City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Notes on Geneva. A Walk.

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An iPhone-aided dérive attempting to refute the idea that Geneva is ‘the Canberra of Switzerland’

As noted previously, I managed to escape for a brisk walk around Geneva during the Lift09 conference, heading from the conference venue down towards the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCO) and back. (Ed. This piece was originally published at on July 25, 2009.)

This was the first time I’d done such a drift aided by the iPhone’s GPS+Google-driven ‘certainties’, and it worked well, enabling me to embark in broadly the right direction, veering off aimlessly onto the most interesting-looking streets whilst reacquainting myself with the optimum route every now and then; a kind of waggle dance back and forth, following invisible satellites.

I was struck by how much I enjoyed Geneva. I’d never been, and despite being an ardent Helvetiaphile I had only middling expectations. One friend had described it as “the Canberra of Switzerland”, and so I was prepared for a peculiar, mannered version of said Australian capital, or The Hague, or Brussels, or Washington DC or one of those other cities that essentially exist purely for the sake of administrative clarity.

Yet there was immediately more to it than that. It is certainly skewed massively by the presence of the headquarters of just about every major international legislative organisation one could think of — the UN, the WTO, the Red Cross, and then a slew of organisations like World x Organisation, where x is Meteorological or somesuch. So while this manifests itself in an array of modernist-lite glass buildings of varying quality — as if a kind of playground for Playtime’s designers — it also lends the city a distinctly global air and a massively diverse set of nationalities and cultures.

This is relatively unusual for a Swiss city. Though Switzerland is bordered by five nations and has four official languages, there’s no doubt it can feel a little homogenous. Yet I find I miss these cities hugely. I prefer Zürich to Geneva, but as I’m wandering around I fondly imagine living in the latter. When I return to London and confess this to a friend, he remarks that Switzerland may be too “relentlessly middle-class” for me. I point out that I am also relentlessly middle-class. He returns by pointing out that this may be so, but in which case it’s not necessarily a good thing to be surrounded by only the relentlessly middle-class. On this, we agree.

Geneva, however, does appear to have a form of diversity to it. Perhaps this is an unnatural composition i.e. due rather more to an engineered diversity driven by those international organisations as opposed to the ebb and flow of globalised free trade. Yet is this objectively ‘worse’ in any way? Sure, I’d guess the diversity is richest in the poorly-paid service and support sector, as opposed to those other peculiar facets of Geneva — the luxury watch sector, international finance, and the motor show. But this disparity feels less acute than in, say, Austria. (The recent kerfuffle over tax havens is forcing Switzerland into another mode too, quite rightly.)

The diversity gives the city itself a different feel. In what would otherwise be a perfectly pleasant but undemanding mittel-European town, there is a perceptible air of difference. As I noted before, the faces in the street indicate the proximity of Africa rather than Asia yet there’s a variety to the people that is out of kilter with a typical town around here. Given the promenade of adverts for Patek Philippe, Breitling and TAG Heuer that introduce you to the arrivals hall at Geneva airport, this is a comforting counterpoint.

Perhaps the 185,000 residents of Geneva could act as a sample of global population, if we ever required such a thing. A sort of bored administrator’s idea of a Noah’s ark for modernity.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Tony MacGregor later writes:

I enjoyed your Geneva post, and I thought you might be interested in an installation Peter Greenaway made in the city in ’94, The Stairs — which framed 100 views of the city, plus an accompanying exhibition in the city museum, re-presenting works from the collection to develop ideas about The Frame/The View. The documentation online is not that good … I walked to all 100 (or was it 99?) stairs — it was a terrific way of entering the history of the city and encountering ideas as experience — the ideas of Michel de Certeau in practice you might say. And later we went to John Berger’s place in neighbouring Haute Savoie with an old friend, Patrick Mohr, son of the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr. So I have very fond memories of Geneva, revived by your post.

Greenaway’s installation:

Yet there is nothing particularly radical about Geneva, at least at first glance. But clues such as Tony’s indicate how Geneva punches a little above its weight. It reminds me that James Joyce ended up in Zürich, as unlikely as that would seem. Just as it would seem unlikely that Zürich would also produce Dada. Or that Zwingli’s theses would do as much as Martin Luther’s to kick off the Reformation, after a dispute over a sausage (sort of) on those civilised streets. Or that the Geigy chemical company in Basel would engender the Swiss style in graphic design, and thus change visual communication. Or that Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose place in Geneva is marked by a fabulous mural and concrete facade, would inspire the French revolution. That it would be Doctor Frankenstein’s home and the setting for both Kieslowski’s Three Colours Red and my favourite of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party, and so on.

House of Jean Jacques Rousseau
Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831.

