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Architects criticise "malling" of Switzerland

Westside wants to be the gateway to Bern. westside

Leading international architects and urban planners tell swissinfo why Switzerland should not build giant shopping malls on the outskirts of its cities.

This content was published on June 8, 2006 - 08:51

"Whatever Switzerland does it should not make every mistake that was ever made in America," said David Rogers of Los Angeles-based Jerde Partnership.

This was Rogers' response on hearing at a recent architecture symposium in Lucerne that large shopping malls are being built on the peripheries of Zurich, Bern, Lucerne and Fribourg (see related story).

Rogers' comments to swissinfo were even more surprising considering his company was responsible for building the largest shopping centre in the United States, the 390,000 square metre "Mall of America".

"The biggest challenge is not to build shopping centres but work through a way to put relatively large scale shopping within the [town] fabric itself," the director of design at the architecture and urban planning office explained.

Jerde is currently involved in a number of urban development projects designed to rejuvenate North American, European and Asian cities, from Philadelphia and Warsaw to Tokyo.

"There's probably nothing more precious than the European town centre," Rogers said, admitting that suburban shopping malls had "devastated" American cities.

"[The Swiss] will realise very quickly they can hop in their car, go to the shopping centre and in the tenth of the time get what they need and go back home again and completely abandon the centre of the city - and that's very scary."

Scandalous

One of Germany's doyens of architecture and urban planning, Meinhard von Gerkan, called the Swiss projects "scandalous".

Even though the planned malls are not as big (between 73,000 and 220,000m²) as North America's biggest, or come close to the mega-size centres going up in China and Dubai, they are, by small-scale Swiss standards, overwhelming.

Von Gerkan told swissinfo they will have a negative impact on existing city centres, leading to a "loss of values" since the centres will die out as the shops are forced to close or move out to the malls, so no one will feel safe walking the city streets anymore.

"If I had my way, there would be no more shopping centres," said the German architect, whose Hamburg-based company, gmp, did the design for Berlin's just completed central railway station, and is responsible for the master plan of one of Shanghai's satellite cities, Luchao Harbour City.

Joris de van der Schueren, an executive with the real estate arm of the Dutch banking and insurance group, ING, confirmed that large shopping centres, by their very nature, promoted homogeneity.

He said investors wanted to see diversity but were challenged by consumers who, as sales figures showed, do their shopping at relatively few global retail outlets.

"The larger the scale of the project, the more you have to conform," he said of the dominance of the large chains.

Saturated

"The world is saturated with sameness," summed up New York architect Michael Gabellini who designs shops for Georgio Armani. Gabellini said part of the appeal of living in New York was because it still had the "notion of the street, and is still evolving."

The main dissenting voice was that of Swiss architect, Barbara Holzer, involved in two of the Swiss mall projects – EbiSquare outside of Lucerne, and Westside near Bern.

She represents star American architect, Daniel Libeskind, who won the commission to design Westside – due to open in 2008.

"Our society has changed," Holzer said. "We are used to zapping around and changing our surroundings." She argued that every city needed different "options" to retain their appeal for inhabitants and tourists alike, and therefore, the inner cities of Bern and Lucerne were not under threat.

"The historical towns have a given structure – streets and squares, but the new centres offer new urban spaces," she explained. "They are more modern and futuristic, which, if you are used to the historical, can be extremely attractive."

"Westside is not a shopping centre that doesn't interact with the outside world," she added. "It will be extremely European, because there will be an old piazza in front of the railway station, an area for housing, and the centre is being built over the highway so it acts like a gateway to the city, and therefore, reacts to the urban environment."

Paradoxically, she said societal changes had already transformed many Swiss town centres into little more than shopping centres.

"People move outside of the city because of lower taxes and more green spaces, and companies do as well," she said. "So the city centres are becoming like shopping centres. They have shops but the shops are global shops so there's not much diversity left.

"I think to revitalise them you have to bring public life back. You live there, you shop there, and you spend your time there. That's the unique thing about a city that a shopping centre can never be."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Lucerne

Key facts

The architects, urban planners and designers quoted in the article took part in the 2006 edition of the Architecture Talks Lucerne.
This year's theme was "Shopping Miles and More".
The aim of the symposium was to enable leaders in the industry to address architectural and urban issues in an interdisciplinary manner.

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In brief

Westside (Bern)
80,000m²
Planned opening 2008
Cost SFr500 million

EbiSquare (Lucerne)
73,000m²
Planned opening 2011
Cost SFr500 million

Gottéron Village (Fribourg)
220,000m²
Planned opening unknown
Cost SFr600 million

Sihlcity (Zurich)
100,000m²
Planned opening 2007
Cost SFr620 million

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