Fachhochschule Sihlhof, Zurich


The indivisibility of architecture is what constitutes its nature and its quality. But to make it understandable and suitable as a subject of discussion it has to be divided up into themes such as, for instance, the Vitruvian trinity “firmitas”, “utilitas” and “venustas”. With the terms “topology”, “typology” and “tectonics”, architecture theorist Kenneth Frampton offers further useful and informative categories. This triad corresponds with our way of looking at things and our approach to the design process. It also forms the background to the teaching work we have carried out. However, as these terms are very universal, they do not refer to specific architectural interests. Such interests emerged in the foreground only through numerous designs and buildings. Over the course of time they were defined by the terms “ambivalent typologies” and “powerful spaces” and were pursued further. They are “bridging” terms, as each of them mediates between two of Frampton’s categories. The term “ambivalent typologies” includes a confrontation between typology and topology, while “powerful spaces” deals with questions between typology and tectonics. From this personal viewpoint it was surprising to rediscover well-known and inspiring works of architectural history that pursue similar themes and have related characteristics.

Karl Moser, Hauptgebäude Universität Zürich 1908–1914, Quelle: Universitätsarchiv Zürich um 1914 / Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, Auditorium Building 1887–1889, in: Richard Nickel Committee (Hg.), The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, Chicago 2010, S. 363

Ambiguous typologies

The term “ambiguous typologies” has at least two meanings that include the “gestalt” and the external form of a building in the city, as well as typology as the internal organization of the building. The “gestalt” creates urban references, interprets the dominant scale at a place, questions or confirms it. Today, in many building commissions in an urban setting ambiguity is of interest as regards integrating a building in or distinguishing it from the setting and it also offers an advantage in terms of finding an appropriate approach between solitaire buildings and regular developments. As a way of developing the city further at specific places and responding suitably to heterogeneous developments, pure and simple typologies are, at times, an inadequate approach to a solution. Due to social developments as regards internal organization also pure building types can only rarely meet the new and diverse needs of a building commission today. In contrast simple spaces such as the courtyard, arcade or hall remain useful, but they must repeatedly be reinterpreted. There is, additionally, an increasing need for building types that, alongside a stable primary structure, also have a secondary structure that is changeable in the long-term.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson Wax Corporation Building Racine Wisconsin USA 1939, Quelle: HABS – Historic American Buildings Survey of Wisconsin / Henri Petrus Berlage, Quelle: architectuur centrum amsterdam, Photo: Yukio Yosimura

Powerful spaces

The term “powerful spaces” means spaces and spatial figures with design qualities that create identities. The neologism “Raumfigur” (“space-figure”) contains a paradox in that, while space describes emptiness figure suggests an object, making the words initially seem irreconcilable. In concrete terms we are interested in public sequences of space, circulation spaces or larger functional spaces that extend over several storeys and characterize the internal world of a building. In contrast to the “Raumfluss” (spatial flow) of modernism, where space extends unlimited, “Raumfigur” means a delineated inner emptiness. To allow the enclosed emptiness to exert an effect and to increase its significance, it must, for the most part, be surrounded by mass in the sense of the classic “poché”. The structure can here be an important part of the space, which is developed in an interdisciplinary way with the structural engineer and directly or indirectly becomes part of the spatial design. The spatial order is always three-dimensional. The section then becomes a formative means of design. “Powerful spaces” create internal identity, relationships and informal communication among users, and they can, in the long term, impress themselves on the memory.

Höhere Fachschule für Tourismus Academia Engiadina 1994–1997, Photo: Heinrich Helfenstein / Musikhaus Kraftzentrale vonRoll-Areal Bern 2010—2018, Photo: David Willen


These architectural themes were examined constantly. On the occasion of a lecture in the Architekturforum Zürich in February 1977 the architecture critic Christoph Bürkle described the first buildings in the NZZ as “alienated typologies”. At the first exhibition of the projects, which was held in the ETH Zürich in 2006, and in the publication “Giuliani Hönger dreidimensional” that accompanied it, architecture theorist Jacques Lucann used the term textured spatiality in speaking about the spatial concept of the Fachhochschule Sihlhof. The themes ambiguity, spatial figures and physicality were explored, using four projects, at the exhibition in Galerie Aedes Berlin in 2010 and in the publication “Schnittwerk”. The title of this publication also expresses the notion of designing by means of cross-section (Schnitt), using sectional models and plans. Not least importantly, during a guest professorship at the EPFL in Lausanne from 2013 to 2015 these themes were introduced into teaching under the term powerful spaces and were published in “Powerful Spaces/ Starke Räume” by Quart Verlag in 2016. Finally, the themes were discussed once again at the conference MATTER. The white conferences in October 2018 at the School of Architecture in Porto FAUP, using comparisons of historical buildings with our own works as basis.

These principal themes link numerous works. However, in the individual projects they were augmented by further interests, which as so-called “Leitmotiv” help in making design decisions at all levels. These specific “Leitmotiv” are developed through disciplinary dialogue with all office partners and often also in an interdisciplinary way with other inspiring planning partners.

Fachhochschulzentrum St.Gallen, Schichtenriss

The section: A design instrument

On all levels of scale, and therefore in all three categories described by Frampton, we regard the section as a key means of presentation and design (see article in archi, “La sezione come strumento di progettazione”). On the level of “topology”, sections can be used to examine the project’s relationship with the urban volumes, open spaces and landscape. On the level of “typology”, sectional sketches and models serve to create sectional figures, spatial sequences and interior relationships (see the Sihlhof sectional model). On the level of “tectonics”, we developed our own, new way of presenting structures in 2010 for the exhibition Schnittwerk at the Galerie Aedes in Berlin. An example of this technique is presented here with the FHS St. Gallen University of Applied Sciences. The presentation method displays the project’s most meaningful sectional view at a 1:10 scale of detail, as if the air or the spatial content had been sucked out of it. This creates an exciting paradox: the individual physiognomy of the project becomes legible from a distance using the overall sectional view, while the project’s individual details remain recognisable at close range and are precisely located, without undermining the overall interconnections. The details are presented with the usual shading (SIA 400, Planbearbeitung im Hochbau, 2000 edition), but are neither scaled nor labelled. Using this sectional presentation, it is possible to create an aesthetic and unusually characteristic portrait of the building, despite the technical and structural insight it provides.