Swiss architecture’s star double act: ‘We’re all about Dinghaftigkeit!’

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Swiss architecture's star double act: 'We're all about Dinghaftigkeit!'
Kunstmuseum in Basel / © Julian Salinas
Swiss architecture's star double act: 'We're all about Dinghaftigkeit!'
Kunstmuseum in Basel / © Julian Salinas

When Christ & Gantenbein talk about ‘the thingness of things’, it’s more than waffle. From a zigzag extension in Zurich to Basel’s new Kunstmuseum, their landmark projects mix the ancient and modern in beguiling ways

“The best Swiss architecture,” says Christoph Gantenbein, “isn’t buildings. It is the tunnels and dams and bridges in the Alps. That’s where it is at its most powerful.”

Gantenbein is standing inside the gaping exhibition hall of his own bridge-cum-dam-cum-cliff-face, which now zigzags its way around the back of the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, a gigantic piece of civil engineering in the leafy surrounds of Platzspitz park. Poking its beady circular eyes above the trees, it looks like some great concrete leviathan, writhing up and down in angular waves beneath the fairytale turrets and spires of the 19th-century museum.

If concrete gymnastics are one of Switzerland’s proudest skills – alongside penknives and posh chocolates – then this powerful new extension, set to open in July, is certainly an apt form for the repository of the country’s cultural history. Walking through its voluminous shell (yet to receive the exhibition fit-out), up monumental staircases between sloping-roofed halls, dotted with enigmatic constellations of porthole windows, it feels like exploring the cavernous depths of a secret Alpine lair. Ernst Stavro Blofeld might be lurking around every one of its acute corners.

Fourteen years and 111m Swiss Francs [CHF] (£80m) in the making, it was the first major project its architects won, in an open international competition in 2002, at the tender ages of 30 and 31 – barely foetal in architectural terms – when they didn’t even have a completed building to their names. Delays caused by ministerial budget wranglings and the vocal opposition of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (whose posters bewailed this monster taking over the park), mean that Christ & Gantenbein have since become one of the country’s most sought-after practices. […]

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