Valerio Olgiati’s career has been devoted to the pursuit of an architecture of exceptional monumentality and self-reliance. Ellis Woodman reports on his largest project to date, an apartment building in Zug, Switzerland
The buildings of the Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati are invariably conceived around a primary, far-radiating idea — an idea which, in the most persuasive schemes, burns with such incandescence as to serve as an effective guide for every subsequent design decision.
That sense of consequentiality is all the more striking for the fact that Olgiati’s are not the kind of ideas on which other architects base their work. They are not ideas about functional or constructional optimisation; they make no appeal to popular culture or to architectural history; they are not the product of an impulse towards contextual responsiveness or towards the promotion of a more universal notion of the city.
Olgiati’s ideas are all but exclusively directed towards the fostering of structural and spatial order and an order of an unfailingly monumental kind. Among his peers, perhaps only Sanaa is so consistently making architecture characterised by this level of self-determination. For reasons that are not hard to guess, his body of built work, while impeccably delivered, is small.
Recently, however, he has completed a project which is by far his largest to date: a commercial apartment building accommodating 78 flats. Among his realised buildings this is also the scheme that occupies the most urban condition. Where the earlier projects are almost all to be found in small settlements lying in close proximity to his office in the alpine village of Flims, this latest one has been built in Zug, a city lying 20km outside Zurich. If the greater complexity entailed by these new conditions represented a challenge to an architect who places such store on formal purity, it is one he has met with commanding force: the building is as imperiously autonomous as any in Olgiati’s oeuvre.
The ZugSchleife building is the product of his victory in a 2007 competition for the design of a larger development on former industrial land a five-minute walk from the city’s station. Railway tracks border the site on one side, and a mix of big factory and warehouse sheds and lacklustre housing blocks lie on the other: a world which Olgiati’s scheme confronted with a doubtless well-deserved disregard.
The one prompt his design did take from the adjacent industrial structures was their scale. He divided the entirely residential programme between two long seven-storey slab blocks, and faced them hard onto the railway. They were to have been essentially identical in treatment but delivered by different developers. However, it quickly became apparent that only one client was committed to realising the competition-winning scheme, prompting a parting of the ways. The building that it has now built follows Olgiati’s proposed massing but is the work of another architect.
At 126m in length, the block built to Olgiati’s design remains an emphatic urban intervention in its own right. On approaching it, the first thing to strike us is its colour. The exposed concrete frame, the back-painted glass panels that infill it and the balustrades that close its balconies have all been finished in a close palette of pungent, earthy reds, a treatment that the architect has employed previously in the Atelier Bardill in Scharans (2007) and a number of unrealised projects.
As in those schemes, its effect is to emphasise the building’s singularity and exoticism — the architecture of Mughal India, for which the architect has a particular enthusiasm, presents a number of obvious precedents — while allowing it to escape some of the more pejorative popular associations that attach themselves, even in Switzerland, to the use of concrete. It imbues the building with an archaic quality too; the sense is of a structure that could predate the surrounding development and, as the solidity with which it has been built vividly conveys, one that might certainly outlive it.
The seed from which this project has been nurtured is the idea that the building’s floor slabs might be afforded an unusually privileged reading: a goal the architect encapsulates with poetic concision in his description of them as “flying carpets”. The single-level apartments are alternately of narrower and wider dimensions, but each one extends between parallel walls from one side of the building to the other: 14 on each floor, paired around a run of seven central staircases. On all sides the slabs extend beyond the building envelope too. On the elevations at either end and on the long one facing the railway, they carry a metre beyond the external wall, while on the west facade they project by a formidable 5.5m.
The sense is of a structure that could predate the surrounding development and might outlive it
It is these latter extensions that form the building’s most gestural feature. For half their projection beyond the glazing line, they serve as balconies. However, the remainder is almost entirely void, a huge elliptical opening having been established immediately beyond each curving balustrade. This startling flourish serves a number of ambitions, the most fundamental of which is to stretch the slab to its greatest possible width, thus maximising residents’ perception of the size of their apartments. It also helps mitigate the presence of the far from lovely apartment blocks that lie opposite and uncomfortably close.
Olgiati toyed with the idea of establishing a forest between the buildings but ultimately opted for a more orchard-like distribution of smaller trees— the autumnal leaves of which presently offer a beautiful match to the colour of the concrete. The projecting slabs were therefore developed as an alternative means of ensuring privacy.
The neighbouring buildings’ proximity is further ameliorated by the fact that the stacked elliptical openings frame extraordinary vistas up, down and along the length of Olgiati’s elevation, significantly redirecting residents’ attention away from the unfortunate frontal view.
The slabs are carried on a peristyle of red concrete pillars of square cross-section, precast elements that had to be held aloft while the slabs were cast around them. While they share a material expression, the independence of these two systems is enforced through both the pillars’ positioning inboard of the slab edge and their rotation through 45 degrees in relation to the dominant geometry. The tectonic therefore presents an engaging ambiguity, seeming at once monolithic and an assembly of parts.
On the balconied west elevation, the contrast between vertical and horizontal is more pronounced still. The pillars on the other, tauter facades are one and a half times the width of the 250mm slab but here they have been expanded to four times the slab width, creating a mass large enough to house a storage cupboard accessed off each balcony. The impression is highly monumental, but there is a delicacy in evidence too. The lively play of shadow generated by the elliptical openings certainly has a gentling effect, while the registering of the variations in apartment size
both in the spacing of the pillars and in the width of the ellipses introduces a valuable fluidity to the composition.
The elliptical openings frame extraordinary vistas up, down and along Olgiati’s elevation
The handling of the ground and roof conditions also helps lift the facade free of a baldly serial expression. The pillars stand on a red concrete plinth, formed by the projection of the retaining wall that contains the underground car park and partly sunken entrance level. In a particularly resonant detail, they nose over it by half their depth in plan — the building’s most acute articulation of its ostensibly conflicting impulses towards mass and weight on the one hand and levitation on the other.
At the top, we find an equally convincing termination. The uppermost apartments form a recessed attic storey, their balconies being accommodated within the building’s footprint rather than projecting beyond it. That setback is echoed in the configuration of the roof — another flat plane perforated at its edge by elliptical openings but this time terminating on the line of the pillars.
Developed in response to the demands of the individual tenants, the apartment interiors are the work of another architect. Olgiati has, however, taken responsibility for all public areas and succeeded — in the face of significant commercial pressure — in delivering them without injury to the building’s conceptual unity. The stair cores, the ground-floor lobbies and storage rooms and even the underground car park have been constructed — floor, wall and ceiling — in the same red concrete. In fact the scheme’s conception is so convincingly holistic that one is tempted to read a further association into that choice of colour: it suggests the blood of an organism whose every feature represents an integral and inseparable part.
Olgiati’s rigorously maintained logic makes no space for the contingent, the episodic or the ornamental but it is crucially an architectural logic rather than one founded on functional, structural or economic pragmatism. From those perspectives his building might certainly be characterised as a work of flamboyance, not to say profligacy.
The moralism that has so frequently attached itself to experiments in housing undertaken in the past 100 years is quite absent. Its concerns focus rather on the provision of a luxury of space and atmosphere; with the forging of an architecture of the Existenzmaximum.
Architect Valerio Olgiati
Clients Konsortium ZugSchleife, Peikert-Immobilien and 4B Immobilien
Structural engineer Conzett Bronzini Gartmann
Contractors Toneatti and Dima & Partner