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The New Kunsthalle Zurich. An Architecture Report I Wrote for Domus Magazine.

I was asked by Domus Magazine to write an architectural report for the opening of the new Kunsthalle in Zurich designed by Gigon/Guyer Architects and Atelier ww. I did it with great pleasure as it was a nice opportunity to write about the city who adopted me. Here is the article in its original context. All the pictures included in this article are a kind courtesy of Thies Watcher, Zurich.

The Zürich that we know today, which has for three consecutive years been quality of life world champion, is the result of conquests achieved through the protests of the 1980s; or so claim the people who took part in those protests, with whom I talk from time to time.

At the beginning of the nineties, the city’s city council, politically exhausted by constant protests and clashes with youth movements all throughout the eighties, decided to hold a referendum enabling its citizens to vote for an idea of a city that would be adopted in the decades to come. What sort of a city did Zürichers have in mind? Where would they have wished to bring up their children? What kind of city would they like to inhabit?

Today’s Zürich is the tangible materialization of the scenario those people voted for — the continuation of a common policy that has been passed down from council to council. It was decided at the time that young people, creative forces and researchers would feel attracted by a liveable city, and public places offering leisure and recreation to all were created, with no need for additional services. The city had understood that this was the only possible way of ensuring prosperity in a post-industrial economy. “Fix rooms” were accordingly opened, where drug addicts could be assisted, given their injection, medicine, privacy and sterilised syringes. Within a very short time, petty crime and serious social and health issues allied to drug addiction were eliminated.
The city is currently expanding in length and breadth; with a rocketing real estate market, a heavy demand for housing still to be met, a city council in credit, and an unfailingly punctual public transport system.

Within this setting, the newly inaugurated Kunsthalle Zürich, whose expansion was designed by Gigon/Guyer architects and Atelier ww, fits into a programme to regenerate and expand the ex-industrial area known as Züri-West. Located between the central station, Hardbrücke S-Bahn station and the river Limmat, along which the city is expanding, this zone presents a fascinating metropolitan landscape. Its prominent feature is a 19th century stone-built railway viaduct, whose arches have been filled by a residential estate named Viadukt— an excellent project designed by EM2N. Also included is a flyover across the buildings, where Gigon and Guyer themselves built the Prime Tower, whose admirable landscape quality has already made it an icon of Zürich’s newly expanding area. It is now also the highest building in the whole Confederation.

In a growing city like Zürich, which possesses disused industrial buildings close its two main train stations, every square metre is lead waiting to be turned into gold.

The story of the Kunsthalle Zürich is a fine example of mediation between the effects of inevitable gentrification and political recognition of the social value attached to culture. The story began in 1996, when a disused industrial building, in this case an ex-brewery located near the city centre, was renovated and converted to mould private and public institutions and commercial contemporary art galleries into a single complex. The renovation was on the borderline of safety standards required by the public building authorities. However, the operation was made possible through the involvement of Migros, one of the two foodstore giants in Switzerland which by statute devolves 2% of its turnover to the development of culture. Migros bought the site and used it to build the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art centre. In the meantime, it leased to leading international galleries the remaining premises, leaving room for the Kunsthalle Zürich, a public gallery that gave its name to the whole complex. The property value of the whole area shot up, and Migros decided to sell, while continuing its museum activity.

From 1996 to 2002, a succession of different owners operated a chain of steadily higher buying and selling to satisfy the appetite for property in the area. Simultaneously, several major galleries moved into the area, occupying a variety of local apartments, thus in effect establishing a contemporary art district in Zurich. In 2002 a competition to improve the area was launched, which was won by Gigon/Guyer and Atelier ww. Real estate pressure mounted and the area continued to sell. At that point, in 2005, the representatives of the Kunsthalle Zürich appealed to the City Council to allocate part of these premises to culture and contemporary art. The city responded, took up a position and approved the Kunsthalle Zürich’s request.

“This is a story of ordinary people with a passion for civic commitment, who have proved capable of carrying out a revolution to cross the road. Using the pedestrian crossing”

However, it also granted an exception to the new owners of the area, allowing them to erect a 70-metre tower for mixed office and residential uses within the complex. The tower’s real estate value today oscillates between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand Swiss francs per square metre. To allow this operation in May 2011, the Zürich City Council joined forces with two private bodies, the Kunsthalle Foundation and the Federation of Migros Cooperatives, to found Löwendräu-Kunst AG, each holding a third of the total share capital of 27 million francs. This corporation purchased, for about 65 million francs from its owner PSP Swiss Property AG, the art space with its restructured buildings and extensions. In this way the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kunsthalle Zürich and the other rentees were able to benefit from advantageous leases and contracts of up to twenty-five years, and to make use of extensions and significant refurbishments complete with archives, storage, ateliers, offices, conference rooms, a library accessible to the public, and premises for the museum’s educational services.

Mike Guyer tells me that in the 1990s corporations formed by public and private bodies were fashionable in Switzerland, but for various reasons never quite hit it off. It is therefore with due pride that the Zürich city council has demonstrated, in this case, that initiatives of the kind are in fact viable.

The biggest project hurdle, Guyer goes on to explain, was how to maintain the standards legally in force for public spaces within a former industrial building. He assures me, however, that the authorities were proactive in helping to resolve and clarify all the possible and inevitable difficulties typical of these refurbishments, by fostering the common interest of getting the complex built, meeting construction deadlines, and above all sticking to budget. Had the cost of the operation been in excess even by 5%, confesses Guyer, it would have been a political and commercial disaster.

This said, the Kunsthalle Zürich development in itself, though simple, is well accomplished. The work done by Gigon and Guyer, as written in the biographical notes in the press release handed to me, is “characterised by the precise use of materials and by a pragmatic approach to them”. I don’t think anything else need be added, except that this is a true statement.

This Zürich story provides food for thought. It is all the fruit of hard work, which for many started a long way back, in an atmosphere perhaps of electric guitars and appropriate hairstyles. But that endeavour later continued, in offices and practices, and perhaps also in banks. It is a story of ordinary people with a passion for civic commitment, who have proved capable of carrying out a revolution to cross the road. Using the pedestrian crossing. Antonio Scarponi (@scarponio)


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