Hide-and-Seek at the Pulse of the City – EM2N in ZH
Text by Stanislaus von Moos
Published in EM2N – Both and, 2009
The ploy of giving a product a label by arranging letters in an order that does not produce a meaningful word, but which, first
of all, deprives the symbols of their ability to indicate something and reduces them to just their graphic quality, has become a game of
hide-andseek that architects like to play. This seems to be based on the idea that the irritation caused by what is or seems incomprehensible
can excite a more lasting curiosity and therefore ultimately make a deeper impression on the memory than any immediately understandable congruence of symbols and
‘information’. As far as EM2N are concerned, in order to remember this acronym in the long term it may be helpful to know at
least the surnames of the two present partners. As for the ‘E’ and the ‘2’, well they must surely come from Einstein’s energy formula
(e = mc 2 ) …
But in actual fact, the ‘phenomenon’ of EM2N is characterised by a paradox. While the ‘energy’ of this office is reflected in a productivity
hardly matched elsewhere, the individual buildings and projects remain relatively invisible. The question is whether this has to do with a consciously adopted strategy
and perhaps even with Zurich as a location. During the era of Mayor Elmar Ledergeber (2002–2009) Zurich enjoyed giving the lie to the apparent
or attributed slogan of the previous municipal administration – ‘Zurich has been built’ – by means of diffuse building activism. Whether Ursula Koch, head
of the Zurich building department (1986–1998), ever uttered this sentence attributed to her in precisely this form nobody any longer knows today, because in
any case as her attempts to discipline building activity in the inner city led to a considerable amount of building on the urban periphery,
about which even her political opponents were probably most happy.
However, in at least one sense this sentence has retained its topicality. Who today would deny that the critical recycling of existing fabric, whether
it be in the form of modification and expansion, or as a radically new function, still remains one of the great challenges facing architects?
This is particularly true of a city like Zurich and increasingly applies also to the building fabric of the recent and very
recent past, for example buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. It is no coincidence that a number of the most interesting projects by EM2N
are in precisely this area. However they are also some of the most invisible ones.
Continuing a building incrementally requires a considerable degree of openness towards the formal results. The more radically an intervention pursues concepts inherent to the
existing fabric, the more outrageous the display of any ‘handwriting’ seems. Within the projects carried out in and around Zurich alone, the range of
the ‘relational objects’ conceived by EM2N extends from interventions that confidently transform the existing substance into a strong new form to projects that employ
simplified semantics to merely provide echo space for the existing fabric. For example: whereas only the basic form of the auditorium and the fly
tower of Karl Egender’s Theater 11 built in 1966 remains recognisable today within the polygonal volume erected around it between 2003 and 2006, the
main goal of the extension to the Hardau School seems to be to allow the muscular presence of Otto Glaus’ Brutalist concrete school from
the 1960s to fully assert itself. In fact, Egender’s building is ‘cannibalised’ (as the architects themselves put it) by the building encasing it, whereas,
thanks to the proximity of EM2N’s economically designed (‘ugly’ and ‘ordinary’) school wings, Otto Glaus’ Hardau School seems to blossom into a kind of
Zurich La Tourette. (For its part, the neighbouring Primary School later extended by EM2N integrates a historic accessory in the form of an existing
school by Glaus Allemann & Partners).
Fig. 1: EM2N, Hardbrücke Railway
Station Upgrading, Zurich
Fig. 2: EM2N, Theater 11, Zurich
In other cases, the architecture apparently dispenses entirely with verbal articulation – or simply sinks into the ground, for example the extension to a
single-family house in Greifensee. So as to undermine, literally, the mimicry dictated by Swiss local conservation laws by fleeing downwards, into the basement, the
architects decided in this project to pay a late tribute (of a magnitude never owed) to civil defence neurosis.
This strategy of hide-and-seek (or even of partly dispensing with architecture) played with the existing fabric contains a sceptical prognosis for Switzerland. With such
projects EM2N appear to be preparing themselves for a foreseeable point in the future when Switzerland as a whole (and not just Zurich) will
be completely built. Then architecture will (or would) indeed have no other choice than to leave its mark only in those areas that no
longer belong unambiguously to architecture and not yet definitely to urban planning: that is at the interfaces between the individual building on the one
hand and the network of effective or less effective material and immaterial transactions that today constitute the city, on the other. In the interfaces
between what is today and what will be tomorrow, at the transitions from the permanence of what is built to the fluidity of traffic,
without which a city could not survive.