These, and the Swiss roll call I’d previously listed — Müller-Brockmann, Bill, Le Corbusier, Tschichold, Herzog & De Meuron, Zumthor, Tschumi et al — indicate how insular and uninformed Orson Welles was with his famously improvised crack at the Swiss in The Third Man (admittedly, half of my Swiss ‘first eleven’ weren’t active when he made that statement, but still.)

You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Welles even misplaced his allegations. Cuckoo clocks come from Bavaria.

Lest that Swiss roll seem a little stale, in my field schools like the excellent ETH in Zürich produce the likes of Gramazio+Kohler, Fabric and numerous fantastic designers across all disciplines (forthcoming entry on a great recent publication by ETH Studio Basel too). Switzerland is officially recognised as the second most innovative country in the world behind Japan (whatever that means; and whether The Economist Intelligence Unit is even the best judge of such a thing is a moot point).

Similarly, that Swiss cities dominate (not a very Swiss word that) the Mercer Quality of Life rankings is a double-edged sword. Such rankings are often a byword for a dulled corporate urbanism that would have Welles, the younger, sprightlier version at least, grinning wryly in satisfaction, thinking his cuckoo clock line was well-placed. Thankfully elements of Swiss cities retain qualities that the Mercer/Economist judges would never see, those elements that complex, sometimes edgy, hybridised, and stratified, whilst the overall thesis —that of cutting-edge research-led industry, supreme public services, quality built environment amidst stunning terrain — remains largely true.

So while the urban form and life appears conservative compared to the contemporary megapoles of Shanghai, Mexico City, Lagos et al, or even an earlier wave of Los Angeles, Sydney and Tokyo, these Swiss cities have something to offer. Without wanting to sound like Jan Gehl, who could perhaps be accused of seeing Copenhagen as the future of all cities much as a hammer sees only nails, these cities have accumulated enough experience to enable distributed culture, radical ventures and everyday quality of life. While there’s no such thing as ‘the future of cities’ or ‘the future city’, there are simply futures of cities, and this is one of them. Europe, caught in the throes of the global financial crisis, borderless migration and Old World civic and social democratic sensibilities is still the site of meaningful experiments in urban living. Although Switzerland has a complex and fractured relationship within Europe and while no one would describe gentle Geneva as radical as such, these cities reward further study.

(Equally, If we are to believe Jacques Attali’s thesis in his interesting yet odd A Brief History of the Future, it is in Switzerland that we see a microcosm of the future, in the powerful global bureaucratic-capital networks of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne and FIFA in Zurich. And perhaps also the ‘hypersurveillance’ of Attali’s vision too, in the occasionally stultifying conformity that can hamper everyday life — several former Zurich residents I know have somewhat reluctantly moved on partly because of this aspect.)

(In the introduction to the excellent little book Coup de Dés, on ‘emerging European architectures’, Peter Cachola Schmal notes the original meaning of the word Europe: “From Ancient Greek Ευϱώπη (Europa) a character in Greek mythology, meaning ‘wide-eyed’, from ευϱυς (evrys) ‘wide’ + (ops) ‘eye, face, complexion’.”)

In Geneva, the presence of these international institutions, albeit occasionally filtered through high-security blockades, also lends the city a air of importance, if sometimes self-importance. The city’s soft infrastructure is more refined than it would otherwise be. The cultural landscape is diverse, and its citizens likewise.

Indeed, as Rousseau observed, “A Genevan watchmaker is a man who can be introduced anywhere; a Parisian watchmaker is only fit to talk about watches.”

Away from those glass palaces, yet somehow linked to them, the diversified service infrastructure means that after the conference we can go to what seems to be a Jamaican bar around the corner from the train station, in a bit of town known variably as ‘le Paki’ (a name that would be rightly verboten in Britain but perhaps means something else here) or Paquis.

The area feels vaguely edgy, for a Swiss city that is, but also alive. And from there to an Eritrean restaurant. The latter has the same feel as Eritrean cafés I’d been to in South London — basic tables, very bright lights, slightly random service and utterly random wall decoration, but delicious spicy food. The night before I’d enjoyed a really good kebab on a late-night walk to dissipate some jetlag.

I reckon you can draw a 2000 kilometre arc around Ankara and get a good kebab within that. The International Kebab Line.

Even the aforementioned Doctor Fischer of Geneva… — which admittedly features a great deal of mention of chocolate — there are passages which indicate the peculiarly dislocated form of cosmopolitan life in the city:

I had left my Fiat in Anna-Luise; I took a train to Geneva and walked from the station to the a taxi rank. There was what the Swiss call a Pub Anglais not far from the rank, named, as you would expect, the Winston Churchill, with an unrecognisable sign and wooden panelling and stained-glass windows (for some reason the white and red roses of York and Lancaster) and an English bar with china beer handles, perhaps the only authentic antiques, for that adjective could hardly be applied to the carved wooden settees and the bogus barrels which served as tables and the pressurised Whitbread. The hours of opening I am glad to say were not authentically English and I planned to drink up a little courage before I took a taxi.

