Yehuda E. Safran

Without repeating life in the imagination, you can never be fully alive; without imagining your act in advance, how could you act at all?

It is commonly said that reality is that which exists, or that only what exists is real. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case: true reality is that which we know and which has never existed. The ideal is the only thing we know with any certainty, and it surely has never existed. It is only thanks to the ideal that we can know anything at all; and that is why the ideal alone can guide us in our lives, either individually or collectively. And where, if not in the imaginary reality of architecture, can the rehearsal take place?
It is not an everyday event to visit Zurich to view recent architecture. In this spirit I traveled to Zurich to see the work of the office of Yvonne Rudolf and Andreas Galli. Their restrained and programmatically firm interventions leave the visitor with a sense of purpose and determination. It is no surprise, therefore, that, turning their hands to housing projects, they have been able to achieve much that is of great value.

In a period in which typological expectations have opened up to a broader range of possibilities, Yvonne Rudolf and Andreas Galli have been able to offer unconventional housing types. On the so-called Färbi-Areal, the site of a former dye-works in Schlieren, they combined the industrial typology inspired by large neighborhood buildings with more conventional vertically extruded high-rise housing in a rhythm and sequence that benefit the population in all the different categories of dwellings which are on offer on the estate [cf. fig. Färbi-Areal «Am Rietpark», Baufeld A2, Schlieren]. By disposing a series of inner courtyards and patios located well above ground level, an environment is created which is often less formal than—and which affords a visible contrast to—the pre-existing ones, counterbalancing the self-contained units. These configurations increase the possibility of a very different layout of the dwelling units themselves. Much attention was given to the use of materials in order to accentuate diversity, simplicity, textures, and colors.
No doubt the urban plan of this part of the small town in the Limmat valley with its parks and streets, fixed by general parameters, which determine certain heights and proportions, has offered a new alternative of urban life on a small scale. Their master-plan scheme of innovative building typologies radically subverts the conventional urban block. Galli Rudolf’s invention of the L-form for four building blocks articulates volumes by their respective program for which many possibilities were shown. As a result of this strategy the architects have given themselves and others the possibility of living outside the larger city in an urban density and in differentiated configurations that can radically transform our idea of urban life.
Not unlike Italo Calvino’s story If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the narrative of this housing estate is discontinuous and therefore capable of many surprises. (1) Unexpected plans, elevations, and sections constantly bring our different points of view into new focus. The distances between the buildings were limited by the condition of urban density and, hence, could not be taken for granted. The former use on the industrial strip of land inspired, no doubt, the elongated configuration and the complexity of the overall design of the housing project. But it is the typology that prompted such variations of height and massing. With the park on the other side and plenty of commercial outlets on the ground floor the possibility of a new form of urban life is there. This found heterogeneity is probably the most significant attribute of this project.
It remains, of course, within the strict parameters of the developing agencies, the local authorities, the developer; here, the architects have been able to maintain the momentum of their insight and desire. They have created a beehive without imposing a rigid geometric outline or regime. On the contrary, much of the assemblage seems to have gathered by itself, as if naturally. If there was a great deal of rational decision-making—of which there is, in any case, plenty of evidence—it is not obviously on display. This in itself is an achievement.

Galli Rudolf Architekten, Färbi-Areal «Am Rietpark», Baufeld A2, Schlieren, 2009—2011, Ansicht Rietpark