In the Swiss context this strategy of hide-and-seek with the existing fabric used to connect to the next-largest spatial unit as seen from the
viewpoint of architecture, the ‘city’, may bring to mind concepts that, thanks to Lucius Burkhardt, in the 1960s became anchored in the consciousness (or
subconscious?) of readers of the magazine Werk. It is sufficient here to recall titles such as ‘Building, a Process’ or ‘Design is Invisible’. It
may well be that in this context other impulses were of even more immediate relevance – for example Melvin Webber’s concept of a ‘non
spatial urban realm’. Among the invisible (and certainly not spatially quantifiable) factors of building that attracted architects’ attention at that time were sociology as
well as informatics, and history no less than semiotics (whatever one took this term to mean). And since the 1960s more than a few
architects have examined the question in what way the built environment functions as a system of signs, or what could be done to bring
the profession of architect along the roundabout route of linguistic competence (that had, apparently, been lost in Modernism and therefore needed to be rediscovered)
back to culture as a whole and thus make it socially responsible.
Is it merely a coincidence that Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli frequently refer to Robert Venturi? In their book Learning from Las Vegas Robert
Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour attempted to formulate as definable laws the rules under which an agglomeration like Las Vegas functions as
a system of signs, that is to say they attempted to devise retroactively a theory for this form of urban planning. In much the
same way as Rem Koolhaas was later to do for Manhattan, they formulated a ‘retro-active manifesto’ and in the process roguishly demonstrated at places
what can happen when one transfers the terms they developed there (such as the separation of commercial architecture into ‘ducks’ and ‘decorated sheds’) to
the great architecture of yesterday and today. Amiens cathedral or the Palazzo Ruccellai unwittingly became ‘decorated sheds’, while a design process that had been
described since the 18th century by the term ‘architecture parlante’ suddenly attained an enervating topicality thanks to the pop formula ‘duck’.
Fig. 3: Las Vegas Strip, 1968
As a result of all of this letters and words – that is to say signs that, in the general view of things, serve
in a more direct way as information than visual metaphors (a cup, a shell, a store or, indeed, a duck) began to develop a
busy life of their own. This independent life tends to thwart the aim of spoken communication. Or at least, the iconicity of linguistic signs
appears to use channels of understanding other than those programmed by speaking, channels that impress themselves on the eye before the understanding even begins
to function. Symptomatic of this are the astonishing photographs of Las Vegas that the Venturis and their students brought back with them from their
legendary excursion to Las Vegas in 1968, in which the information overload resulting from the accumulation of signs and lettering along the strip dissolves
into just semantic noise. One could also recall Venturi’s famous sketch in which a large ‘W’ (=‘word’) refers to nothing apart from the written
form used in some kinds of human communication and consequently also to the communication occasionally employed by buildings to reveal their function to the
user. Should we, therefore, be surprised that in other projects by the Venturis also the issue is more the iconicity of letters per se
rather than the concrete things that can be expressed by letters arranged together to form words? – Who is interested in what the seven-metertall
red, ‘O’ against a blue brick wall ‘means’ (it is actually part of the company name BASCO)?
Fig. 4: Robert Venturi, The decorated shed and the duck, 1972
Fig. 5: BASCO Showroom, Bristol Township, façade detail
The process of architecturally spotlighting the graphic quality of signs, and even, concretely, of traffic signals, in a way that is largely divorced from
direct information has now (after the appropriate stylistic time lapse) reached Swiss architecture also. It was direct contact with the pioneers of Pop Art
(Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein) that gave the Venturis’ experiments their vitality, whereas Switzerland boasts a tradition of high-quality graphic design and typography. In the context
of the renovation of the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne Gigon / Guyer transformed the Hall of ‘Road Transport’ into a huge tabernacle
of strongly reflective and brightly coloured Meccano-tortoise shell. A scaly armoured skin of blue regional road signs covers the long facade towards the Festplatz,
the two short ends display motorway signs (green and large) and urban signs (white and small). This almost totem-like recycling of traffic signs, separated
according to type and glinting like cats’ eyes, demonstrates a truly primal potential as ornament.
Fig. 6: Gigon / Guyer, Hall of ‘Road Transport’, Swiss Museum of Transport, Lucerne, 2005–2009
Fig. 7: Freeway in San Francisco
EM2N take a different approach. While the brand name of the office embodies one of those verbal puzzles that can be mildly or exceedingly
irritating, the logo with which they inscribed themselves in Zurich’s urban space a few years ago is anything but verbal. The architects placed signs
on either side of the stream of traffic that flows across the Hardbrücke to indicate the descents from the bus stops down to Hardbrücke
commuter train station, which they also redesigned. Far larger than any of the billboards to be found along Swiss motorways today, both of these
huge panels have two white arrows pointing towards each other on a red background. However these arrows do not confine themselves to deconstructing and
reassembling the classic logo of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) by Josef Müller-Brockmann. While the two signs, with their similarity to the SBB logo, signalise
‘railway’, what the arrows, thanks to their inherent vectorial energy, primarily interpret, as a form of expression, is the traffic thundering across the bridge.
