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Reduce to the max – rooms will be rooms

It's not possible to reinvent how people live. That's why architects Michel Gübeli and Roman Züst are no fans of flexible floorplans – but they are firm believers in urban integration. Gübeli and Züst, partners at Züst Gübeli Gambetti Architektur und Städtebau AG, are convinced that history has shown their philosophy to be correct.

June 28, 2022

A conversation with Michel Gübeli and Roman Züst

Partners at Züst Gübeli Gambetti Architektur und Städtebau AG

Michel Gübeli (left) and Roman Züst (right) are architects and partners at Züst Gübeli Gambetti Architektur und Städtebau AG

It used to be that people would keep their work and home lives separate. Since the pandemic, however, it's all happening in the same space. Do you welcome this trend?

Züst: Blending the work and home environments will cause problems for humankind, in my view. People have had to work at home for the past two years. We've seen how they have been forced to carry on contentious telephone conversations in their homes within earshot of their children – and this undermines the intimacy of the home environment. This is not an appropriate way to organize our lives and our work. I don't see living and working in one room as anything particularly very desirable.

Do you agree, Mr. Gübeli?

Gübeli: Yes. When it comes to living arrangements, there is a long-standing tradition. People want to feel at home. They want a place they can retreat to. This has become even more important during the pandemic, and especially as people have been working from home.

The task of an architect is to design a simple container that is divided into separate parts. Rooms should still be rooms, ones that can be used in different ways. The people living there decide how to decorate and furnish the rooms in keeping with their own taste. It's important that they are the ones who determine how the rooms are used, and that they have as much creative freedom to do so as possible.

Is that how it is in your home?

Züst: I live in a house that was built in 1909, and it is divided up into small rooms. They can still be used for a variety of purposes.

Even contemporary floorplans provide opportunities for people to retreat and allow them more freedom to shape their environments.

Züst: Flexibility is a complicated subject. What does it actually mean? Instead of going along with the latest trends, we strive to create architecture that is sustainable over the long term – buildings that can serve as homes as well as workplaces. Think of the multi-family urban dwellings that were built around 1900: even they can house offices. Buildings that have the right proportions and ceiling heights will stand the test of time. Their rooms allow for flexibility, even if they are laid out in a very traditional way.

Gübeli: Precisely. We're seeing people move away from open-concept designs, where kitchen, dining room, and living room are all connected. They're once again thinking in terms of separate rooms. People have had enough of modular design and movable elements; they want rooms that are as simple as possible. The rooms need to be suitable for a variety of purposes – eating, sleeping, working.

To sum up: The home environment is still very traditional. The goal, in every home, is still to design simple, clearly defined rooms so that people have a place they can retreat to. This allows the rooms to be used in a very flexible way. Our goal is to create spaces that will still meet people's needs 500 years from now, and where people feel comfortable. 

Architecture that will last – that sounds as if you are building for all eternity. Do you have no interest in innovation?

Gübeli: I'm not interested in innovation at all costs. Tradition is more important to me. You can't reinvent the wheel. Architecture and urban planning should focus on ensuring that things function as well as possible. It's no coincidence that people like to live in older buildings. They want high ceilings and good lighting. We don't need a revolution; we need to work with existing concepts in a way that makes sense.

Züst: It's also important to remember that structures that are built to last are much more sustainable in terms of their environmental impact.

So, do you measure success by whether architecture will endure over the long term?

Gübeli: Whether a solution works becomes clear over an extended period of time. The proportions of a room need to be such that it can be used for a variety of purposes. When it comes to urban planning: If a building complex is vital and there are no vacancies, that shows that it is in harmony. It's about certain simple measures – but it's also about more than that.

Such as?

Gübeli: I'm thinking of the economic aspect. We need to provide housing that people can afford. It's important to consider the perspective of the people who will eventually live in a building, and not just what we, as architects, find pleasing. We shouldn't focus all our energies on making a building incredibly innovative or special. Instead, we need to be reasonable, employ solid craftsmanship, and be guided by clear ideas. As architects, we keep future users in mind.

For many tenants, a home's location is the most important consideration.

Gübeli: Yes, that's exactly right. Another crucial aspect is how buildings are integrated into the urban space – which brings us to urban planning.

In your efforts to build in a way that accommodates people's needs, you're guided by the principles of urban planning.

Züst: Of course. And that takes us back to your opening question. If you want to know how living and working can occupy the same space alongside and with one another, you need to look at more than just how the building and the rooms are designed.

Equally important is whether the city is structured in a way that allows people to live and work in the same environment. Think of the garden cities1 in post-war housing developments, which were designed to serve only as residential areas. People living there had to commute long distances to work. That was not a successful concept.

So, what will allow urban residents to live and work in the same place?

Gübeli: It depends on where a building is located. In the Cosmos project in Dübendorf, on the outskirts of the greater Zurich region, we thought it was important to make the ground level a lively place by incorporating appropriate amenities, such as common areas as well as small businesses, neighborhood shops, and cafés that are also open to non-residents. The quality of the building is reflected in the vitality of the ground level. That brings people out of their apartments so they can work in other places than at home.

Züst: The Schulstrasse 44 project, on the other hand, is located in the heart of a very urban part of Oerlikon. The high-rise building is directly connected to the train station and the market square. It will include a hotel, a restaurant, offices, and even a terrace that is open to the public. All of these elements help integrate it into the city. The restaurant and the commercial businesses will make the ground level a lively place.

What about urban density?

Züst: When increasing density, we use elements of urban design that enable as many people as possible to share the same space – such as high-rise buildings. These buildings allow us to "stack" people and types of use vertically. Living and working can take place simultaneously.

Is greater density all that is needed for a city's development?

Züst: No, density alone cannot generate an urban feeling. Even in very urban areas, we need to make sure that the ground level is lively, and that connections to the city function properly. To that end, we are constructing the high-rise on an existing stretch of street. One shop follows another – just as in the traditional European city centers we know so well. What we want is a city that is as dense as possible, a livable environment where people can live, work, shop, and go for a stroll, all in the same area.

So, urban planning considerations are more important for you than architectural designs?

Gübeli: In a certain sense, yes. Obviously, it's exciting to think about what makes a façade attractive. Ultimately, however, the appearance of the façade doesn't matter much to the building's residents. Much more important is how the building connects with the city and how successfully its ground level functions. Of course, you also have to look at the layout of the living spaces. That lends the building a certain identity and makes it easier to market as a product. But in terms of use, it plays a less important role.

What, in your view, makes a project successful?

Gübeli: Our solutions are intended to last over a long period of time. That's why we, as architects, are interested in the 80% of people who see a building for what it is: a structure that allows people to decide for themselves how it will be used, and that is integrated into the urban setting. We like beautiful things, obviously, but we're not building for the 20% of people who have no interest in functional architecture, instead focusing only on aesthetics. Our solutions are intended to last over a long period of time.

 

1 In the field of urban planning, the concept of the garden city dates back to the turn of the 20th century. It was coined in England and was soon also used in Germany where, in the 1910s and 1920s, it was a way of avoiding an urban-rural divide. In post-war construction, from the 1950s on, the garden city lost its original purpose and came to designate a green suburban area that was designed for residential use.

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