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Communal luxury: Social housing, Zürich, Switzerland by Lütjens Padmanabhan

Spacious, well-designed and affordable, Swiss housing like Lütjens Padmanabhan’s apartment building in Zürich is the housing holy grail, but all that glitters is not gold

According to BCG’s Global Wealth Report 2019, one in 15 people in Switzerland is a millionaire, the highest concentration in the world. The country has the highest average wealth per adult, 91 billionaires, and exports 13.8 billion CHF-worth of watches a year. With some of the lowest non-resident taxation levels in the world, you might expect an overheated Wild West property market, crawling with foreign investors, and pitted with empty ‘deposit-box’ apartments, to rival London or New York. Instead, since 1984, in many cantons it has been almost impossible to purchase property if you are a non-Swiss resident, with only 1,440 properties a year available as second homes to non-residents in the whole of Switzerland, predominantly in the ski resorts and other tourist destinations.

‘With Brunelleschi and Venturi Scott Brown out front, Peter Celsing in the living room and Loos in the bathroom, it is a veritable party, albeit with Swiss restraint’

Switzerland is a nation of renters: only 43 per cent of the population are home-owners, the lowest proportion in Europe. In Basel, a staggering 84 per cent of people rent their home; in Zürich it’s three-quarters. The majority of tenants rent from private landlords and are protected by an armoury of regulations – the envy of renters the world over – and taxes on rental income are high, in total often exceeding 50 per cent, putting off many speculative get-rich-quick landlords.

In Zürich, nearly one in four dwellings are owned either by a co-operative or a public foundation, providing rents one-fifth below market rates. ‘Social housing’, typically understood to be owned and provided by the state, is almost non-existent. These non-profit housebuilders not only provide low-cost housing, but also encourage one of the healthiest architectural cultures in the world, running competitions for each project and supporting inventive housing design.

Lütjens padmanabhan waldmeisterweg architectural review drawings section aa

Lütjens padmanabhan waldmeisterweg architectural review drawings section aa

Click to download

‘For the past 15 years, Zürich has been at the forefront of innovative housing’, architect Thomas Padmanabhan recognises. In 2013, Lütjens Padmanabhan won an invited competition to build 21 apartments in the suburb of Oerlikon for Stiftung PWG: a non-profit, public foundation of the city of Zürich which owns and manages 1,787 apartments and 316 commercial properties. The foundation purchases and renovates old buildings as well as constructing new ones for affordable lease, including a project by EMI Architekten completing imminently and Peter Märkli’s red-sided mini-tower on Hohlstrasse from 2005.

Lütjens Padmanabhan’s building, completed last year, crouches among the pretty villas and polite supine tenements of the meandering backstreet of Waldmeisterweg – ‘a blurry, fragmented and undefined in-between’ on the northern fringe of the city, ‘somewhere between a Gartenstadt (garden city) and a Siedlung (housing estate)’. Above the hedgerows and flanked by trees, the building emerges like an outsized garden shed, a giant order of 2-metre-wide Eternit ‘shingles’, like overlapped timber boards, wrapping around its perimeter. The facades lean very lightly against each other like a house of cards, the edges pulling away slightly from the corners. Like garden fences, each elevation cradles and encloses a small pocket of greenery, or a fragment of street or pathway. A long strip of delicate bicycle shed carefully angled to structure the landscape to the rear.

The architects were conscious not to ‘humiliate the site’, looking to the robust villas of Lux Guyer – one of the first female architects in Switzerland – dating from the ’20s and ’30s and faced in plum-coloured Eternit boards, and the ‘bold little banal box’ of Venturi Scott Brown’s Lieb Beach House from 1969, a hut on the shoreline of New Jersey bound in asbestos shingles.

‘The non-profit housebuilders of Zürich encourage one of the healthiest architectural cultures in the world’

A play of references and quotes is whispered in hushed tones, so as not to scare the quiet suburban neighbours. The front facade is loosely divided by an order of grey-painted timber batten pilasters (easily confused for rainwater pipes which, in true Swiss fashion, run internally), to create simultaneously a run of 10 row houses and a long columnar Palladian palazzo. The architects refer to Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, revelling in the ambiguity of an elevation that is alternately a light grey surface with darker pietra serena elements applied onto it or a skeleton of pietra serena with light plaster filling in the gaps, depending on where you stand. But rather than smoky sandstone and plaster, in residential Zürich Brunelleschi is modestly realised in painted timber and fibre cement.

The elevation is not built from the ground: instead a ‘horizon’ of grey timber ties around the building’s waist like a belt while the ground shifts below, a whole floor buried at the back of the building. Two storeys hang below and two sit above, the relaxed arrangement of windows jostling like beads on an abacus. At its base, a ramped ‘buttress’ shores up the facade, like the protective talus at the foot of an ancient fort – except here it is crafted from foam-filled fibrecement board rather than solid stone. And on the top floor, the four apartments – including the two largest four- and fivebedroom flats – are treated as small boxy pavilions perched on the roof, a far cry from lavish penthouses.

Lütjens padmanabhan waldmeisterweg architectural review drawings plan

Lütjens padmanabhan waldmeisterweg architectural review drawings plan

Click to download

As in most Swiss housing blocks, the ground floor is dominated by a buggy park and lavish laundry rooms which move space-hungry clutter from individual homes. Padmanabhan describes the roughcast concrete bank of washing machines as both ‘an altar to washing’ and a buffet table for communal parties – wishful thinking maybe but the jazzy striped floor, large mirrors, and pink doors do lend themselves a faintly discotheque feel.