Earlier, my walk takes me away from the Tati-ville around the conference venue, and angles past a slightly frayed edge of the university, where some comically exaggerated Euro-students lounge around with studied ennui, acoustic guitars and artfully distressed fabrics.

Around here, with the perfectly-blue winter sky and open stretches of the rail yards providing the clearest of views, It’s immediately clear that the other thing that elevates Geneva above the average is the dramatic presence of the Alps that surround the city. It seems almost impossible at first, as if a bank of low cloud is encroaching on all horizons, almost requiring a double-take to clarify that they are in fact sheer banks of mountains. They’re startlingly beautiful, sublime in the original sense.

The World Meteorological Building is near here, a green double-glass-skinned lozenge by Atelier D’Architecture Brodbeck-Roulet. Perhaps like an old cigarette case standing on its edge, encased in toughened safety glass.

The louvred second skin reflects the tall dark and handsome pine trees wonderfully, but it’s relatively unremarkable the more I consider it. I circle the building. Admittedly the side catching the sunlight sparkles. I also appreciate some oversized silver exhausts from the underground car park. It is elegant from an ecological services point-of-view, but without the sheer bravura of the Morphosis Caltrans building I saw in LA a couple of months later, a building with somewhat similar characteristics. This is a mild-mannered and polite European cousin of that untamed American Morphosis beast — no-one will be calling this a “Death Star”, that’s for sure.

Still, it was from this organisation that a warning was issued in 1976, suggesting a significant warming of global climate was probable. I pause for a moment.

I’m more drawn by the small adjacent station at Sécheron, which features a fantastic elevated cylindrical platform, ribbed in red-painted corrugated metal with a slice pared from the sides. Beneath it, the long lean bodies of trains tick in the winter sun.

From here, down to the lake, past a near-chateau inhabited by the World Trade Organisation. Cutting through the trees, I stumble across a great little café, timber frame and generous glass privileging a view of the lake, revelling in its exposed yellow services as if a tiny satellite of the Pompidou. It’s full of students, academics, public administrators and civil servants. The flyers in the entrance are not for local bands or apartments to rent, but for talks on world security, the problem of Afghanistan and AIDs in Africa, delivered by visiting professors and high-ranking diplomats.

I walk past a man taking his cat for a walk through the trees. A map of the park is a casually flamboyant bit of graphic design, with Parc Moynier picked out against its hatched neighbours. This standard is later matched by some extravagant sans serif italics on a fire station’s door.

My soundtrack for this trip is not Swiss, but does echo the language I hear all around me. Le Journaliste, by Andy Moor of The Ex and the French poet Anne-James Chaton, is a wonderful album I discovered via WFMU’s Mudd Up. Essentially, ten tracks of rat-a-tat French agit-prop-pop, albeit delivered with sharp wit, and sprayed over Moor’s abrasive guitar backdrops, it’s not exactly aesthetically in line with the incredibly beautiful, pure landscape in front of me, although the politics aren’t exactly irrelevant on occasion either, but the torrent of French prepares me a little for the chatter of shops and cafés and streets.

Lac Léman itself is a wonder. Like Zürich’s, it is massive, apparently endless, fading out from deep blue into white haze on the horizon. Also like Zürich, the mountains gently ease out of the water on the opposite bank through tree-lined outlier villages, pearls linked by a necklace of the world’s best train services, before suddenly rearing up to become the Alps. Walking along the manicured edge of the lake it’s a shame one can’t dip toes in the no-doubt icy water, which is as perfectly clear as that at Bronte beach. Small ferries chug across the glittering water as the city centre begins to fade up to the right. As with Australia, the colours here seem impossibly crisp.

Geneva’s centre is resolutely human-scale, topping out at about five or six storeys with few exceptions, one such being a fairly horrendous 1980s-ish development on the river, though even that hugs the landscape to some extent.

These are effortlessly walkable streets in the main, with car traffic well down the hierarchy, as it should be. Excellent trams are threaded through the streets, a variety of older and more contemporary models gliding around. Public transport is free for hotel guests — you are given a card on check-in — which is a thoroughly superb initiative.

I eat my umpteenth variation on ham, cheese and bread — a clear sign I’m in a continental European city — walking through these streets. The streets are not as distinguished or refined as Zürich’s, and certainly don’t approach those of Paris, Vienna or Barcelona in terms of quality of experience, but it’s immensely pleasurable nonetheless.

I walk across the bridge, pausing to take in the giant stone arms reaching out into the river and looking back over the serried ranks of courtyard blocks and offices behind me, before heading down towards MAMCO.

I particularly appreciate the frequent courtyard squares, open at one end, some apparently entirely without function or much care. These are spaces are left open to possibility (“wide-eyed Europe”). Some refined, some entirely utilitarian.