Ten meters below, on the level of the car park and the pedestrian approach to the commuter railway station, an analogous sign stands at
right angles to the flow of traffic but, thanks to the diagonals and the way it straddles the road, enters all the more eloquently
into conversation: with the feeder roads and access ramps that here anchor the Hardbrücke to the urban traffic network, not to mention the ramps
used by pedestrians to reach a tunnel lying even deeper, like part of a mole’s burrow, that provides access to the platforms from beneath.
That, at places, the line of these ramps is bent at an angle is no more accidental than is the fact that the streams
of people are led to the platforms asymmetrically, via staircases of different widths.
At rush-hour nothing of this architecture can be seen, all that matters is that everything functions smoothly. It is only during quieter moments that
you recognise the formally structured nature of the circulation apparatus for what it is. Then, too, you recognise as architecture the signage system that
uses huge numbers to help passengers find the right platform. Not without noticing that the typography (Frutiger) and the colour scheme of these super-graphics
(white, red, blue) are derived directly from the SBB standard colours – no different to the bright red colour of the walls at the
back of the platforms that you only see when you have boarded the train.
In this regard Hardbrücke Railway Station is nothing other than a dispositive of the transition from an inner-urban circulation system to an inter-urban one.
Architecture as a signal-like translation of urban or inter-urban modes of circulation into a form?
Hardbrücke Railway Station is a junction of bridges for traffic, as well as ramps and staircases for pedestrians. Much the same can be said
of a mega-structure like the Toni Site, currently undergoing conversion into a cultural power station, or, more precisely, into the future seat of Zurich
University of the Arts and Zurich University of Applied Sciences. It may be that the only reasonable thing to do would be to simply
remove the bulky ramps that are attached to the east side of the building. But the architects could not convince themselves to do this
– even though no articulated lorries will deliver their loads of milk here in the future, EM2N want to preserve these Cyclopean ears (whether
they will manage to give them a new urban meaning remains to be seen).
It is a matter of principle: for EM2N architecture is, to a considerable extent, virtual city and access ramps are ‘city’ – provided, that
is, one accepts mobility as an urban structural characteristic. The ramp is the most graphic architectural form of mobility and is thus a built
metaphor for the principle of life without which the modern city – let alone what we call ‘density’ – would not exist. We have
already mentioned the Hardbrücke in Zurich and the way it is connected by ramps to the complex dynamics of mobility by road and rail.
What it is actually about is shown by old views of Grand Central Station in New York with its cleverly worked out system of
underground pedestrian ramps that are in fact coronary arteries that, at rush hours, pump life into the city or out of it. It is
not surprising that Le Corbusier was delighted by these ramps when he first saw them in 1935. As he also was, incidentally, by the
elevated motorways carried on stilts that, back then, led around the entire tip of Manhattan and from there ventured across to New Jersey. This
is all the more fascinating as at that time the Villa Savoye with its proverbial ramp was already five years old (and the Villa
La Roche was more than ten). Architecture had, essentially, long since symbolically adapted the principle of the elevated motorway by the time the object
itself could be experienced. It is also not surprising that the impressions lasted for decades.
Fig. 8: Grand Central Station, New York, view of the internal circulation system, 1917
Fig. 9: Motorway bridge in an industrial area, Newark
Fig. 10: Le Corbusier, Sketch of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 1960
As architects who work with the reality of time for EM2N there is no difference in category between the ‘public space’ of the city
and provisions that just serve the function of circulation. On the contrary they assume that, in the present-day, city ‘public’ is also negotiated on
the street, not least of all through the medium of the motor car. No one knew this better than a painter like Richard Hamilton.
Reyner Banham has described what happens when you leave the flow of traffic along the Santa Monica Freeway in L. A. and turn into
the district feeder road, from there onto the local road, finally arriving at the forecourt of the house (Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four
Ecologies, 1971). ‘Coming off the freeway’, he summarises, ‘is coming in from outdoors.’ The freeway exit is the threshold between public and private.
And this is true not only of L. A. The lower the permitted speed, the more unavoidably and naturally the road turns into a
stage for self-presentation, a presentation in which the car itself becomes an instrument of body language and part of one’s outfit. In their project
for the Zurich Opera House Car Park EM2N, together with Peter Märkli, attempted to give an architectural face to the psychology of urban movement
by car. Analogous efforts led to the fact that the ‘percent for art’ in the Zurich Hegianwandweg Housing Development is for the most part
to be found underground, in the form of Lori Hersberger’s light installation in the garage. Outdoor staircases and portals have always been places to
make the private public, places for exhibition. Why can a simple car parking space not be what it ought to be: a ‘porte coche`re’
to an apartment building? – The garage does not have to be a ‘Museum for Fast Cars’ as in the case of an EM2N
competition project for Teufen. For the typology employed here there are interesting historical antecedents, also Swiss ones.
