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Switzerland: An Urban Portrait

BOOK REVIEW

By ETH Studio Basel.

Birkhäuser, 2005.

1,016pp. £34.50

The misleading image of Switzerland as an archetypal Alpine village is part of Western popular culture. A mix of tourist advertising and chocolate packaging, this idea veers between the rural and the expensively efficient, as if the entire country was a cowgrazed pasture, ticking away like a well-wound cuckoo clock. 'We're used to seeing Switzerland through the eyes of our tourists, ' said the writer/ journalist Peter Bichsel in Des Schweizers Schweiz (1969). The tourists see mountains, villages, spas: idyllic and hygienic environments which shaped Swiss self-understanding, along with the 19th-century ideal of a miniature exemplary Europe.

The myths of rural existence, democratic equality and overall modernisation - once necessary to rationalise the concept of a Swiss nation on grounds other than the usual ethnic, religious or linguistic unities - seem now increasingly inadequate. The decline of some of Switzerland's defining institutions, such as its airlines or military service, point to the need for rethinking its modus operandi in a shrinking world where national and cultural borders are becoming irrelevant.

Switzerland - An Urban Portrait is a remarkable study that confronts such issues headon. This compact 3-volume set results from a unique research project conducted by ETH Studio Basel - an offshoot of ETH Zurich which brought together some of Switzerland's foremost architects. Roger Diener, Jacques Herzog, Marcel Meili and Pierre de Meuron collaborated on this project for four years, with the help of their students and geographer Christian Schmid.

Studio Basel's aim is to provide an updated portrait of the country as precisely and neutrally as possible, unencumbered by national myths, historical debates or popular imagery, while acknowledging their imprint on Swiss topography and culture. This may sound to be an intimately Swiss affair, yet it raises general questions about the nature of urban territory in contemporary capitalist culture.

Backed by Henri Lefebvre's writings, Studio Basel argues that supermarkets, commuters and ex-urbis home offices, tourism and its accompanying facilities - essentially the known and mapped out nature of Swiss territory - point to the country's comprehensive urbanisation.

Thus Switzerland - with its compact size, political transparency and deep connections to three major European cultures - is shaped not only by the differences resulting from the 'hidden zones' of cultural and economic variation, but by a new layer of urban typology which evolved from their juxtaposition with the land's geophysical qualities.

Studio Basel identifies five such types, ranging from the thriving metropolitan areas around Zurich and Geneva to the 'fallow lands' of less accessible mountain valleys, plagued by emigration and dereliction.

For their survival, argues Studio Basel, it's essential to recognise intrinsic differences and apply different planning policies for each type, encouraging exchanges.

The long-term strategy of uniform development, resulting from the unchanging nature of Swiss democratic federalism, has proved equally disadvantageous to all five. But implementing change requires a significant revision of the political system, based at present on the ferociously guarded autonomy of almost 3,000 communes.

In a country seemingly held together by not much except political will, Studio Basel's thesis is incendiary - its potential political rather than just theoretical. Fifty years ago, in an edition of Werk, the architect and writer Max Frisch warned his fellow Swiss that, 'should we continue to 'village around', we'll be lost. It's important that intellectuals raise decisive questions as openly as possible - because if we love something more than Switzerland, it is the immediate possibility of a living, vivid Switzerland.' Studio Basel heeds these words.

This publication of an English version of this book, alongside the German and the French, is very welcome.

In its case study of Switzerland, Studio Basel bridges the usual schism between theory and practice, suggesting the thrilling possibilities of planning research when grounded in real conditions rather than theoretical pre-suppositions.

Apart from everything else, the study uniquely benefits from the input of four practitioners of stature. The elasticity that allowed them to operate together, with such confident results, is a credit both to the world of academia and their respective practices.

Irina Davidovici is an architect and writer in London

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