Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’

The traditional Swiss style of chalet so beloved by tourists visiting the alpine country is actually the creation of foreign architects, a researcher at federal technology institute ETH Zurich has found.

Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’
'Swiss style' by a German architect. Image: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

Daniel Stockhammer discovered the revelation as part of his doctoral thesis, the results of which are published in Horizons magazine this month.

His research focused on 19th century German architect Ernst Gladbach, a professor at the then newly-founded ETH Zurich, who created a comprehensive collection of sketches and plans of Swiss wooden houses .

In studying the drawings – which lay unpublished in the archives of the Swiss National Museum for a century – Stockhammer came across other, much older sketches of Swiss houses by architects from England, France and Germany.

He then realized it was these foreign architects who created the archetypal ‘Swiss’ style of chalet.

Speaking to The Local, Stockhammer said although wooden buildings have long been a part of Swiss rural architecture, they were “regionally so different that one could at most speak of local and regional traditions, not national ones”.

“The enormous diversity made it impossible to reduce these styles into a national Swiss style of wooden buildings”.

So foreign architects invented one.

In the late 18th and early 19th century wealthy foreign architects such as Briton Peter Frederick Robinson began travelling through Switzerland to draw and document the wooden buildings, said Stockhammer.

Back in London, they redrew these sketches, altering them in the process based on their own idealistic view of Switzerland.

“In this process, the architects did not stick closely to a faithful representation,” says Stockhammer.

Some parts were exaggerated, some were copied from different buildings and others “completely made up” to create “an idealistic picture of the Swiss house”.

This invented ‘Swiss national style’ represented a rural ideal for the European elites of the 18th and 19th century who then created buildings in this image in major European cities, according to Stockhammer.

The Rütlihaus before and after its transformation by Ernst Gladbach. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

This architectural style was then transported back to Switzerland with the advent of mass tourism in the country.

“The tourists brought their idealized images (back) to Switzerland . The Swiss responded to the needs of guests [by building] hotels and railway stations but also kiosks and souvenirs in the Swiss style.

“Since, at the beginning, they did not know exactly how to build in the 'Swiss style', the architects and chalet-builders looked back at the original works of almost exclusively foreign architects for inspiration.”

Stockhammer was particularly surprised to find that even the Rütlihaus – the 'original' Swiss house on the Rütli meadow, considered the birthplace of Switzerand – was the invention of German Gladbach, who studied the original building before it was demolished and then created a new, ‘more real’ version.

“To a great extent, Switzerland owes its national style, and its success, to tourists,” concludes Stockhammer.

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Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.