After this comprehensive experience in the urbanized Limmat valley just outside Zurich’s city limits, we arrived in the outskirts of Winterthur, on the grounds of the Giesserei, a former iron foundry. There the new building complex for multigenerational housing for the cooperative Gesewo, which is based on cooperative organization, is truly remarkable [cf. fig. Multigenerational housing «Giesserei» Winterthur]. The 155 apartments of various sizes, with up to thirteen rooms for shared housing, and communal as well as a few commercial facilities on the ground floor provide not only housing but living spaces. Considering that this initiative started out with a modest notice in the local papers by a single person, the Winterthur architect Hans Suter, inviting like-minded citizens equally interested in an alternative housing solution to join the enterprise, it is simply outstanding.
Over the last century there have been several architectural projects whose social and political programs have made them formally exceptional. The Fun Palace theater and community project in the East End of London by Cedric Price with theatrical director Joan Littlewood [cf. fig.Fun Palace, promotional brochure, 1964] and the SESC Pompeia cultural center in São Paulo by Lina Bo Bardi are outstanding examples of this kind. That is to say that if there are sufficient innovative elements in the program, the project is driven by a force greater than the will to form. Or the will to form acquires a momentum greater than it would be the case otherwise. Excellence is, of course, both rare and difficult to obtain. In this project built largely in wood one observes a spatial order that was inspired by the collective of a heterogeneous group of people who came together as a cooperative in order to build themselves a large Noah’s ark.
This political desire to share space is evident in the configuration of the apartments, in the arrangement of single units for guests and very large families, in the balconies that allow for free passage beside the interior corridors and staircases. In a similar manner, the spacious gathering place on the ground floor for concerts, theater performance, and discussion is well located at the heart of a large rectangular space. Mention should also be made of the Pantoffelbar (slippers bar), open around the clock, with a great open deck above to accommodate drinks and informal gatherings and to allow the participant an open view of the landscape around the complex.
Much of this relaxed and felicitous atmosphere is achieved by the provision of endless rhythms of vertical and horizontal strips of wood in red and green, gray and white. Needless to say the paints were carefully selected from producers who guarantee their natural composition without any chemical or synthetic ingredients, both in the facade elements and the line drawings by artist Pascal Seiler in the stairwells. The different hues—the facade’s plane of deep red and the nuances of greenish tones on the movable panels—designate the different structural functions, with a relief created through overlaps and depth. This is a triumph of ingenuity and invention. The relatively simple elements are made to provide complex patterns of repetition, which are like music to the eye. The composition moves even without moving and encourages playfulness. This poised humor and slight irony increase the great charm of the ensemble. It becomes evident in the playground in the middle of the project and the informal entries and staircases.
If Leibniz said of music that it is counting, but unconsciously, the relationship between counting and telling explains the pattern which emerges, suggesting that a local language exerts a “gravitational pull” on the structure of every conceivable human activity from music to architecture. Indeed, the imagined sound of rhythmic movement of the body intimately determines the use of language as much as practically everything else. It is as rare as it is difficult to articulate a new concept of space. Architecture, with its pride, defeats gravity and embodies the will to power. It is the slant, or the style, of resisting gravity that determines so much of the quality of architectural intervention. Of course, in this art there is an ongoing conversation with other cultures and languages.
It is difficult to judge whether the members of the cooperative could imagine what they were getting when the project began; it would have been exceedingly difficult for them to see the future in their mind’s eye. But following the project closely as it was built over time, they seem to have internalized and externalized extremely well what came to be their new home; they have come to love it. It offered them an affordable alternative with which they could identify. It is hard to imagine that all this was originally the initiative of a single individual who placed a small advertisement in the local newspaper.
Rarely has such initiative come to fruition in the fullness of time. It was therefore an act of anticipatory design, in Cedric Price’s sense, in as much as that there was no example to learn from, no prior knowledge of this particular typology at all. On all of these accounts our admiration for what the architects have achieved in the design and the life of this project is very great indeed. Cedric Price wrote:
«A greater awareness, in architects and planners of their real value to society could, at the present, result in that rare occurrence, namely, the improvement of the quality of life as a result of architectural endeavor.» (2)
One could not summarize more aptly what Yvonne Rudolf, Andreas Galli, and their collaborators have achieved here.
In their own way, Yvonne Rudolf and Andreas Galli, together with their collaborators, have created an eloquent analogue or, if you prefer, a locus solus by introducing a new typology and a spatial order reminiscent of Adolf Loos’ Raumplan concept in some of the interiors, so as to provide a possibility of dwelling in our time. This benefits from existing memory and history but remains relatively autonomous. Exercising their gift of invention in this way, they are able to contribute greatly to our architectural environment.

Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price, Fun Palace, promotional brochure, 1964
Galli Rudolf Architekten, Mehrgenerationenhaus «Giesserei», Winterthur, 2009—2013

Not only housing projects, also schools became the sites of Galli Rudolf ’s typological and programmatic interventions. In the case of the Technische Berufsschule Zürich (Technical Trade College Zurich), a large building block from the 1960s, an existing structure has been completely modified and renovated [ cf. →Erneuerung Technische Berufsschule Zurich] . What was an indifferent structure ultimately came to reveal a more complex and meaningful relationship with inside and outside space, as well as with below and above. At the ground level, where the former entrance did little to welcome the students and visitors, the architects were able to combine the patio courtyard with a newly inserted cafeteria and a lecture/performance hall. Murals, which span the entire height of the space, by artist Ingo Giezendanner were introduced in the public spaces and help to establish rhythmic connections. Both the cladding and furniture were completely refitted, and glass bricks for the corridors were newly produced according to current regulations—as were low benches in stone—in harmony with the original style of the building; they serve to create an atmosphere of tranquility particularly evident in the classrooms and corridors and ideally suited to a school of its kind. Perhaps this skillful use of materials and great economy of means give the project its character, which is defined by an interplay of measured intervals of solid elements and voids in the midst of the busy inner city of Zurich.
Clearly, in all of these projects Galli Rudolf Architekten have taken on the difficult task of responding to the conventions of urban planning with innovative architectural design. Almost as if it never was their conscious, primary goal, their practice has come to be associated with experimental hybrid typologies—an ever-present challenge to the field of architecture. We can only admire them for having done so with modest means and such remarkable results.

Galli Rudolf Architekten, Erneuerung Technische Berufsschule Zürich, 2006—2008

Yehuda E. Safran currently lives and works in New York, where he directs the Potlatch Lab as well as the journal for art and architecture of the same name and teaches at Columbia University GSAPP. He has taught and lectured widely and internationally, is the author of numerous articles and books, and has curated exhibitions on Adolf Loos and Frederick Kiesler, most recently Adolf Loos: Our Contemporary, which was shown at CAAA Guimaraes, Portugal, at MAK Vienna, and at the GSAPP Ross Gallery at Columbia University.

(1) Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, San Diego, CA: Hartcourt Brace & Company 1982.

(2) Cedric Price, «Life-Conditioning,» in: The Square Book. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons 2003, p. 19 (originally
published in Architectural Design, October 1966).