This overview of the Swiss timber architectural, engineering and building scene provides a window on the emergence of timber as an increasingly popular building material. While there are various overlaps with Swiss architecture as it is portrayed through the dominant architectural media, there are also notable differences and contrasts.
Current Swiss timber architecture
Contemporary Swiss architecture and architects have an established international reputation, making the sector one of the country’s most successful cultural exports, and a source of soft power and influence across many parts of the world. Between two of its best-known practitioners, Herzog DeMeuron and Peter Zumthor, each at different ends of a distinctive and contrasting architectural spectrum, one can find timber project examples. In particular, Zumthor’s smaller and showcase projects, for instance, his early St Benedigt Chapel (1988), and the Swiss Sound Pavilion at the Hannover 2000 EXPO, speak to the high regard the Swiss continue to give to technical craft skills. HerzogDeMeuron, though not known for wood projects, have every so often taken on a timber showcase, the latest of these being the Chäserrugg Ski Centre and restaurant (2015) perched on the mountains edge.
Swiss engineering is also a recipient of an international reputation, which extends to an emerging wave of timber engineers. If Hermann Blumer is an internationally known example, the growth in timber engineering expertise has expanded in recent decades, led by the Wood School in Biel – formally known as The Department of Architecture, Wood and Civil Engineering, which has been turning out annual batches of engineering graduates for over twenty years, the total tally by now surpassing 1000 trained and qualified timber engineers.
Such a figure of timber expertise isn’t, however, reflected among architects, and unlike in Britain, Germany, or Austria, there aren’t any mid to high-profile Swiss architect offices known for their focus on timber. Nor in the academy is there anyone with the profile of Hermann Kaufmann, the Vorarlberg timber architect, who took on the first chair of Timber Architecture at TU. Rather, the profession is known for its veneration of concrete, and although there are signs that this is changing, the material is still very much at the top of the tree among architects and the focus of mainstream academic research. After their statement Biel wood school project, Meili & Peter Arkitekten have not since touched another timber showcase. ETH Zurich, one timber engineer noted, contains around 200 researchers focused on concrete, while wood appears like a footnote, existing in a single department – Timber Structures, with around twenty researchers in all.
This is not to say there aren’t significant numbers of studios designing timber led projects. Indeed, there is currently a generally acknowledged timber boom happening in the country. However, looking at recent history, you will be hard pressed to find studios which are contemporary peers to the professional shift towards timber found unfolding to greater or lesser extent across the continent over the last twenty years. It is almost as if it has completely passed Switzerland by. Still the situation has changed dramatically in the last half decade. The 2015 fire code regulatory revisions have unlocked a spree of relatively tall, and also larger, timber projects. But it hardly feels that the groundswell movement that has brought WaughThistleton and dRMM to prominence in Britain, or Berlin’s ZRS, Kaden + Luger and Pallas & Huette, Helen & Hard in Norway or, for that matter, Vorarlberg’s Kaufmann clan in Austria, has taken comparable root in the small Alpine country. Despite around 7500 registered architects, it fell to a complete outsider, Shigeru Ban, to push through the first sizeable city timber showcase, Zurich’s Tamedia office completed in 2011.
All this said, the growth of timber architecture in the country is now a marked phenomenon. It can be divided into the take-off of urban timber, including a series of tall timber high-fliers and a mix of more rural and smaller urban projects, which continues to engage with elements of Switzerland’s crafts, carpentry, and general skills tradition. There are also the experimental digital departments, GramazioKohler within ETH Z, and EPFL’s Ibois, headed up by Belgian professor, Yves Weinand. Gramazio Kohler’s research covers wood, among a broader palette of materials, and the built results are primarily pavilions and other exhibition type structures. Ibois’ digital architecture is being realised in live projects, the most recent is the Vidy Theatre in Lausanne. Both, however, are considered exotic by the mainstream in the profession, so their projects remain anchored in their respective academic ivory towers. Even though Weinand’s Ibois currently has further live projects happening, these are in the Low Countries. Inevitably digitisation is also impacting on design, primarily in the form of BIM, with a wave of research, primarily associated with Bienne’s AHB, on more fully integrated BIM software.
