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Simplicity in Switzerland

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A Matter of Art: Contemporary Architecture in Switzerland Edited by Jacques Lucan and Bruno Marchand. Birkhauser, 2001. 208pp. £33

You could write a history of Modernism from a Swiss perspective. G E Kidder Smith recognised this as early as 1950 with Switzerland Builds, but Le Corbusier and Hannes Meyer chose to stress their internationalism, and Swiss architects have tended to become subsumed into their respective language groups, whether French, German or Italian.

Regional identities emerged later, beginning in the 1970s in Ticino - appropriate to a nation that is primarily a confederation.

Peter Zumthor's identification with the Graubunden continues this tradition. The German-speaking area is now the strongest architecturally; however, this book is published to coincide with an exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Centre in Paris, produced by the Federation des Architectes Suisses, with parallel texts in French and English only.

Yet despite this regional emphasis, what emerges in the buildings from 1997-2000 selected for detailed description, and from the accompanying essays, is a distinctive and unifying style. There are similarities between the work of Zumthor, Herzog and de Meuron and their peers in their use of materials and simple forms, essentially the box pierced by windows.

Roger Diener's concerns with simple proportions and townscape are compared with the Smithsons' cult of ordinariness in the 1970s. Jacques Lucan and Martin Steinmann argue that it is by reappraising the early Modernism of the 1920s (as the Smithsons did) that a structural formalism has emerged, here with an emphasis on strong planes of strong materials.

There is also a debt to Aldo Rossi and the Ticino movement, though stripped of historic references or symbolist games.

Many of the younger architects have been taught by Fabio Reinhart and Miroslav Sic, successors to Rossi at Zurich's Technische Hochschule in the 1980s.

Steel is an obvious way of achieving a flat, planar effect, but save for Gigon Guyer's Liner Museum in Appenzell (1996-68), clad in fish-scale panels, it is relatively little used.

Much emphasis is placed on timber, either as a construction material on its own, as one might expect at the Swiss Timber Engineering School at Bienne, by Meili and Peter (1990-99), or as a lining used in contrast with concrete.

Concrete is given a precision of finish perfected by Louis Kahn, but with strong coloured aggregates - Gigon and Guyer's Zurich signal box (1996-69) creates the effect of Cor-ten steel in smooth orange concrete. More extraordinary still are the engraved and printed patterns favoured by Herzog and de Meuron on both concrete and glass, the former on its library at Eberswalde in Germany, the latter on its production building for Ricola in Mulhouse, France. The shimmering effect of different materials combined with glass, as at Herzog and de Meuron's pharmacy in Basel (199598), is hard to convey in photographs. The absentee is brick.

The new Swiss style is an appropriate Modernism for the new century, aimed at simple spaces, for the school and hospital as well as the shop and art gallery. Shapes are striking, creating landmarks, like the old stone building in Flims, raised and refenestrated as a regular cube - Rossi with texture. The lesson of this book is that greater simplicity equals greater sensuousness (to paraphrase page 142). There is a lot of jargon here, but it is more a product of the translation from the French than a desire to obfuscate. The excitement of the architecture shines through.

Perhaps, as in Finland, in a country where climate and terrain make it difficult to build, there is no point in building badly. The omission here is the sense of that raw nature - the glimpse of a mountain or lake goes unremarked. It is the cities which are buzzing, and each uses architecture as a competitive statement of its identity. British cities please note.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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