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Dying with Dignitas


Confronted with the legality of suicide, the Swiss authorities have struggled to reconcile it with existing zoning laws

‘The biggest and most breathtaking sex club in Switzerland’ is how the Globe brothel describes itself. A cursory examination of its website confirms this is the case: situated in an industrial park on the fringe of Zurich, the club’s deep windowless interiors are unexpectedly sumptuous. A sweeping central staircase is held aloft on diamond palm trees; a carpeted agora is framed by gold Corinthian columns; a Turkish palace overflows with animal skins and bowls of grapes, tastefully bathed in the pink blush of concealed LED strip lights.

From outside, the club is unremarkable – a simple multi-storey office building amid concrete warehouses and factories. But despite its expensive decor, the Globe has been struggling financially. According to the owner, a Fabio lookalike in his fifties, this is partly due to a lengthy and intense planning dispute with their adjacent neighbours, the assisted-suicide clinic Dignitas. 

‘This short street in a central European business compound seems an unlikely focal point for a primal struggle between death and sex’

This short street in a central European business compound seems an unlikely focal point for a primal struggle between death and sex. However, the cohabitation of these activities is no coincidence; Swiss law is explicit about permissible social practices for each class of building. Zoning makes a moral – and not simply a typological – distinction between a nightclub and a strip club, or between a doctor’s surgery and a death clinic. This has the strange result of lumping any unconventional activity into a sub-category of commercial production and manufacturing. The third building on Ifangstrasse, Schwerzenbach, is home to the Albanian Islamic Society, completing a microcosm of Swiss prejudice.

The trouble between the Globe and Dignitas began seven years ago, when the brothel claimed  that the constant stream of hearses and pine coffins was dampening the appetite of their clientele. Dignitas responded by switching to an off-street loading bay, and replacing hearses with unmarked Renault Kangoo vans. When, a year later, the Globe tried to expand its car park by 39 spaces, Dignitas blocked the development application on the grounds that the hordes visiting whores were an affront to the terminally ill. The Globe countered by filing a complaint that the crematorium chimney breached EU regulations on noxious emissions. The suicide clinic was vindicated, but never recovered from the battle and eventually relocated to Pfäffikon, a small village an hour away. Commenting on the financial war of attrition, author Michel Houellebecq explained, ‘The market value of suffering and death has become superior to that of pleasure and sex,’ adding, ‘it is probably for this reason that Damien Hirst has replaced Jeff Koons at the top of the art market …’

It is certainly true that the rise in ubiquitous hardcore online pornography over the last decade has put more pressure on purveyors of carnal desire. As in architecture, the image has come to trump reality. The increasing possibility of pursuing personalised and niche fantasies online poses a constant threat to the necessary negotiation of a shared physical experience. Basically, we’re getting more selfish in all fields, producing a war weary and erotically exhausted society. But if sex no longer excites, its extreme passions have been transposed into an obsession with death. It is not a fixation on the moment or manner of death per se that we find arousing – we have not become more tolerant of Islamic State’s barbaric beheadings, for example. 

However, modern medicine continues to prolong the life spans of those suffering from terminal illnesses. Consequently, the period of time between diagnosis and death is getting longer and longer, creating a new experience of life as an indeterminate (but inevitable) future. Certain cancers and autoimmune diseases that were once almost immediately fatal are now deferred sentences –manageable or survivable, if not altogether curable. How long have I got left? This question is at the core of our new obsession. It is not the end itself, but the act of waiting for death that we find entrancing. It is the high-stakes narrative and drama of mortal combat: the banality of the everyday imbued with profound significance, as previously insignificant events assume their place in our battle for survival. There is universal appeal to Woody Allen’s advice, ‘live every day as if it were your last, and one day you’ll be right’.

‘Neocapitalism has banished death from its algorithms, presenting the image of the world as an immersive flow of information’

We are drawn to this new temporal space, the heightened awareness of being, lives that take place somewhere between this world and another (or nothing). The driving spirit of this perpetual now – in which we let go of the past but make no plans for the distant future – is in fact perfectly compatible with the zero-degree perspective of free-market ultra libertarianism. This is because neocapitalism has banished death from its algorithms, presenting the image of the world as an immersive flow of information.  

