“Architecture should be visually appealing but not unnecessarily obtrusive.”

Swiss architect and urban planner Harry Gugger has already been involved in numerous major projects both within Switzerland and around the world, including projects for Global Real Estate at Credit Suisse Asset Management. He believes that architecture should be visually appealing but not unnecessarily obtrusive.

November 16, 2021

In conversation with Harry Gugger

Professor of Architectural and Urban Design at EPFL in Lausanne and CEO of architectural firm Harry Gugger Studio in Basel

modern city

During the interview, Harry Gugger explains what architecture should achieve and what makes it “beautiful.”

Mr. Gugger, we’ll start with a philosophical question: What is architecture, and what should it be?

Harry Gugger: Fundamentally, a building should fulfill its intended function. Architecture really stems from protective structures. What began as simple buildings have developed into complex architectures that support diverse ways of living and working. It has become particularly apparent to us during the recent pandemic, for instance, just how much influence and importance the layout of our homes can have when it comes to our well-being.

As architects, our job is to deliver on the mandate from the building owner. Yet, at the same time, we also have a responsibility toward society and must take account of the context in which a building is being embedded. In other words, architecture encourages a cultural exchange. An example that springs to mind here is one of my most significant projects, during my time with Herzog & de Meuron working on the Tate Modern Gallery in London. This project saw us open up the Turbine Hall to make it an accessible space. The location is now used as an exhibition space and has a truly unique urban design. This wasn’t specified in the tender, nor did we really know it was going to turn out this way.

As an architect, you create forms. Is good architecture automatically beautiful? Is there a universal aesthetic to architecture?

For a building to have longevity – which is a central requirement of sustainability – it needs to offer not just flexible use and structural adaptability; it also has to be visually appealing. If the architecture focuses primarily on the building itself without taking into account the surroundings, people will struggle to identify with it. Creating an appropriate aesthetic is therefore very important. Architecture should delight people and at the same time complement the surrounding environment. There are standard, unifying ideals for beauty, as well as cultural rules. Loosely applying the golden ratio, for instance, generates proportions that appeal to people. What we want to achieve with our projects is a combination of practicality and beauty.

"I do not consider myself an artist and have no desire to force my style on a building."

You have planned major projects for Global Real Estate at Credit Suisse Asset Management, including The Exchange in Vancouver, Canada. Do these buildings represent the architectural style that you are known for?

I do not consider myself an artist and have no desire to force my style on a building. Rather, our approach is to try to provide a specific architectural response to the wishes of the building owner, the intended uses of the real estate, and the urban planning context – so that we can give each project its own distinctive character.

Space in Switzerland is limited, and urban consolidation is en vogue. Are high-rise buildings now icons of urban consolidation?

Switzerland was relatively late in embracing urban consolidation, that is, using free space in areas that are already built up. High-rise buildings are a fantastic architectural challenge, but they are also extremely demanding in terms of planning, and the political situation can often be difficult. I believe that proximity to the ground is important to people. The districts established during the industrial expansion in Switzerland, such as “Gundeli” in Basel, demonstrate how this kind of consolidation can really work. With its five- and six-story buildings, “Gundeli” is among Switzerland’s most densely consolidated districts. So, high-rise buildings are just one possible type of urban consolidation – one that tends to attract a lot of attention.

What do you see as the most important trends in architecture?

For us, it’s definitely urban consolidation. As a small, densely populated country, Switzerland must be economical with how it uses land. The urban sprawl seen in past decades has led to an understanding of the need for urban consolidation, which has now been enshrined in land use planning legislation.

As in other areas, however, the real megatrend in architecture is sustainability. This applies not only to construction materials but also to the construction process and the maintenance of existing buildings. It is important to remember that the construction industry, building stock, and infrastructure are responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions and the immense and unsustainable consumption of raw materials. The pressure to take action is therefore correspondingly high.

Let’s take a look into the future. When can we expect to see recyclable housing?

It’s already here. We have just built something like this for a client in collaboration with Erne Holzbau AG in Hirtenweg in Riehen. It has a modular design using wood manufactured in a highly industrialized process. The wooden modules can be assembled and then dismantled again into the individual components, though you can’t tell this is the case from the outside. The house looks like it has been standing there for a long time, which creates a feeling of identity and belonging. Not only is this modular design cost-effective, but it also makes it possible to build much closer to trees without damaging them, for example.

And what about the use of color in architecture?

This is really a science in itself, and few people have mastered it. Let’s return for a moment to the Hirtenweg housing project that I just mentioned. There we used a traditional mud color to protect the wood paneling. We worked with a color consultant to select falu red, which complements the green pine trees in the area. Colors can contribute to well-being and provoke emotions, as well as having a very striking effect. Le Corbusier was a master of using color in spatial design – probably because of his background as a painter. Each color is intended to bring definition to a specific effect on the surrounding environment.

How would you like to see architecture develop in the future?

I would like to see us move away from the dominance of form, of the architectural object, toward simple, “normal” solutions. Buildings can be fantastic purely by virtue of being “normal.” In many places, too much emphasis is put on formalistic architecture. The science of architecture is more or less exhausted, and there is little to be reinvented at this stage. Essentially, we use construction types that have proven to be effective and fulfill their intended purpose to the best possible effect. We can employ new and sustainable materials and digital processes to further optimize them. Instead of celebrating the building itself, future architecture should increasingly reflect and respect its surroundings.

Buildings can be attributed to specific stylistic periods. What will be the architectural style for the start of the twenty-first century?

Digitalization and the use of both old and newly developed construction materials are currently shaping architectural developments. I hope that buildings that bring sustainability to the forefront without being too obtrusive will be among the contemporary icons. To me it is ultimately of no consequence whether this is achieved using state-of-the-art technology or archaic construction techniques.

You have now been involved in the planning of more than 250 buildings. Is there a specific building that you still dream of making a reality?

There are a lot of projects I still want to bring to fruition, but no specific example comes to mind. The dream is to create good architecture and get as close to perfection as possible. Of course, you never really succeed in that. That’s why I maintain a critical relationship with my finished projects. It motivates me and keeps me focused on continuous development. There’s one thing you must always keep in mind: once a building is finished, the architecture can end up being out of place in a city, and it’s so permanent too. Careful, considered action is necessary to make sure this does not happen.

Harry Gugger: A unique career path

© Martin Tessler

The Exchange

Vancouver (Canada)




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