A controversial new cantonal fine arts museum project in Lausanne is giving rise to heated local debate. Voters in canton Vaud will now decide on its fate.
On Wednesday opponents of the SFr68 million ($65.8 million) new museum, planned to be built on the shores of Lake Geneva, handed in almost 18,000 signatures to force a local ballot on November 30.
The current cantonal fine arts museum is housed alongside other cultural institutions in the cramped Renaissance-style Palais de Rumine building in central Lausanne. Limited exhibition space means that only five per cent of the rich collection is visible at any one time.
The first suggestion of creating a new museum to house its collections dates back to 1926; this idea – and local opposition - has regularly resurfaced since then.
In 2005 an international jury voted in favour of a project by Zurich architects Berrel Wülser Kräutler, which proposed a large modern museum to be built between Ouchy and Vidy close to the Bellerive swimming pool, overlooking the lake.
"There has been a real mobilisation of citizens," Isabelle Chevalley, head of the action committee contesting the new project, told the Swiss news agency after the 18,000 signatures were handed in.
Those challenging the new museum say they want to preserve the lakeshores and keep cultural activities in the centre of Lausanne.
The campaign group is led by the founder of the Swiss Film Archive – or Cinémathèque - Freddy Buache, the former director of the Museum of Art Brut in Lausanne, Michel Thévoz, and Swiss environmentalist Franz Weber.
According to Thévoz, the site chosen for the new museum deprives the centre of town of a major institution, while most European cities are doing the exact opposite and keeping or building new museums in their centres.
Supporters of the project include local artists, architects and heads of cultural institutions, such as Yvette Jaggi, former president of the Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, graphic artist Werner Jeker and president of Lausanne's Federal Institute of Technology, Patrick Aebischer.
For Anne-Catherine Lyon, Vaud councillor and head of Vaud cultural affairs, Thévoz's argument doesn't hold water. She cites the examples of the successful Beyeler Foundation on the outskirts of Basel and the Guggenheim Foundation, which helped develop an outlying suburb of Bilbao in northern Spain.
"By talking about centre and outskirts, the opponents have a completely old-fashioned vision of towns which have evolved into several centres," Lyon told swissinfo.
She also pointed out that Lausanne's lakeshores are the sites of many other important cultural institutions, including the Elysée Photography Museum, Vidy Theatre and the Olympic Museum.
"With the feasibility grant we can improve mobility along the lake and develop an overall strategy for that area," Lyon claimed.
Lausanne – the Olympic capital – is a small city with big ambitions. It is currently putting the finishing touches to a SFr700-million underground metro system – the M2 - that will climb from the lake at Ouchy to the woody hills above the city near Epalinges in just 20 minutes. It is also implementing a huge ten to 15-year "Métamorphose" urban development project, which includes new housing, transport and sports facilities.
The opponents believe they now have the wind in their sails.
Environmentalist Franz Weber welcomed this "extraordinary" result.
A large number of Vaud residents do not want "this pile of concrete" which "will eat up the lakeside, obstruct the view of the lake and wipe out this precious place where people walk, meet, play and swim", he said.
The supporters now have quite a tough task ahead of them to try to convince voters during the holiday period and run-up to the election. But they were trying to remain optimistic on Wednesday.
"The local government will get behind this campaign resolutely," said Lyon.
And Daniel Brélaz, Lausanne's mayor, said he wanted to scotch misleading arguments.
"To say that you can build a fine arts museum at the Place de la Riponne [in central Lausanne] is pure trickery and illusion," he told 24Heures newspaper.
swissinfo, Simon Bradley
A rich collection
The current cantonal fine arts museum is housed alongside other cultural institutions in the Renaissance-style Palais de Rumine building in central Lausanne.
Its collections contain about 8,400 works of art, but owing to limited exhibition space, only five per cent of the collection is visible at any one time.
Private collectors were behind the original idea to create the museum in 1841 and subsequent moves to enrich the collection.
Part of the collections gives a general overview of art history from ancient Egypt to modern day. The museum is best known for its collection of work from the second half of the 18th century to the post-Impressionists, with several major works from the first half of the 20th century. There is a large collection of figurative paintings.
The museum has major works by Vaud artists Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros (1748-1810), Charles Gleyre (1806-1874), Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) and Louis Soutter (1871-1942).