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Thinking Swiss: Kunsthalle Zürich

Sponsored by a supermarket and dedicated to contempory art, Kunsthalle Zürich is a unique model for regeneration, writes Rory Olcayto

We’re not as rich or as insular as the Swiss to be able to mimic their production of finely-controlled buildings, but their intensive architectural culture is still worth looking at for fresh ideas. The Kunsthalle Zürich by Gigon/Guyer and Atelier WW for example, presents a regeneration model that fits well with Britain’s fondess for public private partnerships and the recession-enforced retrofit culture taking root here.

It is a unique model, a mix of public, private and commercial art organisations under one roof in the remains of former brewery. It has come about through a strong relationship between the sponsors: supermarket chain Migros, the city council and the arts organisation, Kunsthalle Zürich, itself.

The Kunsthalle Zürich, founded in 1985, is among Europe’s most influential contemporary art institutions. That reputation has been nurtured by director Beatrix Ruf, who was appointed in 2001 and has overseen the development of its permanent home in the former Löwenbräu brewery on Limmatstrasse in central Zurich, which it had occupied on a temporary basis since 1996. It’s a big industrial site dominated by an existing 110-metre high silo and an under-construction 21-storey residential tower also by the project architects.

The core of the architect’s idea for the Kunsthalle, and its most visible hallmark, is the addition of an extra storey to the roof of the west wing of the Löwenbräu building, in the form of a white concrete cubic penthouse. But there’s much more to it than that.

Since it was first occupied by artists, the Löwenbräu complex has been knocked around and reworked. In 1997, Swiss practice Zürich Karrer & Fuhrimann restructured the bottling hall of the building to provide exhibition space encouraging new tenants to move in: the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and private galleries Hauser & Wirth, Bob van Orsouw, Eva Presenhuber and Peter Kilchmann. In 2001, the private Daros Collection and the Galerie de Pury & Luxembourg followed suit. Also that year, new director Ruf curated her first exhibition, on the work of artists Elmgreen & Dragset.

She instigated a total renovation of the interior of the building, with walls taken down, new ones added, and offices emptied out. It was a very clever move. In addition to spatial and infrastructural improvements to the exhibition space, a semi-public library was created and the Kunsthalle became a public space with meeting rooms and a café.

Despite a rising international profile, the future of the art complex was overshadowed by the issue of its temporary lease. This was the catalyst for the various organisations on site to approach the City of Zürich in February 2005 to discuss ideas for a sustainable project at Löwenbräu to secure its long-term future. Their appeal was successful, and in January 2007 the city council agreed to preserve the complex, on the basis it combined business, office and residential space within an overall centre for culture. The design plan set out that 4,500m² should be used for cultural purposes for at least 10 years.

It was also agreed that the development be jointly owned by the newly established Löwenbräu-Kunst AG, an umbrella brand uniting the Kunsthalle Zurich Foundation, the Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund and the City of Zurich. By Autumn 2010, construction had begun, following plans proposed by a team consisting og Gigon/Guyer Architects and Atelier WW, which in 2002 had won an international competition to rethink the Löwenbräu complex.

The architects’ renovation of the historical buildings, the construction of the new west building, and the creation of an additional storey on top of the existing brick mega-structure, have significantly expanded the art spaces.

A new entrance hall improves orientation and can be used for meetings and lectures. Outside, a covered courtyard is similarly flexible. The former production hall of the old brewery has been restructured, with three large exhibition spaces located at the front and the public library, offices, conference rooms, workshops, archive and storage rooms arranged over two levels toward the back of the building. The residential tower, which will help to secure the long-term viability of the art-focused development, is yet to complete.

As you can see from the photos, the new facility provides a great backdrop - continuous concrete flooring, white walls and linear artificial lights - for the production and showcasing of contemporary art. I visited in June for a preview show before its official opening at the end of August. It’s huge but you won’t get lost: it’s well ordered, kind of friendly too, rough instead of obsessively neat, a place where paint splodges on the floor will actually look alright.

Local authorities with big, unused buildings - and supermarkets on their case looking to building in the neighbourhood - might want to take a close look. The Bussey Building in Peckham, already home to a burgeoning arts scene and with room for thoughtful residential expansion, seems an obvious candidate. What are you waiting for Southwark Council?

AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and details of the Kunsthalle Zürich by Gigon/Guyer and Atelier WW

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