Zurich hosts a world timber first

The media group Tamedia has unveiled its new seven-storey wooden headquarters in the heart of Zurich, said to be the tallest building of its kind in the world. Japanese star architect Shigeru Ban relied heavily on Swiss timber expertise.

This content was published on August 27, 2013 minutes
Kuniko Satonobu in Zurich,

The first thing you see when you enter the building, which is situated along the river Sihl, is the massive wooden columns, an imposing yet elegant presence. Further inside, there are columns placed closely together in a style evocative of Japanese temples.

Ban, who faced no competition to win the contract, had to fulfil three criteria set out by Tamedia chairman Pietro Supino: a pleasant working environment, durability and reasonable costs.

“I thought that wood would be perfect for this project,” said Ban, who is famous for his cardboard structures and striving to minimise waste. He also underlined the important role played by Swiss timber construction engineer Hermann Blumer in the Zurich project. What is innovative about this building?

Shigeru Ban: What’s new is that an office building of this importance, seven storeys high, has been made out of wood. It’s not only the first time that this has been done in Switzerland, it’s a world first. I was absolutely astonished that it could be built without any major regulatory problems in Switzerland. This would just not have been possible in Japan.

Using wooden structural columns instead of concrete ones was one of my key project aims. I also wanted to use wood for the beams and joints. The special shapes needed for the beams could only be made of wood because of its flexibility.

The Tamedia chairman asked me to create a ‘pleasant working environment’, so that was another reason for choosing wood. This kind of building gives you a sense of calm and peace, as if you were at home or in a chalet.

External Content The building includes an intermediary space which can serve as a relaxation area.

S.B.: I created an intermediary space with stairs and meeting areas. You can open the windows in these areas so that it’s as if you are outside, breathing in fresh air, close to the river.

Journalists can leave their enclosed and air-conditioned space and relax. This space is not only important from a psychological point of view, it is also good for saving energy.

Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo in 1957. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York

1982: worked for Arata Isozaki in Tokyo

1985: established his private practice in Tokyo

1995-2000: consultant at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

1995: established the NGO Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN), a voluntary network of architects working on humanitarian projects

2000-2006: member of the jury for the prestigious Pritzker Prize

Currently Professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design

He has won numerous prizes, including: Grande Médaille France, Académie d’Architecture (2004), Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture (2005), l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France (2010), Auguste Perret Prize (2011).

Among his main works are: Curtain Wall House (1995), Paper House (1995), Furniture House (1995), Japan Pavilion Hannover Expo 2000, Nicolas G. Hayek Center – Tokyo, Japan (2007), Centre Pompidou Metz (2010).

End of insertion You keep saying that this is a very Swiss building. Why?

S.B.: It was Swiss timber technology, which is the most advanced in the world, that made this building possible. More specifically, in Switzerland you find expert engineers as well as the highest quality wood products. Plus there are computer-controlled 3D woodworking machines. You have often mentioned your fortunate meeting with the engineer Hermann Blumer.

S.B.: We got on very well from the first moment we met and started to work together straightaway. Without him the Centre Pompidou at Metz in France and the Tamedia project in Zurich would not have been possible. I design everything, but he analyses the shape and thinks about the manufacturing process.

I first worked with a British engineer at the Centre Pompidou but he couldn’t realise my design. When I showed exactly the same design to Hermann, he said ‘I can do it exactly like that’. I was very happy about that.

We have managed to mutually exploit our potential and we’re going to collaborate on another project for the Swatch group in Biel. What are wood’s advantages, in environmental terms?

S.B.: First, a timber construction site makes a lot less noise than a metal or concrete one.

CO2 emissions are a lot less for the wood manufacturing process than for metal (a third) or concrete (half). Wood is the only renewable material, whereas concrete and metal are limited materials which will one day disappear altogether.

Furthermore, the comparative calculation on how quickly trees grow and how much wood is used is very low, especially in Europe. Therefore, so long as we keep planting trees, and use them in a planned way, wood will continue to be a fantastic building material. But people think of a fire risk with wood.

S.B.: Actually wood doesn’t burn that easily. Wood does catch fire straightaway, that’s true, but thick wood can’t burn through so easily. The wood’s surface, once charred, protects the inside of the element.

For the Tamedia building we first of all calculated how thick the wood should be. Then we added around four centimetres which could be burned away during a fire but which would protect the interior of the wooden pieces. You have often said that you try to produce works which people like. What do you mean by that?

S.B.: If people don’t like a building, it will never become ‘durable and permanent’. But if you construct a temporary building, like you do after earthquakes, and people like it, it stays.

For example: a concrete commercial building will continue to be a temporary one because another real estate agent will buy it and simply pull it down to build another one.

In 1995, I built a church out of cardboard paper tubes after the earthquake in Kobe. This temporary place of prayer was at first rejected by the priest, but the people really took to it. This ‘paper church’ is now loved all around the world and has become a permanent building.

If people love the Tamedia building, it’ll be there in the long term.

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