Promotional infrastructure, including the Lignum Wood Architecture triennial awards – dating from 2009 – have also shone a light on timber projects across the country. What is noticeable is how the Zurich-Basel Swiss-German architectural axis, which dominates architectural attention both inside the country and in terms of international perceptions regarding Swiss architecture, is not so significant when it comes to timber. For instance, Local Architecture, who started out in Lausanne (though now also run a Zurich office) received plaudits for their Polyvalent Hall (2017), a sports hall in the town of Le Vaud on the edge the of the South Western Jura mountains, and won awards and attention for its use of CLT in its exploration of form; a series of tent like triangles playing out inside and out.
There are other timber projects in Local Architecture’s project list both completed and unrealised, notably two Rudolf Steiner schools in and near Geneva, one extending onto existing buildings, the other a new school in Bois Genoud (completed 2013), and a new zoo visitor complex in Garonne (2015), where the Polyvalent triangular forms were rehearsed. These projects leaven the many concrete buildings in their portfolio, suggesting a keenness to explore and express a timber architecture, though limited by the opportunities to do so, as reflected in a dramatic rail station roof deck, which didn’t get past competition stage.
Such expressive projects can be found elsewhere; another Steiner related project made from ash hardwood, the Ekkartshof community and restaurant building in Lengwil, Thurgau, by Lukas Imhof Architektur. But much more prevalent, however, are the sorts of stripped back, clean lined timber design found across Southern Germany and parts of Austria.
A case in point is a train maintenance hall for transportation company BSL in Bönigen, located in the country’s central western region by a Bern studio, Schwaar & Partner, with a translucent façade skin thrown over the open structural frame. Reminiscent of the industrial timber work halls of Munich architect, Thomas Nagler, and the work of Vorarlberg and Allgau studios, the architect falls within a recognisable template, even as the glulam frame masks both a wood-concrete composite ceiling, and beech veneered ply crane girders.
There are many examples of buildings working out of this kind of timber modernist template, another recent award-winning example being Andy Senn Arkitektur’s Landwirtschaftliches Zentrum or Agricultural College (2020) in Salez, close to the studio’s home city St Gallen, in Northern Switzerland. The new block’s long crisp lines, large light filled hall, and external walkway enable further façade repetitions, all rehearsing the cool orthogonal timber modernism playbook that has spread across the German speaking architectural world in the afterglow of Vorarlberg’s carpenter-architecture scene. In particular, Hermann Kaufmann’s work represents this, just over the border from St Gallen, less than forty minutes journey east, which has gained continent wide recognition.
How much such increments of Modernist austerity folds into the Swiss-German architectural hegemony emanating out of its Zurich-Basel axis is an open question. So far the arrival of tall timber in Switzerland, first announced by Burkhard Meyer’s 10 storey, 36 metre tall Suurstoffi 22 Risch Rotkreuz office building (2018) in Zug canton’s Risch Rotkreuz, suggested that timber wasn’t going to derail the overriding Miesian Less is More aesthetic any time soon. Comprising a concrete core, mixed GLT, CLT, Baubuche, and further hardwood timber materials, all of these were fully hidden externally by a steel façade. In the years since the revision of fire safety regulation, Tall Timber has been gaining momentum. WolkenWerk, a set of three 70m apartment blocks by Von Ballmoos Arkitekten, is currently going up in Zurich, which, when completed in 2021, will be the tallest timber buildings in Switzerland. These aren’t alone. Other tall timber projects are following in its train, for instance, Malley Lumières shopping centre, close to Lausanne, is slated to receive a 60m vertical timber extension as part of an exemplar of Switzerland’s low energy programme, known as 2000 Watt, will showcase a design by CCHE, a Lausanne firm.
