Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

28 January 2014

Juggling tiny multicoloured blocks in his hands, the manager of Swiss company Digitalstrom explains how these quirky Lego-like pieces can be used to link up all the electrical components of your house as one connected smart system. Heating, lighting, motion sensors: all controlled with these “power blocks” and the swipe of a smart phone.

This is just one of thousands of innovative products presented at Swissbau, Switzerland’s pre-eminent trade fair for the construction and property sectors. Digitalstrom has set up camp in a prime position at the top of the escalators. In an event that spans four buildings, each with three vast floors filled with everything from parquet floors to glazing and sheep-wool insulation to power tools, nabbing such a spot is an advantage. During a period of five days, more than 100,000 visitors will stream through Basel’s exhibition halls to network, talk construction and seek out the latest technology; subjects such as the changing role of architects and adapting Swiss cities to the 21st century animate its crowds.

Aside from a few world players such as Glas Trösch and Ernst Schweizer, what is perhaps most surprising about Swissbau is the sheer number of home-grown, family-owned enterprises that are showcased here. In part due to its geography, Switzerland has long had to foster industries that are less reliant on natural resources and heavy enterprise, more on technical know-how. Initially kick-started by the frenzy of activity that surrounded the development of the railway system in the 1800s, the construction industry remains one of the major pillars of Switzerland’s economy: each year over 45,000 new apartments are created and construction activity has reached record levels, at an estimated CHF58bn (€47bn).

However, Switzerland has reached a day of reckoning. Traditionally Swiss cities tend to be picture-perfect postcards of low-built buildings; many joke that our only high-rises are the Alps. This can’t continue. As urban sprawl begins to threaten swathes of landscape, we need to start building larger structures and taller buildings.

Basel’s Messe hall – a grand structure made from woven aluminium with a huge circular skylight at its centre – is the perfect location for this debate to take place. The building proves that not all large-scale contributions to Swiss cities are unwelcome; in fact, the Messe has helped Basel to grow. Next year the newly crowned tallest building in Switzerland, the Roche tower, will also pierce the skyline. Jacques Herzog from Herzog & de Meuron, the firm responsible for the tower and the Messe hall, compares it to throwing a stone into water: it creates waves.

These waves have the potential to upset but also to invigorate and bring fresh life to the occasionally static fabric of Switzerland’s cities. Judging by the positive reaction to the Messe Basel and other projects, it’s a relief to see that the Swiss are treading carefully, if a bit too slowly, in working to get the balance just right.

Alexa Firmenich is a researcher for Monocle 24.

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