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All change! A century of design on the move

Can a sign that more than a million people look at every day without a second thought, be hailed as a design classic? The Swiss Museum for Design in Zurich thinks so, and it’s why they have opened an exhibition about the Swiss Federal Railways.

Travellers to Switzerland will have glanced at the many clocks that grace the walls of Swiss railway stations. Along with a set of pictograms in subtly-nuanced primary colours, the symbols combine to create a simple yet robust method of helping people navigate the country’s comprehensive rail network.

The Swiss pride themselves on the punctuality of their trains. Although the day-to-day reality of travelling on the Swiss railway network often gives the country’s sizeable commuter population reasons to grumble, plenty of thought went into the important matter of keeping the trains running on time. 

The Swiss railway station clock was designed by employee and engineer Hans Hilfiker in 1944. He built in a specific mechanism to ensure that all trains in Switzerland left precisely on time. As the train timetable schedules departures by the minute (and not by seconds), he built in a specific mechanism to ensure that all trains in Switzerland would leave punctually. Before a new minute starts, the second hand waits 1.5 seconds before moving again.

Design on a large scale

The Swiss Federal Railways company is one of the country's biggest real estate developers, spending an average of CHF550 million ($558 million) in the design and development of stations and urban areas each year. “Of course, good architecture plays its part. SBB therefore organises architectural competitions. The goal is not only to build buildings of high quality which are functional for decades, but also to create added value”, spokesman Reto Schärli told 

“Important architects built stations even in the 19th century - for example, Zurich main station by Jakob Friedrich Wanner. In the second half of the 20th century, Max Vogt shaped the image of many railway buildings with his clear formal language”.

In more recent times, world-renowned architects like Herzog & de Meuronexternal link, and Santiago Calatravaexternal link have created designs for the Federal Railways. But the welter of investment in areas owned by the Federal Railways hasn’t always been applauded. Extensive changes to an area close to Zurich’s main station prompted claims of unwelcome gentrification as luxury flats filled a high-rise building flanking the railway lines.

Because rail travel features so prominently in Switzerland’s culture, in the 1990s the Swiss government decided that the Swiss national flag should have exactly the same shade of red as the background of the double arrow and swiss cross logo, which appears on the sides of locomotives and at Swiss train stations. The Federal Railways’ designs have won several awards over the years such as the Brunel Awardexternal link.

The Swiss Museum for Designexternal link, located in the same city as the country’s busiest railway station, now wants to make people look twice at the designs that have stood the test of time.

The Swiss Museum for Design (Museum für Gestaltung) in Zurich is showing photos and drawings of architectural and industrial designs along with poster and video installations from the Swiss Federal Railways. The exhibition runs until January 5, 2020.

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