A tale of two towns

The housing development "Lot in Uster" is a model of integrating old and new Keystone Archive

The town of Uster in the Zurich suburbs has been awarded this year's Wakker prize, Switzerland's most prestigious award for national heritage protection. While many previous winners, like Stein am Rhein, attract tourists because of their well-preserved old towns, it could take years before Uster's architectural treasures are truly appreciated.

This content was published on June 15, 2001 - 16:23

"The policy of the Swiss Heritage Society has changed," says spokeswoman, Karin Arto. "We look for places with a forward thinking strategy. It's very important that they have a vision for the present and future."

Located in the middle of unspectacular countryside east of Zurich, and lacking any important historical buildings, tourists would be hard pressed to come up with a reason for putting Uster on their travel itinerary.

But with the Wakker prize, the Heritage Society hopes to provide an incentive for towns like Uster to become models of town planning, attractive for residents and businesses, and which could be admired by future generations of tourists.

Respect for older buildings

Arto says Uster has done exemplary work in devising zoning laws, and for its approach to holding architectural competitions.

"They've managed to respect older buildings in the process," she says. "Uster has a very rich industrial heritage but many buildings are no longer used for their original purposes. They've been restored, and used for other functions."

One example is an attractive housing development, integrating a former cotton mill and a canal. The architects decided to build low apartment blocks along the canal, giving Uster a Venetian touch. Bridges link the apartments with small private gardens, and on hot summer days, the canal is transformed into a swimming pool.

The architects also decided to put small hydroelectric turbines back into use. Once used to generate power for the factory, they now provide some of the energy needs of the apartments.

More evidence of Uster's successful efforts to convert industrial buildings is found in the town's former electricity plant, which now houses Switzerland's largest museum dedicated to jazz music.

A former railway depot - one of the first in the country when it was built in 1857 - is being used by a group of nostalgia buffs to renovate steam locomotives.

"So many things are built today and very carelessly, in comparison with a century ago when there was less construction but of a higher quality," adds Arto. "It's our philosophy that what we build today will be the heritage of tomorrow."

Medieval town as model

If they had wanted to, Uster's town planners could well have held up the medieval town of Stein am Rhein as a model.

About an hour north of Zurich, Stein am Rhein, as its name implies, is located on the banks of the River Rhine. Tourism has long replaced river commerce as the main source of income for the town, thanks in part to the Wakker prize.

Stein am Rhein was the first recipient of the prize 29 years ago, which boosted the local economy by drawing more people to the town to admire the colourful frescoes on the buildings in the town square.

"Stein am Rhein was quite poor in the 19th century," explains resident Beatrice Leuthold. "That proved to be a good thing as far as conservation efforts were concerned because people couldn't afford to renovate their buildings, so the facades weren't altered."

Every building in Stein am Rhein tells a story. The "house of the sun" shows Dionysus inside a barrel asking Alexander the Great to move out of the way because he's blocking the sun. Another shows local soldiers returning from battle, and yet another tells of how a local baker helped save the town from Austrian forces.

Most of the buildings in the old town were built between the 13th and 16th centuries by the town's gentry and tradesmen, who had their house front painted to show off their wealth.

Reinvesting in past

Since Stein am Rhein won the Wakker prize, it has been reinvesting in its past as a way of securing its future wealth.

Every year the town authorities dip into their budget to restore old buildings and dig up asphalt sections of the town's streets to replace them with cobblestones.

In some ways, the plan has backfired. "We get very little business from tourists nowadays", says Leo Graf, owner of a local cheese shop. Most visitors, about one million a year, come as part of a bus tour from Germany, and only spend a few hours walking the streets and taking snapshots of the frescoes.

As one measure to counter the trend and attract more overnight guests, officials have built a hotel complete with seminar rooms on the edge of the old town.

The Wakker prize in itself, as Stein am Rhein clearly shows, and Arto admits, is no guarantee of success.

"The Wakker prize is never given to a place that has finished its work, but where there are interesting projects that still have to be implemented."

by Dale Bechtel

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Share this story

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?