The space around government buildings is often fenced off and high security. Not so in Bern where Parliament Square is the most democratic and accessible of spaces.
Farmers sell their produce here, children play in the fountains, political campaigns are launched and activities range from concerts to demonstrations to ice-skating.
The “arranged emptiness” of the parliament square today is a recent innovation; little more than a decade ago this space was a car park. The transformation of the square was completed on July 31, 2004 and the new Parliament Square was unveiled the following day – Swiss National Day.
The winners of the international competition to provide the design were Stephan Mundwiler of lee + mundwiler architects (Basel and Los Angeles) and Stauffenegger+Stutz visual design (Basel).
“Our design solution for the piazza was of that absolute void ... The piazza consists of minimal, but precise architectural elements: stone, light, and water,” Stephan Mundwiler told swissinfo.ch.
The gneiss stone for the surface of the square was quarried from Vals in the Swiss Alps. A band of light symbolically leads people to the parliament. All of the infrastructural elements are hidden below ground “to achieve the aesthetic of absolute minimalism”, including an underground recycling water tank to service water to the jets above.
The project also dealt with extensive security issues due to the immediate proximity of the parliament building and the depository for the Swiss National Bank that is situated on the edge of the square.
The square, celebrating ten years as a public space, captures the essence of the Swiss value of being 'volksnah' – close to the people.
In the words of Joseph Deiss, Swiss president at the time of the inauguration of the square: “The way this plaza was created becomes a model character for Switzerland’s political mainstream. Its emptiness allows for openness in thinking … What our politicians need as well. Let’s use it as a metaphor for a new Switzerland, for a country reaching out to the world.”
(Text: Clare O’Dea, swissinfo.ch; selection of pictures: Christoph Balsiger, swissinfo.ch)