically they are eclectic. There is their fascination, like many architects before them, of the craft and variety of timber vernacular, be it the size, scale, form and colour of grain silos and barns in North America, the plasticity of form in Russian Orthodox wood-shingled churches or the textural quality and immediacy of rural buildings in the Alps. But they also discovered and were equally intrigued by a less known tradition of modern timber construction that pursued issues of prefabrication and industrialisation of the building process. This includes Konrad Wachsmann's universal joints, Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses, and Jean Prouvé's material and tectonic suppression, influences radically different from each other. This plurality attracts Burkhalter Sumi fundamentally. And along the way they helped republish Konrad Wachsmann's Building the Wooden House. Technique and Design from 1930, which is a sign of respect and of affection.
In their succinct essay 'Form and Profession', the only instance where they have written something close to a manifesto, Burkhalter Sumi observe that architecture and architects seem under attack from any number of quarters. He or she is increasingly impinged by the market forces and procurement methods under which the Anglo-American world already suffers. This is true even in Switzerland, where the architect has traditionally controlled the construction process and enjoyed considerable respect and autonomy. But the forecast demise of the profession through its disintegration now has such a long history that it forms its own tradition, they say with a Pop nonchalance, and has become its definition. They recount the split between the École des Beaux Artsand the then newly founded Écoles Polytechniques, and briskly trace a series of crises through the Deutscher Werkbund, the various Bauhaus(es) and CIAM, reaching a climax in '1968 with demands that the discipline of architecture be broken down into a series of subjects -economics, sociology, law, etc.'. And from this chilling history of dissolution they calmly derive their precepts for being an architect: 'First, the continual adaptation of our profession to an ever-changing environment is a sign, not of weakness, but of strength (...) Like Roland Barthes's Argonauts who continually renew their spaceship during flight, without 'intermediate landing or interruption', architects must also continually reconstruct the edifice of their theoretical knowledge.' But in a break with modernism's confidence and a subsequent history of serial certainties, they acknowledge that the condition they describe involves one in a continual struggle, for, 'It is not the elimination of (...) conflicts, but their prompt resolution -the centring of the centrifugally dispersing demands and the consequent revelation of the hidden core- which constitutes the primary task of our profession.' As we shall see, the task of finding the hidden core and the acceptance of resolving rather than solving problems sets a difficult task for the architect. It demands conceptual and intellectual precision that has to be matched by a certain relaxed quality to what must be a highly honed result. Furthermore, as the building shuttles among various levels of resolution and meaning it must also strive for a sense of the whole. (Sumi says this is a key lesson from Le Corbusier, as might someone who has published extensively on the father figure of Swiss modernism.)
The continual struggle described above is an ambitious definition of the architect, which ironically must manifest itself in a kind of humility, professional as well as formal. The clarity with which Burkhalter Sumi put it in 'Form and Profession' belies the position's complexity: 'The discipline of architecture has (...) its relation to society (as) its central concern (...) The decisive question for us is whether the completed structure is capable of surviving everyday life (...) Such an approach seeks an architecture which, at its best, has a self-evident character.' What this means in practice is clear in their renovation of the office complex Werd. It is a good though not great example of a 1970s office building: an assemblage of different blocks and a curtain wall in a pleasing blue and silver indebted to Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky's ideas of literal and phenomenal transparency. But Burkhalter Sumi have enough affection for such architecture, and enough respect for this building's prominence on the skyline, to propose that its curtain wall after renovation should look like it would have when it was built. Given the significant environmental upgrading necessary this was far from the easiest solution. It necessitated refurbishing the window frames and the other elements while replacing all the glazing. Furthermore, this approach meant that the office rejected the opportunity to create a signature building for itself, instead recognising and retaining the building's modest role in the city. But if they are self-effacing in their treatment of the exterior, the interior is thought completely afresh. There they embrace the building's change of use from private to public offices, its enhanced social importance, even if it is for the unbeloved taxman. The ground floor is opened up through glazing and the placement of waiting areas; the interiors are frankly stylish, for why should the public realm, even the tax office, be mean? To enhance its public function further they proposed a large restaurant with bold facades for the ground floor, a destination in the evening for the city's stylish crowd.
