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Geneva honoured for revitalising heart of the city

A revamped Batiment des Forces Motrices along Geneva's quayside

(Keystone)

Geneva has been awarded this year's Wakker Prize for its efforts to revitalise the banks of the River Rhône. The theme of this year's award was the relationship between a town and its water.

It's the first time in its history that the prize, worth 20,000 francs, has gone to the birthplace of Henri-Louis Wakker, who created the award. The National Heritage Society praised the city for its project to restore the banks of the Rhône to their former glory, and for involving artists in the renovation work.

"Geneva won the prize because it is trying to bring the Rhône closer to the people, to create a direct contact between the people and the water," says Dominique Baud, of the Geneva branch of the National Heritage Society.

The Rhône, along with the lake, is an integral part of Geneva's identity. Over the centuries it has provided residents with clean water, energy and a means of transportation, and it remains a focal point of the city.

However, many of the 19th-century buildings that line the river have become obsolete, along with the industries that housed them. Instead of leaving them to fall into disrepair, though, the city embarked on an ambitious renovation programme. One project focused on the Forces Motrices building, whose massive water turbines fell silent more than 10 years ago. The structure was renovated and has since became a temporary home for the Grand Theatre, and now plays host to exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events.

But the Fil du Rhône scheme is not really about renovating grand old buildings. Rather it is concerned with reinvigorating an important, but somewhat neglected, part of the city.

"The Rhône has always been a focal point. It's a beautiful public space, but, there aren't many places where you can go and sit and enjoy it," says Valérie Muller of the municipal fund for contemporary art, which commissioned the project.

"We want to create a place of quietness, of pleasure, of relaxation inside the city. In that sense the Rhône is a treasure," she told swissinfo.

The Fil du Rhône programme consists of 12 individual projects. Two have already been completed - the area around the Forces Motrices building and the Promenade des Lavandières, which runs from the Forces Motrices towards the lake.

Five others have been given the go-ahead by the authorities. These are all situated near the lake. They include a sidewalk under the Pont du Mont-Blanc, as well as the renovation of the Place du Rhône, the Pont des Bergues, the Quai des Bergues and the Pont de la Machine. Another five projects are still awaiting approval.

"It's about rehabilitating the river bank and creating a public space. It's not about building something new, but a work of clarification of the space," says Valérie Muller. But she says this is only part of the reason the city won the Wakker Prize.

"One important aspect was the collaboration between the architect, Julien Descombes, and artists, and our fresh look at the relationship between artists and architecture," she said.

"We asked Julien Descombes to work with artists right from the start, instead of calling them in once everything was finished. Part of the project is choosing where there is something special to say and to see about the city. With some of these works, you're not going to be able to see where the work of art starts and where it ends. It's using art as a way of giving sense to the city," Muller says.

This integrated forward-thinking approach clearly went down well with the National Heritage Society, which requires that the prize winner transform a place into a "living area".

"The Swiss National Heritage Society is not only here to protect what already exists. It also likes to promote new ideas. The society really appreciated how artists and architects had been brought together to create something totally new for Geneva," Dominique Baud says.

A model of the Fil du Rhône project will be on display in the municipal arcade on the Pont de la Machine until September 15.

The theme for next year's Wakker Prize is Agglomeration Landscape. It will be awarded to a community that has done good work in exploiting built-up areas.

by Roy Probert


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