A sensitive city hall revamp opens up this storied building to foster dialogue and democracy.
“We want it to be a place where people will feel at home because the idea is that this is a ‘house for everyone’,” says Julia Zapata, co-founder of Geneva-based design studio Bonhôte Zapata, as she leads MONOCLE through the newly renovated Geneva City Hall. “What we really wanted to give this building is a feeling of solemnity – to represent the activity taking place here – but also a feeling of comfort and a sense of domesticity.”
Zapata and her team have just finalised the update to the 16th-century building, which has endured a hodgepodge of largely uninspiring alterations over the years. The latest efforts are the most ambitious, with a brief aiming to make the government building a place that goes beyond setting policy for the Swiss city of more than 500,000.
The project is about opening the space up, which is felt most profoundly in the main council chamber. In the lofty hall, Bonhôte Zapata added an eye-catching multifaceted, oak-slatted structure, which covers the space. It reaches up towards the roof, where a new skylight fills the room with natural light, a glow that is complemented by an elaborate lighting system from Lebanon’s PSLab hidden within the oak structure. The theme of transparency continues with the removal of existing windows – stained-glass numbers, which, while beautiful, didn’t allow for much natural light to flow in. They’ve been moved to another state building and replaced by translucent panes that now allow the deputies to look out at the metropolis that they’re responsible for, while allowing their electorate to look into the building when the parliament is in session.
“We wanted to create a strong visual connection with the city,” says Zapata. “When there’s a sitting here, people on the streets and by the lake can feel like they’re in session.” The personal responsibility of every deputy is also enhanced by the fact that, rather than sitting along a bench – as is typical in many parliaments – each has their own desk and chair: a Finn Juhl FJ 51 walnut armchair. Upholstered with blue fabric (such a perch is only found in one other location, the UN headquarters in New York), the stately pieces have been exclusively supplied to the Geneva council by Denmark’s House of Finn Juhl. Significantly, the chamber was also reconfigured into a semicircular seating plan, a much friendlier layout than the previous face-to-face seating, which placed politicians opposite each other.
“We want it to be a place where people will feel at home because the idea is that this is a ‘house for everyone’”
Moving beyond the main hall, the Bonhôte Zapata team also revitalised a number of other rooms in the building, including the welcome chamber, where it uncovered and restored the room’s original shape, and the parliament’s café, chancellery and administration offices. They also renovated the parliamentary restaurant, transforming what was once a dining hall catering to diplomats into a popular, public-facing spot.
Each room has distinct characteristics and, says Zapata, “each of these rooms has a whole history of its own”. And now these different spaces are beautifully united by a consistency of materials. A robust selection of green marble, brass, oak and walnut has been deployed throughout. “We very carefully selected a small palette of materials,” she says. “We decided to work with them in a modular way, using them throughout the building to give the spaces continuity.”
The result is a cohesive environment that’s representative of good government: open and transparent, efficient in the use of resources and built with the long-term in mind. But it is also a place that, thanks to the abundance of natural light and the warmth of the oak and walnut, feels incredibly welcoming, calming and set up for dialogue and diplomacy. This is the kind of intuitive design that allows for good governance – something we hope that the politicians sitting here respond to with enthusiasm.