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Switzerland reaches for the skies – despite protests
By Andreas Keiser, swissinfo.ch
Apr 8, 2014 - 2:17 AM
Many Swiss dream of a house in the
countryside – but the consequences are often urban sprawl and limited land
availability. The targeted concentration of cities and suburbs has led to a
skyscraper boom. Despite opposition and long permit processes, it seems there’s
no end in sight.
The Lausanne architecture practice Richter Dahl Rocha has been planning a
spectacular, 120-metre high skyscraper in the city for 22 years. The tower is
meant to be a symbol of the profound change taking place in the Lausanne
metropolitan area while marking the start of a high-rise boom in the
French-speaking western part of Switzerland.
Skyscrapers have been popping up like mushrooms all over the German-speaking
part of Switzerland for years: Zurich has the Prime and Mobimo towers, Basel has
the Trade Fair Tower. There are even high-rises being built or planned in
provincial cities and in the agglomerations.
In all, around 140-160 towers are being planned in Switzerland at the moment,
according to real estate specialists Wüest and Partner.
Change in the west
“People are not so convinced about skyscrapers in western Switzerland. The
lack of real estate is even stronger here than in the German-speaking part
because basically less is built,” Hervé Froidevaux, partner at Wüest and
Partner, told swissinfo.ch.
“People really want to see flats and not necessarily big and expensive
hallmarks. Perhaps things will now change.”
The “change” referred to was the February 9, 2014, vote in the Lausanne suburb
of Chavannes-près-Renens, in which two thirds of those polled were in favour of
a land use plan for the area, at the heart of which is the tower that’s been in
the planning stages for over two decades.
The long planning time is partly due to the size of the development. “It was a
complex administrative process, plus the landowners changed four times during
this period,” explained Jacques Richter from Richter Dahl Rocha. “The local
authorities were on board from the beginning about building a landmark. But the
population needed a lot of convincing, as they were mostly against it at the
Now it’s all about finding investors. “It’s still not clear if the tower will
be built to our designs,” Richter said. “But it’s always been clear that there
would be a restaurant at the top and that the building would be open to the
“People said that they liked the pictures of the tower, that it was elegant.
They have been less enthusiastic about the looks of other skyscrapers.
Basically, it's a very emotional thing – either people love high-rises or they
hate them," he added.
"This has a lot to do with exposure. If you’ve been in a skyscraper in New York
and seen the city from above, then you are usually more enthusiastic. Others
don’t want them because they perceive them as a symbol of power and
Vision and shade
A skyscraper has a dazzling symbolism. For those at the bottom, the sun is
blocked out. Those at the top have vision and money. But this is not the main
problem, sociologist Joëlle Zimmerli told swissinfo.ch.
“The problem is the location. If the majority are allowed to go in, there would
be a higher acceptance,” she said.
oldest high rises
Switzerland already witnessed a skyscraper boom in the 1960s, mostly in
Zurich and Bern. Then, land scarcity was not yet an issue and some of the
buildings were put up in fields outside city centres. For several years now they
have been reaching for the skies in urban areas as well.
“Skyscrapers lost their lustre after the building boom of the 1960s due to the
social problems that developed around them,” said architect Michael
Hirschbichler of the Institute of Urban Design at the Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich, referring to the ghettoisation that brought some
skyscrapers into disrepute during this time.
“In those days people built modernistic social housing typologies. The new
skyscrapers are metropolitan status symbols which appeal to a totally different
layer of society.”
Role of tradition
Although property developers are touting a boom and many high-rises are
planned, acceptance among the population is still mixed, said Hirschbichler.
“In Switzerland the connection to the traditional, provincial city is much
stronger than in other countries. But even in Germany and Austria discussions
have shown that there is quite a bit of fear about high-rises drastically
changing cities, that new icons will emerge with uncertainty over what they
And in Switzerland – unlike in Chicago or Dubai – “the historical structure is
too important and meaningful to make huge changes without due consideration”.
Big Swiss cities such as Zurich, Bern, Basel, Geneva and Bern still have intact
historic centres. Bern’s old city has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Experts can’t agree on how much high-rises have contributed to the densification
of urban areas because – due to the fact that they cast shadows and thus have
special building regulations – they have to be surrounded by open spaces.
“They are a prominent and important typology in densification, but there are
other typologies which contribute more to it,” said Hirschbichler.
newest high rises (the Roche tower is currently under construction, but in a
Reasons for rejecting a skyscraper can be found in the reactions to the
“Taoua” tower which is being put to the vote in Lausanne on April 13. For
liberals, it is a “concentration of capital” that is being pushed by
“unsavoury speculators” and politicians fixated on the attractiveness of
location and which will result in an “unfavourable” demographic development.
Conservatives fear that these buildings will impede people’s views and
question whether such symbols are necessary.
However, Lausanne mayor and Green Party member Daniel Brélaz counters that
“today we would not have a cathedral with a bell tower or a university
hospital if every project had been subject to a popular vote”.
German by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)
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