By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.


Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.


Swiss Miss

Christian Müller Architects talks Villa Vals, Utrecht and sustainability

Switzerland has a well-deserved reputation for pioneering green building design, so it was with not without anticipation that Footprint headed to the recent exhibition at the RIBA with the promising title: Swiss positions: 33 takes on sustainable approaches to building.

Swiss Positions explores a variety of topics with regard to engineering techniques, materials, ecology and protection of the environment. The only common thread linking the projects – whether viewed from a technological, organic, social, vernacular or bioclimatic angle – is that they interact with the often spectacular landscapes in which they are set. The travelling exhibition turned out to be a series of boards with photographs and short texts describing Switzerland’s ‘most sustainable’ architectural projects of the past 20 years. This type of display is in danger of giving sustainability a bad name.

Footprint attended a talk in conjunction with the exhibition by Christian Müller of Christian Müller Architects (CMA), a Swiss and Rotterdam-based practice. Like the exhibition, Müller’s talk drew on a wide spectrum of definitions of sustainability: through a series of projects, he presented economic, urban and social aspects of the topic. ‘Sustainability is so implicit in the design process that I don’t even mention it to clients’, explains Müller. He sees the role of architects as comparable to that of the Renault brothers: a combination of intelligence and craftsmanship which is a platform for sharing manpower, knowledge and collaboration.


The Renault brothers, founders of Renault, Müller’s model for the twenty-first century architect

Müller presented Villa Vals - a spectacular underground holiday home designed with Amsterdam practice SeARCH, completed in 2009. Villa Vals, now available for holiday rentals, immediately gained notoriety because of its proximity to Zumthor’s Therme Vals. Sustainability was not a major driver for the design, but rather emerged through the construction process. Many materials were locally sourced. When asked whether Villa Vals could be replicated in different contexts, Müller replied, ‘you could always build a hill first!’


Christian Müller Architects - Villa Vals


Villa Vals: 2011 winner of Wallpaper*s ‘best house’


Müller also presented Utrecht City Hall - a civic centre project designed in collaboration with Kraaijvanger Urbis and completed in 2011 - to exemplify the practice’s sustainable approach to urban design and forward-thinking planning. The administrative building is more comparable in size to an ‘oil rig than a building’. CMA redefined the brief to free 2000m² of additional public realm by moving the proposed site above an existing train station. ‘You can’t get more sustainable than that’, Müller commented, hinting at the recent overuse and dilution of the term ‘sustainability’.


Dirk Jan Postel/Kraaijvanger • Urbis with CMA , Utrecht City Hall

Economic sustainability was a strong thread that ran throughout the talk. Müller stressed that sustainable buildings need not cost more than a resource intensive project. He believes ‘sustainability is an approach you can sell because it impacts everybody’s wallet. It is not a green hobby or NGO project but a selling point because it saves money’. According to Müller, sustainability is about the bottom line, rather than saving the planet: there’s no point in pushing solar panels if no one is buying them. The moralistic aspect is limited’.

Following the talk, the audience was invited downstairs to peruse the exhibition boards and discuss their own take on Swiss Positions.


Projects featured in Swiss Positions: 33 takes on sustainable approaches to building

Andreas Fuhrimann, Gabrielle Hächler  / House Presenhuber, Vnà, 2007 / Photography: Valentin Jeck

Bearth & Deplazes Architekten / Carmenna Chairlift Stations, Arosa, 2001 / Photography: Ralph Feiner

Bearth & Deplazes Architekten, Studio Monte Rosa  / New Monte Rosa Hut, Zermatt, 2009 / Photography: Tonatiuh Ambrosetti

Bernard Tschumi Architects / Vacheron Constantin Headquarters, Geneva, 2005 / Photography: Yves André

Bétrix & Consolascio Architekten / Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich, 2007 / Photography: Yves André

Bonnard Woeffray / School, Visp, 2009 / Photography: Hannes Henz

Buchner Bründler Architekten / Volta Center, Basel, 2010 / Photography: Ruedi Walti

Buchner Bründler Architekten / Youth Hostel St. Alban, Basel, 2010 / Photography: Ruedi Walti

Christian Kerez / School Leutschenbach, Zurich 2009 / Photography: Milo Keller

Christian Müller, SeARCH / Villa Vals, Vals, 2009 / Photography: Iwan Baan

Clavienrossier  / House, Charrat, 2010 / Photography: Roger Frei

Conzett, Bronzini, Gartmann / Village Bridge, Vals, 2009 / Photography: Martin Linsi

Diener & Diener Architekten, Helmut Federle, Gerold Wiederin /Novartis Campus – Forum 3, Basel, 2005 / Photography: Ruedi Walti

Dreier Frenzel / Garden pavilion, Confignon, 2009 / Photography: Eik Frenzel

Durrer Linggi Architekten / Stockalper Tower, Gondo, 2006 / Photography: Tom Bisig

e2a / Auditorium, Stäfa, 2010 / Photography: Radek Brunecky

EM2N / IM VIADUKT : Refurbishment Viaduct Arches, Zurich, 2010 / Photography: Roger Frei

GeninascaDelefortrie /Footbridge, Boudry, 2002 / Photography: Thomas Jantscher

Gigon/Guyer  / Swiss Prime Tower, Zurich, 2011 / Photography: Thies Wachter

Gion A. Caminada / Village development, Vrin, 1992 / Photography: Lucia Degonda

Gion A. Caminada / House Walpen, Blatten, 2002 / Photography: Lucia Degonda

Guidotti Architetti / House Forini, Monte Carasso, 2010 / Photography: Joël Tettamanti

Herzog & de Meuron / Signal Box Auf dem Wolf, Basel, 1994 / Photography: Margherita Spiluttini

LOCALARCHITECTURE / Chapel St-Loup, Pompaples, 2008 / Photography: Milo Keller

LOCALARCHITECTURE / Cow Shed, Lignières, 2005 / Photography: Milo Keller

Miller & Maranta / St. Gotthard Hospice, St. Gotthard, 2009 / Photography: Lucia Degonda

Patrick Gmür/Jakob Steib / Apartment Building Paul-Clairmontstrasse, Zurich, 2006 / Photography: Roger Frei

Peter Märkli / Museum La Congiunta, Giornico, 1992 / Photography: Margherita Spiluttini

Peter Zumthor / Chapel Sogn Benedetg, Sumvigt, 1988 / Photography: Hans Danuser

pool Architekten / Apartment Building Leimbachstrasse, Zurich 2005 / Photography: Andrea Helbling

Renato Salvi, Flora Ruchat-Roncati / Freeway A16, Jura, 1998 / Photography: Thomas Jantscher

2b architectes, NB.ARCH / Community Building, Corpataux-Magnedens, 2007 / Photography Thomas Jantscher

:mlzd / Titan – Extension of the Historical Museum, Bern, 2009 / Photography: Alexander Gempeler


Should RIBA have an annual sustainability award?

Vote in the AJ poll

Subscribe to Footprint by email and follow Hattie Hartman on twitter.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

Related Jobs

Sign in to see the latest jobs relevant to you!

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters