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Bearth & Deplazes: Constructs By Akos Morvansky.Quart Verlag, 2005. £40

Maybe architects and clients can be categorised, as Colin Rowe suggested in Collage City, as hedgehogs or foxes. There are those who seek a method and/or a signature, and who can be rewarded with a generally high quality of design and efficiency of delivery. And there are those who start every project anew, hoping for the highest possible quality but also risking the opposite, or even failing to find a credible starting point.

Bearth & Deplazes is decidedly the second type. Flipping through this monograph of its work since 1989, the lack of stylistic consistency is astonishing and the modesty of the work refreshing. Indeed, it achieves many of the qualities of the vernacular. The book divides the work into five themes, but the key to understanding it is Deplazes's essay, 'Error - The Premise and Potential of Design', at the end.

In it he embraces the full complexity of architecture with an overarching triad of typology, topology and tectonics. Each of these already broad terms themselves contains numerous conditions, represented in a diagram of concentric circles, the conditions getting more concrete and ever more pragmatic towards the centre.

What is characteristically Swiss about Bearth & Deplazes' work is its unquestioned assumption that the architect's core activity is concrete and pragmatic, to the extent of always exploring the issues and the possibilities of construction (an especially fruitful avenue given the phenomenal quality of construction in Switzerland).

Indeed, Deplazes is a professor of design and construction at ETH in Zurich and author of the inspirational Constructing Architecture (AJ 20.10.05).

But as opposed to a certain material fetishism in some Swiss architecture, Bearth & Deplazes asks fundamental questions about how we can build right now, and then has the curiosity and modesty to hear answers.

In the art gallery in Marktoberdorf, for instance, the practice questioned the normal strategies of the black box and the white cube, but also assumptions about green buildings. This led it to investigate load-bearing brick construction, and from that the hypocaust system of central heating used by the ancient Romans. But what is ultimately interesting is how tactile a building it is, highly crafted and yet rough around the edges, whose form, materiality and context seem to harmonise, though not at first glance.

For Bearth & Deplazes, design is a process of questioning and testing premises. Its diagram of design's complexity as a method means that different issues are brought to bear on different projects, but always worked through the concrete and the pragmatic.

This means that its buildings are varied in form, expression, materials, and - frankly - quality, but always achieve a feeling of being somehow right in their place. That makes Bearth & Deplazes courageous, unusual and important.

Steven Spier is president of the new HafenCity University in Hamburg

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