Overhead, a canopy of wires from trams and comms encloses the streets. Many, even urban designers, think these catenary wires should be removed from streetscapes. This is a general ‘uncluttering’ strategy, which can be taken too far. Personally, I like the way they form a loose containing net around the streets, keeping the city within, grounded, as well as being a visible manifestation of networks of civic infrastructure.

The streets around here are smaller, dotted with small galleries and schools. A misplaced football from a schoolyard gives me a chance to flick the ball up over the fence, a chance I take with relish, almost to surprised acclaim from the schoolchildren. Almost. It’s good to be walking around streets where football is the sporting lingua franca again, a pervasive and familiar ambient backdrop to the culture, as opposed to any of those games with funny-shaped balls.

The small Galerie Analix Forever draws me in off the streets with an intriguing show, based largely around lit neon signs. (Ed. Some years later, I now realise this was a Robert Montgomery show.)

Around the corner from there, MAMCO emerges, essentially comprising an entire block for art. It’s a wonderful building. An old 1950s industrial building converted to art galleries and workspaces.

The gallery itself is a series of simple long floors, metal-frame windows framing the artwork with generous pools of light. As a building, it’s been tidied up though left rough-hewn. Not in the sense of Chipperfield’s wonderful adaptation of the ruined Neues Museum in Berlin though, and this is “rough-hewn” for the Swiss — which means it isn’t really rough at all, and barely even hewn.

The gallery has played a central role in Geneva developing an art scene of sorts, as Artkrush noted with their overview of Swiss art at the crossroads:

When Calvinist Geneva saw the opening of the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Mamco) in 1994, it would have been hard to foresee what is now a booming art scene in its district.

There are some great works within. A couple of Donald Judd’s are perfectly situated here. Some sketches by Christo. Non-house-slicing work by Gordon Matta-Clark. Sculpture works well in these long spaces, and film and video in the smaller, dark rooms in-between. A few galleries of photographic and print-based work are highlights, tightly-composed sets of frames perfectly positioned on the walls of these small rooms. Elsewhere some proofs of magazine Bulletin are wonders of layout, displaying the works of Ian Wilson and Lawrence Weiner. Typographic works on the windows are particularly effective.

The top floor frames views across the rooftops and is host to a couple of architectural interventions, bending and slicing the space in total darkness.

MAMCO sits amidst a few galleries and artists’ workshops in a practical, adaptive, messy space that feels more Zürich West than central Geneva. You can see why it’s been successful here. Again, it gives a range to Geneva that isn’t immediately apparent.

The Monocle Weekly radio show broadcast from Geneva a few months back, in town to cover the motor show (which I missed by a week but would’ve loved to have attended—as a non-driver, I’m strangely fascinated by such things.) They interviewed Pierre Chapuis, one of the city’s urban planners and in charge of a new vision for Geneva in 2020. He outlined all the basics, though noted the particular importance of retaining and raising the number of people living in the centre. This is apparently lower than usual for a European city, perhaps contributing to the somewhat ‘sleepy’ reputation Geneva has. It’s ironic to hear this later, back in Sydney and after LA, as it’s still way higher than most New World cities. There is inherent good sense in Geneva and its kin increasing that number further — there is even more so in later Anglophone cities.

Outside of the radio interview, I can find few of the newer visions for Geneva 2020 online. An earlier competition seems to have run in 2005, though possibly focused on the Praille-Vernets-Acacias area. Perhaps the stand-out work here is by Vincent Callebaut Architects, though we can also see some high-altitude views from Burckhardt + Partners.

Callebaut’s work envisages a “renaturalisation of the landscape” (following the terms in which the LA River is discussed in Varnelis et al, I’m not sure about this “renaturalisation” term; it’s a different kind of urban environment, not “natural” as such, even given the increased presence of flora) as well as a densification of the population. The “abstractions of the geographies and distortions of ecosystems” is somewhat fascinating. This scheme would be a certain candidate for Geoff Manaugh’s ideas of long-forgotten-then-rediscovered-cities in several millennia.

Vincent Callebaut Architects

It’s difficult to get a sense of how exactly such proposals would work within the Geneva I experienced over a couple of days back in February, but it’ll be fascinating to see how it compares to those grand proposals for Paris, which in the case of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners/LSE/Arup at least, also took on the social and civic infrastructure of the city.

Geneva could use a few more architectural experiments threaded through its old refined streets, but the civic and social architecture of the city may be the primary layer to develop now. Harnessing the latent diversity of the city to its glitter and gold would be a finer aspiration for 2020.

Given that, and at very much first glance, the city seems relatively at ease with its diversity nonetheless, which is somewhat remarkable in this setting, and the beautifully graduated urban form of the place is a perfect platform on which to build such an architecture.

Ed. A version of this piece was originally published at on 25 July 2009.


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