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Prime Tower

Gigon / Guyer Architekten


Vertical Integration: At 413 feet, Zurich's tallest building is emblematic of a neighborhood's delicate balancing act—once an industrial district, it is being transformed into a business and design hub.

By Laura Raskin

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Towers pierce the skyline in New York, London, and Dubai. In low-rise Zurich, however, there is only one skyscraper, and it is a very recent addition, completed in 2011 by the Zurich-based firm Gigon/Guyer Architekten. Rising 413 feet, the Prime Tower changes shape and color depending on one's vantage point. From the nearby Hardbrücke railway station, its emerald, triple-glazed facade stands out against the gray train tracks and postindustrial warehouses of its neighborhood, Zurich West. But from a stroll along the nearby viaduct turned into a promenade, the tower nearly fades into a white sky.

Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer, who formed their practice in 1989, won the competition for the tower in 2004, beating out Herzog & de Meuron, Josep Lluís Mateo, Sauerbruch Hutton, and others. When asked why she thinks her firm won—it had never designed a tower before—Gigon suggests: “Maybe because we had this interesting form?” In plan, the office tower is a condensed zigzag. “Two rectangles have been melted into each other,” says Gigon. Several small cantilevers upend the typical skyscraper taper, from top to bottom instead of bottom to top. “It oscillates between a jewel, a crystal, and becoming something like a torso,” she says. “It has a figurative association.”

The 36-story tower is supported by a poured-in-place-concrete core and floors and precast-concrete columns, as is typical in Swiss construction. Every second or third window is operable—tenants can push them open parallel to the facade for a 6-centimeter opening—creating an ever-changing, pixelated surface. Gigon/Guyer was also commissioned to design the fit-out of some floors, including the marble lobby and a law office featuring reflective metal cladding, a light fixture by Olafur Eliasson, and wall paintings by Sol LeWitt. The architects also curated the 35th-floor restaurant and bistro. The warm tones of the bistro, with its brass bar and wood-paneled back wall, provide high contrast to the abstract tapestry of crisscrossing train tracks visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

In 1999 the city and the developer began negotiating the permitting process to build such a tall building in Zurich with the hope of transforming the underused neighborhood into a financial district. (The master plan for the site is by Diener & Diener Architekten and M. & E. Boesch Architekten.) “Besides having a nice old town and lake, Zurich deserves to have a more urban and metropolitan character,” says Gigon, adding that there is now public support for this kind of development. Back in the 1980s, artists began to move to Zurich West and adapt industrial buildings into studios and galleries, the start of a process of gentrification. Gigon says the speed of change in the neighborhood has been relatively slow—and that's a good thing. “There are still a lot of parts that are not posh,” she says. “This is a great moment in time as long as both are there. The city is interested in keeping both.”

The Prime Tower, while embodying the push for a more vibrant Zurich West, doesn't really fit its surroundings but serves as a kind of landmark. People buzz across its mini-campus, which includes three smaller commercial buildings designed (and in one case renovated) by Gigon/Guyer and connected by a public plaza. The buildings, dubbed the Cubus, Platform, and Diagonal, contain restaurants, galleries, offices, a day-care center, and a copy shop, among other amenities.

“When I started at ETH [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where Gigon and Guyer met as students], high-rise buildings were not popular,” says Gigon. “They were anxious about building too much in Switzerland.” Now, she says, a few other towers—though only about 260 feet high—are being built in the vicinity, following on the heels of the Prime Tower's success.

Annabelle Selldorf
Photo courtesy Gigon/Guyer

A conversation with: Annette Gigon

When Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer won a 1989 competition to design the Kirchner Museum Davos, completed in 1992, they kicked off their professional union. They are not romantic partners, however—they both have families of their own. “This is a good combination,” says Gigon. She comes from a family of watchmakers and dentists and doesn’t recall having a female architect role model, though she was inspired by Eileen Gray. Gigon was simply drawn to the work, and nothing stood in her way. “I’m younger than Denise Scott Brown, and maybe society has advanced since then,” she says. But she can relate to Scott Brown’s anger about not receiving the Pritzker Prize along with her husband and partner, Robert Venturi, in 1991: “It would have killed me,” she says. Though Gigon hasn’t encountered many obstacles as a woman architect, she does note that some clients “have been quite nasty and just wanted to see the men.” She describes her collaboration with Guyer as even: “We split competitions. Sometimes we work closely together, and discuss, quarrel, and find solutions. This process—you do it alone or together. It’s not easy; it’s always work.”


Architect: Gigon/Guyer Architekten — Annette Gigon, Mike Guyer, partners in charge

Size: 528,730 square feet (tower)

Completion date: December 2011

June 2013
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