‘Just because housing is low-cost doesn’t mean it can be built cheaply’, the architects explain, because there is a glass floor on building cheaply due to Swiss standards and construction costs and wages. ‘But what you can do is design apartments where more people live within the surface area.’ Here, front doors open onto a ‘kitchen-hall’: simultaneously a kitchen, dining room, living area and hallway, with the other rooms opening from it and a loggia at one end. It has a kind of country kitchen feel, where you take off muddy boots, put the kettle on and gather, but it is also a clever space-saving trick, eliminating the need for a pokey corridor – a similar device to that used by Peter Märkli in the apartments for the Im Gut co-operative completed in 2014 across the other side of the city. With the internal doors ajar, in many flats you are able to see out through windows of each surrounding room from your seat at the dining table.

Zürich does not have specific enforceable space standards, but even these supposedly small floor areas still put London space standards to shame: up to 76.5m2 for a one-bedroom flat compared with London’s paltry 50m2 minimum, and clocking up to 20m2 bigger than the three-bedroom minimum. Pitched at families, most of the building’s 21 flats are three-bedroom. The residents represent a cross-section of society from all walks of life, from architects to teachers to cleaners, like British council housing used to before it was pitifully reduced to serving only the very poorest. Not only does this produce a mix of different people in each building but it also ensures that co-operative and public foundation housing models have support from across the political spectrum.

‘Perhaps it is inconvenient to point out that co-operatives and public foundations have stepped in to provide social housing because the Swiss state would not’

As Padmanabhan points out, cooperatives and public foundations are satisfying clients to work for because ‘they invest in durable high-quality materials to keep the maintenance costs low’. The same organisation builds, manages and leases the housing, so there is a motive to emphasise longevity, something sorely missed in developments sold for a quick profit. Details are robust and simple: shadow gaps where the walls meet the exposed concrete ceiling, black painted door reveals and Loosian candy-striped bathroom tiles. Each kitchenhall is anchored by a solid terrazzo column in its corner, load-bearing with some help from the adjacent concrete wall, ensuring it would be entirely indispensable if valueengineering ever wielded its axe. Impressively, the column’s parquet ‘shadow’ – inspired by Peter Celsing’s Villa Klockberga – and the delicate patches of tiles for pot plants set into the timber flooring came in under budget so passed through unnoticed. One of the only concessions was the removal of the door on the coat rack, saving a total of just 3,000 CHF from the 10.6 million CHF price tag.

From an outsider’s perspective there is something unavoidably Swiss about Waldmeisterweg: the annoyingly solid, high-quality build, the utopian communal laundry, the apartments so airtight you have to open the balcony door when you turn on the kitchen extractor fan or ‘it will suck the dust out of the plug sockets’. Lütjens Padmanabhan are ‘very conscious of our architectural forefathers’, having both worked at Meili Peter Architekten and Diener & Diener. But, however quietly, they are subversively reacting against the well-crafted concrete weight of the Swiss architecture canon. Perversely, they love that the concrete at Waldmeisterweg is crappy rather than cast with Swiss precision, that shuttering joints are slightly haphazard and tile grids are interrupted and cut in places, that compromises were made in a country renowned for its uncompromising architects.

‘From an outsider’s perspective there is something unavoidably Swiss about Waldmeisterweg’

The rear facade, rather than structured by colossal Swiss windows ‘designed from the outside’ and unworkable inside, is a happy generous surface which gladly accepts pot plants, fairy lights, bunting, banners and blinds. Sweet little garden lights with feet and cat-eared fences (a memory of the feline letter box at Binningen – AR October 2014) reveal a sense of humour firmly closeted in most Swiss architecture. ‘We feel very alone in Switzerland’, Padmanabhan rues. And with Brunelleschi and Venturi Scott Brown out front, Peter Celsing in the living room, and Loos in the bathroom, it is a veritable party, albeit with some Swiss restraint.

So this, possibly the least Swiss of Swiss housing projects, is the envy of architects from across the political spectrum, particularly in the UK, who herald the Swiss housing model as a utopian dream, and Zürich as the holy urban grail – after all, it is the second happiest city in the world (surpassed only by Vienna). Perhaps it is inconvenient to point out that Switzerland is one of the most conservative countries in Europe, with the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) forming the largest part of its Federal Assembly. There is no free health service, women didn’t achieve full suffrage until 1991, and compulsory paid maternity leave was only made law in 2004. Co-operatives and public foundations have stepped in to provide social housing because the state would not. Homelessness statistics are disquietingly impossible to find.

While the co-operative model works admirably in countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, it is pertinent to remember they are also some of the richest countries in the world, and it is these states, with the most wealth, that are relying on other organisations to provide housing for their people – because they will not. Perhaps not so utopian, after all.

Architect Lütjens Padmanabhan

Project team Oliver Lütjens, Thomas Padmanabhan, Moritz Hoernle, Hannah Klein, Marine de Dardel, Géraldine Recker , Julia grosse Darrelmann, Henrike Heuer, Andrea Micanovic, Nadine Käser Cenoz, Luca Bazelli

Photographs Hélène Binet and Ralph Hut, as stated

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today