Together, we are cleverer: Interview with Lischer Partner Architekten

Designed by Lischer Partner Architekten, the holiday home in Vitznau, which won the DETAIL Prize 2012 awarded by an international jury, is unusual in many respects: it combines features of Swiss vernacular building culture with a clear commitment to contemporary architecture.
DETAIL: In Switzerland, there is a long tradition of setting powerful concrete architecture against the country's highly impressive mountainous landscape – from Walter Förderer to Miler & Maranta, to name just two proponents of this approach. With your prize-winning holiday home in Vitznau, you appear to continue this tradition. Are there any Swiss architects who you relate to in your work?

Daniel Lischer: When I was undergoing my training, I initially focussed on Walter Gropius and CIAM, in other words on classical Modernism, before I turned my attention towards Swiss architecture and its legacy.  In Switzerland, there is a series of architects from the second generation of Modernism who are also of interest. After studying, I worked with Robert Obrist in the Engadin, who created some very pure, archaic buildings. In Vitznau, however, it was not only a design impulse that led us to concrete; the main reasons were topological. Our clients originally wanted a classical wooden house – a chalet with a masonry base, a wooden superstructure and a gabled roof. But we realised relatively quickly that this would not work on the slope where we were supposed to build. This is why we chose concrete.
DETAIL: The photos give the impression that the building stands all alone on the slope.  Is this actually the case?

Nicole Renggli-Frey: Up to now, yes. But additional houses are being planned.

DETAIL: When the clients first wanted a wooden house, how did you convince them that your design was the right one?

Daniel Lischer: The local topographical conditions were an important argument, of course. And, when it came down to it, our clients did get their wooden building, except for the fact that it has a concrete shell.  Wooden buildings always throw up a question regarding the terrain, base and roof, namely, "Where does it start and where does it end?". For us, the greatest challenge was the landscape, which is so staggeringly beautiful.  This influenced everything down to the details. If you look very closely, you can see how the conglomerate rock there -  also jokingly referred to as God's concrete – is composed of different types of rock. It has a very complex structure; layered and compressed – a fascinating geological formation. We did not want to accommodate our ideas to this natural phenomenon but to contrast it with something of similar complexity – something made by hand.  What interests us about concrete construction is not so much its smooth, perfect surface, such as the Japanese seem to like, as the beton brut of a Le Corbusier.

Nicole Renggli-Frey: In the shuttering, we made every join visible. We wanted people to see the way the material works and its granulation when it sets. And we succeeded in doing so.
DETAIL: How important are such manually executed processes for you? Do you believe that it possible to see whether a building has been erected with the techniques of craftsmanship or has been a purely digital creation?  

Nicole Renggli-Frey: What matters is character. Our building plot has an unbelievably strong character of its own with the lake (Vierwaldstätter See) and the mountains. We wanted to produce something with an equal amount of character.

Daniel Lischer: We like working with typologies and the context. When involved in urban planning, we tend to hold ourselves back.  Our urban planning is always oriented to an existing pattern, whereas, in this case, there were merely solitary buildings to consider.  It was clear that only a restrained, unobtrusive structure would actually fit in with this landscape.  The building, however, has a very multi-layered structure. This subtlety expresses itself in the cuts that we made according to a deductive principle we adopted.  This was also manual work in many long meetings.
DETAIL: Which of you is the craftsman?

Daniel Lischer: The special thing about this project is that it does not have an author. It is really a team achievement. "Together we are cleverer", says a Japanese proverb, and this especially applies to the holiday home in Vitznau.

DETAIL: What does the inside look like? How is the house arranged around the inserted "spatial objects", as you call them?

Daniel Lischer: Here, we make reference to Modernism as well as to the Baroque. I also gave a lot of thought to the promenade architecturale – especially in respect of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie: How do I enter a house? How am I guided through it? The classical route through a home begins with a cour d’honneur. However, we tried the opposite and miniaturised everything. The Spanish Steps in Rome is a textbook example of baroque axial shift, whereby the view in every direction is different.  We combined routing and space with each other: you enter, are removed from the axis and descend... the constructed images you see thus vary continually.
DETAIL: That sounds like a synthesis of Le Corbusier's dynamic walk and Adolf Loos’ spatial plan...

Daniel Lischer: That would be nice, of course... (laughs). In the beginning, we actually worked with pure routing models as well as with interlocking spaces, which are more reminiscent of Loos' spatial plan. In the end,  we combined the two aspects and superimposed the routing spaces on the building.

DETAIL: In addition to the "classics", which architects do you relate to?

Daniel Lischer: Before setting up my own office, I was with Cruz und Ortiz in Seville and with Jean Nouvel in Paris. Cruz and Ortiz are both Harvard professors; nevertheless they live an impressively modest life, coupled with a mixture of rationalism and Mediterranean lightness.  You can also see this in their projects, which are never fashionable or overly striking.  When I worked with Jean Nouvel, I found it interesting that projects were mainly developed in conversations – not so much in the drawing as in the speaking: L’idee vient en parlant. And the persistence with which Nouvel represented his ideas!  With regard to the roof of the Kunst- und Kongresshaus, for example, which protrudes 45 meters and had to withstand storm winds of up to 180 kilometres per hour, he always merely said: "That's how we will do it".  Even though no-one initially wanted to or was able to do the calculations for this structure. In Vitznau, we twice had to change the way it was to be constructed because no-one wanted to build it with us in the way we had proposed.
Nicole Renggli-Frey: The important question was always whether to build the concrete part first or the wooden part?

DETAIL: And how did you do it in the end?

Nicole Renggli-Frey: First of all, we built the wooden section, which was thus able to serve as the lost shuttering. After this, we only had to put the second shuttering in place on the outside. But this, of course,  was a great challenge due to the enormous pressure of the concrete on the shuttering. If we had built the concrete part first, we would have had to build an empty frame. This would have been too much work and expense for a holiday home.

Daniel Lischer: Before studying, I was a carpenter. In view of this, my relationship to the rich legacy of autochthonous or vernacular architecture in Switzerland is different to its consideration simply from the viewpoint of the history of art. In the Engadin, there is a certain type of wooden house that, in the course of time, has been supplemented with a fair-faced shell due to the many devastating fires that have ravaged the region. The Engadin houses therefore have their typical "lopsided" scuncheons for very practical reasons.  To this extent, our type of house – "hard shell, soft centre" – also has a certain reference to history.

Mr. Lischer, Ms.  Renggli-Frey, thank you very much for talking to us.
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