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In Switzerland: Bern and the Expo

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief

Diller & Scofidio's Blur, or Cloud building

As the train races from Zurich to the Swiss capital, Bern, the valleys stretch from the industrial to the pastoral. Along the route, roads seem to run up alongside the valleys, welcoming cyclists or walkers to test their mettle against the grade. Until fall, all is green.

Beyond soaking up the landscape, one advantage of travel within this increasingly globalized profession is the collection of friends along the way. In this case, the Bernese architect, Daniel Herren and Betsy, his wife, had invited me, then collected me at the train station. I first met Daniel in New York, when he won one of the first Business Week/Architectural Record Design Awards in 1997, and we had seen each other many times since.

I was to be one of the speakers in the series of architectural talks they help sponsor at the Kornhaus, the former grain treasury transformed into modern uses—lectures upstairs, and a handsome renovated restaurant in the cellar. This year, the Kornhaus lecture series had invited architects and editors to speak in pairs from all over the world—a unique idea, providing twin perspectives.

The trip also allowed me the time and access to scout the area for impending architectural projects. Most of us are familiar with the stellar names that populate the magazines, including Herzog and deMeuron (from Basel) or Santiago Calatrava (from Zurich) or Peter Zumthor. But Bern? What could be going on?

The answer proved to be plenty. First, the general quality of architecture in Switzerland remains high. Daniel showed me projects by himself and others that manage a level of detail that most American architects would envy. Glazed walls, for instance, exhibit dual skins, precise corners, and stainless steel mountings that exhibit superb execution and ample budgets. Even in Bern, a city rich in architectural history, designers constructed new structures that contrasted with the old, providing dialogue between the eras.

The Monolith, designed by Jean Nouvel.

For those who haven’t visited the city of 126,000 persons, it straddles a ridge at a critical bend in the river Aare, a prospect that provided automatic protection to early settlers, who first settled there in the 12th century. Its medieval quarter, much of which dates from the 15th century and is a Unesco World Heritage Site, remains one of the most fulsome in Europe, retaining kilometers of arcaded commercial streets, amply covered for protection from the elements. The city radiates intelligence, prosperity, and health: no wonder that Einstein constructed much of his theory of relativity there, while employed in the local patent office. The bankers, obviously, are legendary.

According to current plans, the stars are falling on Bern, a city committed to design. Daniel Libeskind is at work on an ambitious extra-urban plan for a shopping mall/residential/entertainment complex on the outskirts. Renzo Piano has designed a museum that rolls into the landscape to honor favorite son and artist Paul Klee.

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On my last day, we drove farther afield, to Neuchatel and Yverdon-les-Bains and its companion towns for a preview of the Swiss Expo, where we feasted on the work of contemporary architects such as Coop Himmelblau and Diller and Scofidio. We visited their Cloud or Blur structure, which has created a sensation, just at dusk, sans blurring. Unlike many such exhibitions, the Swiss Expo employed high-concept design as a draw. The results, however, seemed mixed to this observer, who admired most but balked at others, obviously constructed in haste and lacking conceptual grounding. The Swiss haven’t hosted such an event since 1964, so the turn toward design of this design-committed country was admirable, if with conflicting results.

Outside the Cloud structure, my personal favorite had French origins. Across the Lac de Neuchatel, Jean Nouvel’s starkly rusted cube rose from the lake at twilight–an untended, potent monolith, an ironic tower fixed or floating in the smooth lake. We whipped up the hillside toward Murton, Daniel’s hometown, a place so picture-perfect that it continues to reverberate in my own imagination. As dark fell, we turned inevitably toward Bern, licking up the valleys as we headed toward the lights. You have until October 20 to make the trek and form your own opinions of the Expo, though Switzerland and Bern are accessible all year long.

Photos courtesy of the Swiss National Exhibition.


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