The obvious affection for Werd, for the 'as found', can be further understood by Burkhalter Sumi's interest in Alison and Peter Smithson. They are kindred spirits, who see themselves working within a decidedly modern idiom and striving to collect what was already then a diverse tradition. (The assuredly modern culture in which they thought they were working, and in which the architect can start with realty and abandon heroics, did not exist in Great Britain but does actually describe contemporary Switzerland.) It is not their architectural language or often questionable solutions that attracts Burkhalter Sumi, even if, remarkably, the Smithsons' architecture is fashionable again, but their genuine curiosity and openness to new influences and approaches; more specifically, the precision of the Smithsons' observations and their insistence on the centrality of social and urban questions. This embrace of architecture as a social act is, however, not nostalgic; clearly the question of the public realm is an open one. But it certainly puts Burkhalter Sumi at the forefront of the move, at last, away from an infatuation with lifestyle and branding and towards something more substantial.
A good example of a Smithsons-like precision and economy of thought is Burkhalter Sumi's study, with Professor Vittorio Magnano Lampugnani, for the densification of the garden city plan of Schwamendingen outside Zurich. Such postwar suburbs with their low density are a problem in most of the western world as the need for more housing near cities increases, and they are routinely lambasted for their inefficiency and reliance on the automobile. But Burkhalter Sumi don't ignore that this urban type is also extremely popular. Their attitude to it is pragmatic, and so they propose to density where it is both necessary and possible, which includes housing, and offices and shopping in the centre. Most importantly, they also understand the importance and the nature of its public realm. They are canny enough to know that in such an urban type, Los Angeles being an extreme example, this is actually the infrastructure. So the central problem turns out to be the street and the solution is not to deny but to strengthen the garden city character. Small, precise moves here produce big effects. They increase the visual continuity of the landscape, turning the main roads and motorways into parkways. They propose cutting the roadway into the ground, planting trees for structure, removing vegetation and urban clutter for clear sightlines. The before and after images are startling in how obvious and right this seems. Deducing and resolving the core problem increases density while letting this urban type become what was first intended: a city in a garden. (This is especially clear in their sketches.)
The same thinking and judgements were applied to Burkhalter Sumi's unsuccessful proposal for the Christmas lighting of the world famous shopping street in Zurich, Bahnhofstrasse. As with Schwam-endingen, the test of such an approach could be how obvious or correct the solution appears as they again start from a kind of American pragmatism (famously paraphrased by Venturi et al. as 'Main Street is almost all right.'). The existing lighting of some thirty years -strings of white lights suspended between buildings to create a field, is refined, beautiful and almost iconic. It was felt, nevertheless, that it should be replaced and a competition was held. Burkhalter Sumi again started by looking closely at what exists and understood that the beauty of the Bahnhofstrasse lies in the big plane trees that march down both sides of it towards the lake. So they focus on these bare trees and, simply, light them up. But this simple move makes clear so much. For it reinforces the formal structure they give to the street, brings out their sculptural, almost Gothic quality, and makes us recognise or remember how stark or even eerie winter can be. Then in a warm quotation of tradition the architects suspend white lights between the buildings, too, but achieve a different effect by staggering them to create depth. Their proposal enhances the elegance of the street through the simplest of means, allows us to see the majesty of the big, bare, cold trees and pays homage to the beauty or the memory of the existing lighting without mimicking it. (Sadly their entry came second in the competition to one using lasers and projections, obviously.)
Both the proposal for Schwamendingen and for the Christmas lighting on the Bahnhofstrasse begin with a close reading of the site, a respect for the 'as found', and a subsequent precision or economy in the intervention. But as both projects show, the feeling or the atmosphere of the place is not always what it first appears to be and must be truly understood before the strategy of then enhancing it can succeed. This can lead to bold solutions as well as quiet ones, as Burkhalter Sumi's proposal for the renovation of a former brewery silo shows. As one might expect, the architects retain the existing concrete structure's curious octagonal columns. Likewise, they keep the large funnel shape in the basement ceiling where the silos once emptied. (The programme there is public with a fitness club and meeting rooms). If on the interior the architects retain the atmosphere of an industrial building through direct quotation, on the exterior they strengthen an existing though obscure formal relation of this assemblage of buildings by completely redesigning the silo's facade. The original exterior cavity wall is entirely removed, replaced with a fence of concrete pillars that sit on the edge of the floor plates. This one move transforms the existing building into an abstract form with neither base nor top nor recognisable openings in a recognisable facade. It is a completely different architecture from the existing 19th-century one of windows cut out of a solid wall. But as different as it is tectonically, its strong verticality now creates a family of similar forms, namely the soaring chimney and the memory of the original silos that were within the building. It allows us to discern the verticality of the windows within the main building, previously subsumed within its squat propositions. The sophistication of how this facade both differentiates itself and helps group elements to create an assemblage is especially clear at night when light pours out of it and smaller additions, abetted by the now perceptibly soaring chimney. Minimal art has a well-documented relationship to contemporary Swiss architecture. But beyond the obvious physical similarities of formal reduction, industrial materials and precision of fabrication there is the shared influence of Gestalt psychology and the manipulation of form to alert us to the phenomenology of perception. However, while this is reasonably obvious in certain individual buildings, its use in urban design is rarer and more challenging.
