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Pedagogy: ETH Zurich, Switzerland

ETH Zurich rejoices in creative Swiss rigour

What will life in a compact city look like? Creating images haunted by nostalgic echoes of a 30-year-old tradition at ETH Zurich, this
studio, led by the young architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein, uses model-making to visualise an alternative, high-density urban future for Zurich.

Large white and grey boxes fill the room. On closer inspection they are models of buildings. Each block, formed in laser-cut detail, is enormous. The space feels like an empty city − a film set mock-up about to be torched for the next disaster movie. But in fact we are in a photographic studio and these painstakingly produced cardboard monoliths, together testifying to weeks of student labour, are being professionally shot by photographer Roman Keller.

‘Although the materials are abstracted, the model pictures clearly represent architecture as “the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”’ Gantenbein cites Le Corbusier’s 1923 dictum by way of laying down the law that governs the studio in which he teaches with Christ, who goes on to explain: ‘This approach relates to the need to engage with the physicality of architecture.’

Such physicality is impossible to deny; these miniature superblocks loom. Yet the photographs, despite looking so real, capture all that is ambiguous and problematic about the play between the make-believe scale of the model and that of an actual urban edifice.

This problematic ambiguity is at the heart of the atelier’s intellectual programme, an agenda that draws on both the typology debate, rooted in Aldo Rossi’s teachings, and also on Hans Kollhoff’s interest in the metropolitan implications of the Großstadt (major city).

Christ and Gantenbein are assistant professors at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology which has, since it was founded in 1855, effectively headquartered the influential if elusive idiom of Swiss architecture. Scholar Irina Davidovici, whose volume on the subject is due out next year, places the pair within a tradition that can be traced back to Rossi’s ETH assistant Fabio Reinhardt, who was pivotal
to the 1980s ‘analogue architecture’ tendency, a discourse that celebrated context through typological studies that gave rise to a design approach known as altneu (old-new).

Altneu buildings were discreet and emphatically ordinary, acknowledging the scale of the neighbours rather than trying to dress up in the same clothes. The idiom of the stripped-down but intriguing box, characterised by what British architect and ETH professor Adam Caruso has called ‘the melancholy of a sparsely inhabited city’, began to emerge.

Reinhart’s colleague Miroslav Šik, a central figure in the altneu debate, was important in the promulgation of the ‘analogue’ ethos through studio exercises. Davidovici explains: ‘Šik’s students would produce vast chalky perspective drawings, like CAD renderings but almost the opposite… it was all very slow, the process was a medium for evoking a kind of atmosphere.

Atmosphere was everything.’ In Christ and Gantenbein’s atelier, the production of images is also arduous, the end result eerily similar. But by building a perspective view in three dimensions rather than drawing it in two, students are forced to grapple with the interdependency of floor plan and facade.

Influenced by Kollhoff’s emphasis on urbanity, the flip side of the studio’s fascination with image-making is a commitment to developing high-density typologies. ‘We consider architecture as a scientific tool, which we want to encounter by studying exemplary dense cities. We don’t reduce buildings to urban patterns but profoundly believe that their architecture makes the city,’ reflect the architects.

One student project tests the capacity for increased density in a Zurich quarter with a masterplan that looks to 1950s Kowloon for inspiration. Precedent studies are at the heart of a studio methodology which has been called ‘typological transfer’ by Christ and Gantenbein. ‘The building types are transformed as they are moulded into a new context.’ Introducing an apparently alien architecture creates, Gantenbein claims, an opportunity to radicalise the urban challenge: ‘The project alludes to a far and exotic image while proposing surprising density scenarios. It never loses the trace of Zurich’s real life need to face its high growth future.’

Another project borrows from a mixed-use block from Rome: Mario de Renzi’s 1937 Casa Convenzionata. Consequences of this ‘transfer’ include the design challenge of a deep plan, and the need to deal with overlooking aspects when space and privacy are at a premium. Such an approach may suggest a taste for a dystopian future, but in fact it offers a timely critique of the wastefulness of sprawl and a laboratory for exploring the prospect of more compact, more sustainable cities.


This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy

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