Fig. 11: L. M. Boedecker, Hall ‘Road Building and Road Traffic’ at the Swiss National Exhibition, Zurich, 1939
The raison d’être of bridges for road traffic and, to an even greater extent, of railway viaducts is mobility and therefore communication. This does
not exclude the possibility of the primary use dying out some day and the techno-form being taken over by life itself and being brought
back to an earlier stage of civilisation. We have learned from Rem Koolhaas that, in the end, in cities such as Lagos, the most
intensive urban communication is not concentrated on street bridges or ramps, but immediately underneath them, particularly at places where several of them cross each
other. This (en miniature) is precisely what happens today in the Zurich District 4, where the viaduct of the disused Letten railway line separates
from the line linking the Main Railway Station with eastern Switzerland. The market halls that will connect the arcades of the two asymptotically diverging
viaducts by means of a complex geometry are ‘relational objects’ of the purest form. They derive their character from the structured nature of the
place and would be absurd elsewhere.
Ever since Learning from Las Vegas at the very latest, we have been aware that the size of signs and advertisements along the highway
is directly related to the travel speed of the vehicles from which the messages are meant to be registered. The language of signs and
advertising is an instrument of mobility and vice-versa. Essentially the strip and the galaxies of car parks and spaces of public, semi-private or entirely
private pleasure that accompany it can be described as a procession space. Of the Venturis’ recent projects the most interesting ones are those that
take up this way of reading the strip by attempting to define the interior spaces of buildings as vessels in which various movements and
encounters can take place alongside each other in as unstrained a fashion as possible; grouped according to their functions and the extent to which
they are public. In these endeavours the Venturis are aided by an understanding of architecture that counters the incremental logic of spaces that grow
wider or narrower in response to the changing pressure of use with the resistance of a clear architectural language that, at times, makes use
of explicit historic models – whether it be the galleries of Versailles, Tintoretto’s Finding of the Body of St Mark or one of the
covered arcades of 19th century Paris or London. Where this resistance is missing the form threatens to drift into vagueness and arbitrariness.
Fig. 12: Las Vegas Strip with spaces that are public to greater or lesser degrees, from: Learning from Las Vegas, 1972
Fig. 13: Venturi, Scott Brown & Ass., Frist Student Center, Princeton University, 1996–1999, floor plan with function and directions of movement of the ‘internal street’
Possibly this is where the great challenge presented by the Toni Site lies: finding the architectural figures for ‘street’ and ‘city’ as interior space
without referring back to 19th century images. For the question is also whether, in fact, such images exist. All that seems certain is that
the intervention cannot be restricted to the clear organisation of patterns of movement and their direction by means of super-graphics, as is the case
in Hardbrücke station. In a case like this is ‘form’ produced by a process similar to how the elements of a sequence rhythmically relate
to each other? Or by placing the parts in relationship to each other and to the existing major form in a way that leads
to the development of a ‘whole’? We can look forward with great interest to the built answer to this question.
Possibly these patterns of movement themselves will prove to be an important vehicle for the visibility of ‘street’ and ‘city’, in the way these
architects see them. The control test is a small digital film that I shot a few weeks ago from a travelling car. The object
is Theater 11, which is certainly the best known and perhaps the most successful building by EM2N in Zurich. A glorious day, shortly before
sunset. Coming from Oerlikon station you travel at a respectful distance of a good hundred metres past the complex, can register its entire form
as a recumbent polygon together with the prismatic fly tower that rises above it: initially a most unspectacular sight. The polygon remains almost invisible,
were it not covered by a skin that partly reflects the light and partly absorbs it and that only in the changing evening light
and in the course of circling around it begins to vibrate. The skin is occupied by windows of different sizes whose quadratic form refers
to the cube of the fly tower and, in addition, to Max Dudler’s nearby office towers. The largest two windows are placed above and
on either side of the mouth-like corner entrance, giving this part the character of a ‘head’ so that the building as a whole suddenly
reveals itself as a kind of animal lying good-humouredly at the edge of the city.
Fig. 14: EM2N, Theater 11, Zurich
In travelling past this ‘head’ the window on the south side that seems ‘blind’ because it is initially black transforms into a mirror for
the evening sky that shimmers like mother-of-pearl; meanwhile the building’s polygonal coat of scales makes the city glow within seconds like a rainbow, as
if it had no other purpose than precisely that of exposing, in a way that is equally fleeting and magnificent, the architectural game of
hide-and seek to which these architects seem to have committed themselves.
Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in EM2N – Both and on page 235.