In the brewery project described above Burkhalter Sumi intervene with something strongly different that both redefines and rediscovers the existing. This is refined and subtle work. Similarly their proposal for the area to the south of Zurich Central Station -with Theo Hotz Architekten and Gigon Guyer Architekten- the careful placement of long blocks responds to the area's 19th-century urban morphology but also purposely neutralises the space of the street. The spaces between the buildings are likewise in a tension between a traditional, now nostalgic, notion of public space and more ambivalent, contemporary public spaces with which we are now familiar and comfortable. Notwithstanding this sophisticated ambiguity about how we now live in the city, the proposed towers traditionally mark important axes or spaces because the architects still believe that they have an urban, which is to say social, meaning. This is rather unfashionable. A contrary understanding of the city, or perhaps of architecture, and at the moment a successful one for those working on large scale developments, is to let the towers end up where market forces (read developers) will have them. This studied ambiguity of the nature of public space is also visible in Burkhalter Sumi's housing study for the GIS Areal. They respect the area's prevailing orthogonality and scale by proposing long, horizontal forms. But the space between them deliberately cannot be characterised as either that of courtyard or of terrace housing; rather, it is both public and private. While the differing widths of the blocks and their placement physically define the spaces between them, their quality and programme is defined by a differentiation between the circulation system, which is precisely controlled, and the green space, which infiltrates almost everywhere. The buildings float in a sea of green. But because of the choice of vegetation, and because these green spaces are accessible to the public visually, they have a semi-urban or public character.
To strive for such controlled ambiguities requires clear thinking, which is helped by Burkhalter Sumi's use of typology. This term has many meanings, but here does not propose, as it did in J. N. L. Durand or even in Bannister Fletcher's comparative method, a catalogue of solutions. It is, though, a way of dealing with form without being formalist. It allows one to group problems and so find related solutions. This can be readily seen in their housing projects. For instance, they are comfortable discussing the two types of floor plans for their proposed town villa flats for Wallisellen as Palladian or 60s free-flowing; likewise, the town villas in Herrliberg (1997) can be described simply as two types: parallel to or perpendicular to the slope. Within such classifications there are no end of architectural solutions, but one is then working within an understood and communicable order. It does not stifle creativity but certainly adds rigour. This makes urban design an architectural issue, a position that comes in and out of fashion but is especially well suited to Burkhalter Sumi. It also means that differences in scale do not require an entirely different approach or set of skills, as we can see this perfectly in their unsuccessful competition proposal for the MAAG Areal. This is an industrial area being transformed in the way every such area is, with the architects asked to add housing. One of the issues in such areas is how to reinforce the existing industrial character, which is what is attractive about the place, when one cannot just build new industrial-type buildings. There are two keys typologically. One is to understand the nature of the spaces between the buildings. The second is found in the existing buildings. The architects analysed such a prominent building in the area, which in section is tripartite, like the type of a cathedral or the facade of a classical building. They then use this type urbanistically and architecturally, zoning by use horizontally, which gives the architects the freedom to create entirely different types of spaces above and below, with housing lying on top. They demonstrate the strength of their way of thinking by showing that their proposal works with different sizes of buildings and so can create a family of layered buildings. They then bring this idea to their Am Eulachpark housing project. Here two different types of architecture and accommodation sit comfortably on each other without needing to be resolved in the traditional sense.