Switzerland is among few countries in the world to allow so-called ‘passive’ assisted suicides, in which a third party can prescribe lethal substances to a patient, but not administer them directly. There are only two companies that offer the service, Exit International and Dignitas. Both are non-profits with a subscribing membership. Assisted death cannot be administered just anywhere, and Dignitas was initially advised that since there was no zoning code for a death clinic, no change of use application could be made. The assumption was that suicide was only legal in private homes. But since Dignitas also provides their service to foreigners, whose countries presumably forbid assisted suicide, certain clients could not be visited in their own homes. 

The lack of clear planning guidelines put Dignitas in a bind: the service was technically legal, but operating from premises was not. Until September 2007 they carried out 670 suicides in a small flat in central Zurich, at which point protests by neighbours convinced the landlord to end their lease. The organisation was accused of promoting ‘death tourism’, a term that went on to win 2007 Swiss Word of the Year. After this, Dignitas moved to a Modernist concrete villa next to Lake Zurich. Once again neighbours blockaded the building, simultaneously lodging a complaint arguing that aided suicide was a business, not a natural domestic process, and should therefore not be permitted in a residential zone. The Canton of Zurich heard the case and agreed: ‘Death is a commercial activity,’ they said, and demanded that Dignitas apply for a newly created ‘death flat permit’. Since Dignitas refused on principle, the police raided the apartment and ejected the company.

Deprived of a building, for a number of years Dignitas operated out of parked cars and hotel rooms. By some fluke neither of these places was illegal, since Swiss law doesn’t regulate commercial activity in a parked car and organisations can’t be banned from hotels (only individuals). Their first attempt to rent an industrial building next door to the Globe was met by an immediate prohibition from local authorities. Again the Canton courts weighed in, explaining that, ‘the practices of Dignitas only differ marginally from the permitted uses of an industrial zone’. The taboo of suicide was slowly taking form in a succession of planning rulings that shuffled death to the peripheries of the city. From its once tolerated existence in residential buildings, death was bumped first to commercial, and then industrial zoning. After this decision, at least in the Canton of Zurich, assisted suicide became legal for foreigners only in business and industry parks, while Swiss residents could still use their private homes (but no one could use hotels or car parks). In fact, the issue became so confusing that a law firm called Rabenhaus Rechtsanwälte went to the lengths of printing a leaflet in 2011 titled, Where is it Possible to Die Without a Permit?

‘As the sole example of an entirely new type of architecture, it is underwhelming. More than that, it is uncanny’

The legality of suicide is evidently an uncomfortable subject for the Swiss, although their oblique attempts to tackle it through zoning laws have assumed a bizarre quality. Unlike other cases where new forms of trading have provoked local anger, death doesn’t require a specific architectural type. It can take place anywhere, which makes a death flat, factory or clinic an almost impossibly indefinable category of building. This ambiguity is in fact what allows the Swiss to conceal their moralistic agenda. As urban theorist Michael Guggenheim surmised, ‘By requesting building permits in any zone [residential, commercial or industrial], the opposing authorities show that they are generally opposed to the practice, rather than to the practice in specific zones. Their resistance amounts to a societal taboo, leading to assisted suicides in cars, and it denies the suicides of any buildings.’

Assisted suicide was for many years a practice without buildings because society couldn’t imagine what an appropriate building or zone might look like; suicide was something the Swiss simply didn’t want to see. The current home of Dignitas is a blue weatherboard cottage of somewhat bureaucratic proportions on a quarter-acre plot in an industrial park. The small site vainly attempts to reject its context – a kilometre-long blind facade belonging to an Amazon warehouse – through a pitifully tiny orchard, a patch of wild grass and a shallow ornamental lake. As the sole example of an entirely new type of architecture, it is underwhelming. More than that, it is uncanny. But until global society becomes more accustomed to the economics of contemporary death (‘how much time will I gain in exchange for what degree of suffering?’), there is unlikely to be any advance of the type. This poses an obvious opportunity for architects, and may be one of the few examples where an acceptable design innovation could lead the way for cultural change.