These medium-level high rises add another visible layer to the already growing trend towards CLT and Baubuche use in massive timber housing, offices, and other larger building typologies, as part of the timber wave and boom of the last few years. The three long housing blocks known as ‘Woodstock’ Freilager Quarter (2015), in Zürich and designed by Bern’s Rolf Mühlethaler Arkitektur, is one of the most visible. Six storeys high and designed before the new fire regulations came into effect, they stand like a composition of long warehouse residential blocks. Although the visible wood – façade elements, pillars, and wooden gratings – are from Swiss silver fir stands, the majority of the structural timber – CLT and glulam floorplates, ceilings and walls – is hidden and invisible inside, due to the fire safety regulations, the fir and spruce construction timber comes from the Alpine countries and includes both cross-laminated and glued laminated timber. But none of the timber structure is revealed internally. The outer and inner walls support the floor slabs made of stacked timber. Whether for families, shared apartments, couples or singles, the different floor plans provide a degree of flexibility in the apartments allowing for different living patterns under the same roof, while consisting of the same, prefabricated elements stacked on the six floors.
Larger timber housing and office projects can increasingly be found in most of the larger Swiss cities. For example, in Wintertur, the Hagmann Areal multi-generational housing estate by another Zurich practice, WeberBrunner Arkitekten, was completed in 2018, and was garlanded with a host of awards for its mix of six storey housing, and smaller blocks for older residents, while using a comprehensive timber palette, carefully woven into existing old farm buildings, greenery, and orchard-like gardens.
WeberBrunner proceeded to contribute, along with ARGE sue&til and Soppelsa Arkitekten, to another large-scale Winterthur residential project also completed in 2018, the more orthodox sue&til housing, which while under construction was the largest timber residential project in central Europe. Winterthur continues to build in timber, with the latest project a city centre housing-office block going under the title, Crocodile, by yet another Zurich studio, Baumberger & Stegmeier. Though jointly designed by Zurich offices, Durig Arkitekten and IttenBrechbühl Arkitekten, Vortex, a large circular student housing block consisting of modular timber apartments sitting on a concrete slab, is located at the other end of the country, in Lausanne, and was completed in 2019.
Housing is but one building type which is being impacted by the Swiss turn towards timber. Along with offices, community buildings, industrial, and specifically wood industry buildings, the numbers of timber schools and education infrastructure projects have seen significant growth. These can range from examples such as Jaggi Frei Brügger Architekten’s, using local Bernese wood for a new primary school block (2019) in the small town of Aeschi, a result of a Bern canton campaign to use more locally sourced timber, to 0815 Arkitekten timber specification for their two timber blocks at the nearby Schwarzsee Education Campus (2016) in Freiburg Oberland, 1899’s comparable prefabricated Seefeld primary school (2019) albeit for a different age range, and mazzapokora for their multi-purpose kindergarten/hall (2016) within the larger Schulanlage mit Faltenwurf in another small Bernese town, Fallendorf.
Across a variety of building types, new technologies, from Timbatec’s TS3 expansive floor panels and modular units produced by BlumerLehmann among others, to timber nails, Suisse Fagus’s suite of new beech hardwood glulams, through to knitting BIM design into the entire supply chain, continue to fuel timber energy and interest. There are the novelties of free form projects, in Switzerland the recent Shigeru Ban curved SWatch worm gridshell (2019) in Bienne.
See this edition of Annular Unstructured for the SWatch project.
Though noticeably so far, almost no Swiss architect has taken up the challenge of what comes next. The exception is Zurich Zoo’s Elephant House (2015), a contemporaneous shell structure to Ban’s Bienne gridshell, comprising of CNC cut timber pieces by Markus Schietsch Arkitekten. Other kinds of unusual one-offs are also appearing though, including examples of timber being applied to contexts without any earlier precedents, for instance the external lining of a short road tunnel, the Rynetel wildlife bridge (2020).
Bridges have long been part of Switzerland’s timber repertoire, most famously with the Grubenmann family of bridge engineers –
Annular Further – see the Jürg Conzett feature on the Grubenmann brothers
Today Graubünden’s Jurg Conzett is well known for his timber bridges, including the second suspended Traversina bridge on the Via Mala walking trail and transport infrastructure.
Further – see the Jürg Conzett feature in Fourth Door Review 9
Rail stations, whether as showcases – such as the elaborate Bern Station canopy system (Smarch – 2005), or small rural halts like Filisur (2005), recipient of additional platform canopies, were designed by Walter Bieler.