In their study for the densification of Seewen-Feld, with Professor Lampugnani, Burkhalter Sumi work typologically in the planning and architecture. They deduce three kinds of existing spaces: panoramic space or the space of the view; public space; and the spaces of movement. They then strengthen each of them. The park-like space is defined by the site circulation. Its edges are made clearer, though still soft, by clustering buildings. They also deduce three types of buildings that clearly define space differently. They propose single-family, two-storey terraced housing to the north arranged to maximise views and sit along the contours to define an S-shaped green belt that swoops through the site, bleeding into the public space so that the whole area feels like a park. Housing blocks are added to the traditional modernist ones, likewise situated as free-standing masses maximising light, air and view. The third type of housing and urban space are the villa apartment blocks, grouped around a central public space and ringed by trees. In their housing proposal Grünwald, with Josep Lluís Mateo, while the animated figure ground of the family of three forms provides three different addresses and identities it is anchored in three basic flat types dropped into them. A more classic example of working with urban type, with a debt to the Ticinese architect Luigi Snozzi, is their proposed row of housing nuggets along the lake (CU West). Somewhere between these last two examples lies the unzipped figure/ground of their proposal for StŠubli Areal where the similar forms deform slightly to respond to the different contexts that they face. This mediation between typology and invention, rigour and joy, is one of the things that makes Burkhalter Sumi special. The often contradictory characteristics of their work are conveniently mirrored in the architects' biographies, even if one cannot unravel which of the partners has contributed what. The brooding Sumi has a classical Swiss architect's education. He studied at the ETH Zurich, which under Bernhard Hösli's pedagogical influence unquestioningly taught a particular modernism. He did his diploma project with one of the doyens of postwar Swiss architecture, Dolf Schnebli, and after graduation stayed on at the ETH as a research assistant in the renowned department of history and theory (gta). Importantly, this was a period when the gta employed both architects and historians. But even within the orthodoxy I describe things were starting to stir. Sumi also worked with Bruno Reichlin who, with Martin Steinmann, was calling for the 'autonomy of architecture', moving it away from being regarded as a poor relation of more academic, especially social science, disciplines. Others were demanding the enjoyment of architecture, which first sounds strange but is still sometimes necessary. Outside the ETH at that time, exactly its institutionalisation and canonisation of modernism was being critiqued through the introduction of play or even mischief, and it is this latter milieu in which Burkhalter learned architecture. After working as a draftsperson she went abroad to work in the avant-garde at a time when such a thing genuinely existed. She worked with Superstudio in Florence, and it is difficult now to imagine how necessary the radicality of their universal, nonmaterial space was; and, how reasonable the material poverty and conceptual richness of arte povera seemed. She worked for Studio Works in downtown New York, when one could live and work as an avant-garde architect in Manhattan, dropping into The Factory, or bumping into Vito Acconci at the local bar. Then working in Los Angeles in the late 1970s when it was still individual and strange, before it was accepted as the beloved paradigm for postwar urban development, and much before it was damned for the same thing.
Burkhalter Sumi are after a complex architecture, which is clear and ambiguous, rigorous formally and sensually rich too. Firmly based in modernism it is nevertheless not afraid of play and style; see their affection for the streamlined in their projects for Eichhof, Lucerne or Shanghai. If anything the work is getting more joyous. There is a growing interest in the play between pure geometry and more sculptural ones as in their proposal for La Roche, and there is the wit of the thin, squiggly roof and green piloti of their proposal for Hamburg Hafencity. One can see such normally contradictory qualities in perfect balance in their renovation and addition to Rigiblick, a hotel, restaurant and small theatre. As a protected late 19th-century building it required careful restoration, and since owned by the city the work was in the public eye. But here the architects are fearlessly playful and sensual while still rigorous. First one sees the silver of the painted parking garage leaking out from light/ventilation cannons that poke through the hillside, and windows in Burkhalter Sumi's signature red. And boldly jutting out into space is the overscaled balcony, which with its dancing timber columns, ship's prow and decking, and scooped handrail is theatre; making no pretence to fitting in it is sculpture. But even this gesture is not carefree and is tied into the building with the green of the columns picked up in the existing tower's windows. The doubled dining-room windows are mannered and like theatre boxes, but cleverly give tables both next to them and further away their own window. The new corner around the back adds a wholly different scale and language. In the interior the downstairs cafeteria has strongly geometric furniture but it is soft and colourful too. The bedrooms are like a dream not only in their material and spatial luxury but in their means, such as the diaphanous fabric that tantalisingly divides and connects spaces. Remarkably, all of this opulence and refinement still feels relaxed, accessible, fun and substantial. Rigiblick therefore exemplifies Burkhalter Sumi's ambition to hold in tension all of those complexities of architecture -intellectual, academic, social, material, formal, spatial, and sensual- that we sometimes reduce away.'