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The life of bryan

Leaving Suffolk for Switzerland in his twenties, Bryan Cyril Thurston took with him his love of native British architecture – then gave it a Corbusian twist. Happy 80th birthday, writes Mechthild Heuser

Born in Suffolk in 1933, but living in Switzerland since 1955, Bryan Cyril Thurston, who turned 80 this spring, is still inspired by his British heritage. The Gothic churches of Suffolk, with their typical embedded, flashed flint buttresses, cobble infills and numerous clerestories, deeply impressed him during his youth.

‘It’s a question of embarking into utter solitude. You stride along the church’s length and there is a lady chapel situated behind the wooden screen of the choir and high altar at the extreme eastern end of the church – our pathway, revelation, freedom.’ It is a citation that illuminates how Thurston strives for the spiritual virtues of architecture.

Whenever he builds he tries to create a strong atmosphere, a sense of comfort that makes people feel at ease. ‘Vernacular architecture was a part of communal life, a necessity,’ he says. ‘Today the gap between the architect-artist and the common man is tremendous. I try to bridge the gap without concessions that would spoil my intentions as an architect.’

Despite his love for the native architectures of Britain and Switzerland, the means Thurston uses as an architect are totally modern, reminiscent of British post-war architecture. He integrates natural materials – brick, stone, untreated timber – with concrete-brut and strong, natural pigment colours. But his approach is rooted in an interplay of architectural attributes – it is spontaneous, not dogmatic. He plays with Le Corbusier, improvising on well-known elements and embedding them in a more vernacular, contextual architecture. Even the books he has published on his own work, built and unbuilt – and a lot hasn’t been built – pay homage to Le Corbusier.

His approach is rooted in an interplay of architectural attributes

As in his artwork (Thurston also experiments with printing techniques, and has a complete oeuvre of several thousand paper works), he uses the principle of collage in his architecture. This is seen in his choice of materials, and also in the different surfaces inside and outside buildings.

In his school designs – the School for Social Work (Schule für Soziale Arbeit, 1976-7, now demolished) and the Rüti school extension (Berufschule Rüti, 1980 and 1989-94), both in the Canton of Zurich – he used unplastered concrete walls with diagonal, vertical and horizontal timber shuttering, varied with blue and red concave, convex and stepped walls. In between we find steel columns and free-flying light installations.

What makes the architecture of Bryan Thurston very special is its closeness to nature. The Rüti school is not only very well embedded in nature, sited in the natural topography of a smooth hill, but with its green-planted flat and wavy roofs, transforms nature into architecture.

  • Mechthild Heuser is research assistant, department for museums and collections, at the Swiss Ministry of Culture, Bern

Biography: Bryan Cyril Thurston

20 September 1933 Born in Leiston, Suffolk

1950-55 Intermediate exam RIBA, London. Also working for Yorke, Rosenberg, Mardall (YRM)

1955 Moves to Switzerland

1955-8 Working for Otto Zollinger, Zurich

1958-60 Working for Lippert und Von Waldkirch, Zurich

1960-76 Chief architect for Eduard Neuenschwander, Zurich

1964-5 Family house in Uetikon

1970 Family house in Weinfelden

1974 Family house in Bülach

1976 Opens own workshop for architecture and art

1976-7 School for Social Work, Zurich

1978 Marie Meierhofer Institute for Children

1980 Stage 1, Rüti school, Zurich

1989-94 Stage 3, Rüti school, Zurich

1990 Art Gallery, Mollis, Canton of Glarus

1999 Mountain Holiday House, Schwändi

2000 Alternative housing scheme, Männedorf

2010 Regeneration of the Church Oratorio di Preda, Val Blenio, Ticino

2001-13 Biasca New-Town, Ticino/New Open Monastery Einsiedeln/Regeneration South Bank London – a cultural, social conception

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