Another sector, which is unsurprisingly seeing an uptick in commissions, are timber offices, manufacturing facilities, and other buildings, showcasing the material they work with coming in many scales. In 2012, Renggli, one of the largest timber manufacturers inaugurated a new production facility near Schotz in the canton of Luzern. At the other end of the scale, in Graubunden’s wild south east, Iseppi/Kurath Arkitekten designed a small carpentry and manufacturing workshop for local timber company, Mani Holzbau AG (2010).
Engineering company, PirminJung, have their new Haus des Holzes on the drawing board, while just completed is Kung Holzbau’s new four storey office (2020) one of the only timber companies working with glue-less ‘Moonwood’. The office joins manufacturing facilities and one of the director’s homes, all within Alpnach, a small central Swiss town Kung Holzbau works out of. All the buildings have been designed by SeilerLinhart Arkitekten, two ex-ETH Z and BearthDePlazes alumni, who appear to have also made it their spiritual home as well.
The desire to showcase the sector reflects the broader increased interest, which itself is primarily led by building with wood becoming financially competitive, alongside the overhaul of fire regulations, and allowing much larger buildings to make it to the design stage and now, five years on, beginning to appear around the country. There have been promotional campaigns, WoodVetia along with the triannual Lignum Wood Architecture awards, both of which have trumpeted the indigenous local sourcing of wood, underpinned by sustainability messaging. To some extent effective, across the profession it is generally acknowledged that local sourcing doesn’t unfortunately significantly influence carbon footprints as much as common sense would suggest. Regulatory moves across Europe and within the EU are also making timber appealing, and given its newfound economic competitiveness and overall legitimacy, investors and developers have begun to integrate timber into their calculations.
Amidst this wood rush, where does this leave the older and more traditional arena’s timber identified with rural and agricultural buildings and life styles? Unsurprisingly, one can find many instances of contemporary adaptation of a regional vernacular. In Graubünden, Peter Zumthor helped bring renewed visibility to traditional building forms through his work with wood early in his career. A string of smaller projects, including St Benedigt’s Chapel, a number of massive wood farmhouse conversions ,and contemporary reworking of the chalet, such as Haus Gugalun (1994) and Haus Luzi (2003), brought a spotlight to these out of this hitherto out of the way scene.
Further – see in-depth Zumthor interview feature in FDR8
Zumthor has been only one of a spectrum of contemporary and younger Graubünden architects who have worked to develop a 21st century regional vernacular, through reinterpretations and overhauls of older buildings, such as Conradin Clavuot and GujonPally Arkitekten – for instance, the latter’s spacious Almens Haus (2012), which underlined the natural timber conversion by also introducing rammed earth walls inside a carefully calibrated Strickbau barn frame.
The definitive architect for contemporary vernacular is the Romantsch village practitioner, Gion Caminada, who continues to live and work in his mountain village of Vrin. Within the village and surrounding area, Caminada has completed a long list of timber buildings (and buildings which use timber alongside other local materials, stone for instance) ranging from the homes of his fellow villagers, updated Swiss chalets, strickbau barns, farm buildings, the local school hall, the local sawmill just outside the village, and most recently a restaurant, bakery and accommodation, Casa Caminada,(run by the architect’s cousin) with stone at ground level and timber above. He has also recently designed several Nature Park viewing towers, also out of timber, for instance, the Reussdelta bird watching tower (2012), near Seedorf.
There are instances of timber, used in interesting and dramatic fashions, and underlining old and new, brought together under one roof all over Switzerland. They range from modern variations on the chalet, for instance Staufer & Hauser’s four storey Arenberg agricultural education centre (2014), to farming buildings, such as GraberPulver Arkitekten’s reworked homestead buildings (2017) in Zug.
If these updated essays in vernacular and tradition highlight the skills of carpentry and craft, it remains hard to dispel the impression that the sorts of standardisation underway courtesy of the twin tracks of engineered timber and digital design, are yet further steps away from such old ways. Reflecting up to a point the situation across Europe as a whole and although comparatively modest, the Swiss timber building and architectural sector is gaining in significance as it moves into the mainstream. How far this move develops further is a question the next years will cast light on.