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Suave Swiss

review

Swiss Made: New Architecture from Switzerland By Steven Speir with Martin Tschanz. Thaems & Hudson, 2003. 256pp. £24.95

Swiss Made is a welcome addition to Super Dutch and All America, Thames and Hudson's series of national surveys of contemporary architecture. Steven Speir introduces the book and presents the work of a dozen practices, including the internationally established Diener and Diener, Gigon Guyer and Peter Zumthor.

The others featured - Bearth + Deplazes, Burkhalter + Sumu, Gion A Caminada, the engineer Jürg Conzett, Marcel Meili & Markus Peter, Peter Märkli, Millar and Maranta, Morger and Delego, and Valerio Olgiati - have also established reputations as practitioners and teachers in Switzerland, but have yet to gain the mainstream attention of the former three.

The absence of Herzog & de Meuron from this list is immediately apparent and remains conspicuous and provocative throughout. Speir refers to its work in the introduction, yet does not explain the omission. Is it too famous or too international, or maybe no longer Swiss enough? What Speir has included, however, is a wonderful collection of mainly modest provincial buildings, conceived and executed with great precision and at times playfulness.

Each practice is introduced with a short essay by Speir, providing a broad conceptual context for the work: the discourse at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zürich (almost all the architects included in this book were students there), their location, and their chosen field of exploration. Each essay is generously illustrated by specially commissioned colour photographs by Christian Richters of four selected projects, and a few small but extremely useful drawings. The layout is simple, elegant and consistent (occasionally bordering on the relentless). The alphabetical survey of architects ends with somewhat uncritical praise of master craftsman Peter Zumthor, whose recent work is rather mannered, especially in the context of the other contributors.

The general theme that emerges is of restrained formal expression, rigour and constructional excellence.

While this is undoubtedly true, the projects presented are more varied and wilful. A certain playfulness, and sculptural manipulation of vernacular and established typologies, occurs in many projects.Bearth + Deplazes' beautiful House Meuli is both familiar and strangely abstract. The double-pitched roof announces a respectful use of the local typology, but the irregular plan form and absence of detail in the sheer concrete walls immediately set it at a critical distance from its neighbours.

Valerio Olgiati's 'almost ghostly'Yellow House blurs the boundaries between a pre-existing building and his radical intervention, that transforms it into a museum by whitewashing every element inside and out. He explores a monochromatic palette of surface, form and context that has more in common with conceptual art than the rational Modernism that hovers over the rest of the book.

The most interesting theme to emerge from the projects in Swiss Made is an architecture that favours transformation over overt invention. Proximity to a norm (vernacular or Modernist), followed by estrangement and abstraction, provokes a radical engagement between these new buildings and their cultural and physical contexts that would be hard to achieve by formal novelty alone.

This broad engagement with place, technique, economics, politics and art is explored in Martin Tschanz's excellent closing essay 'Essentially Realism'.

He touches on a critique of Swiss architecture by Hans Frei in 1994, titled 'Museum of Neatly Kept Details', whose view that it is overly preoccupied by detail and superficial 'perfection' is not always misplaced. A longer discussion would have added a broader critical outlook on work that is 'fortunately, often richer than the discource that [usually] describes it', and would avoid the tendency to resort to Swiss stereotypes and comparisons involving the beauty and efficiency of the Swiss Army knife.

While much of the work in Swiss Made is clearly outstanding, both conceptually and technically, it does build a rather parochial picture of Swiss practice.

Another essay could have been included that examined the particular preoccupations and qualities of Swiss architecture in relation to bigger issues facing architects globally.Are these sensibilities only possible in a small, wealthy and culturally homogeneous country? Maybe the inclusion of Herzog & de Meuron would have added an international dimension, offering a connection between an exquisitely detailed village abattoir high in the Swiss Alps and a wider world obsessed with image, communication and technology.

Tom Emerson is a partner in 6a Architects and teaches at the Architectural Association

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