A new exhibition showcases the Swiss Riviera's modernist heritage
EPFL’s Modern Architecture Archives Department (ACM) presents an exhibition illustrating the key role that the Lake Geneva region played in the development of modern architecture in the 20th century.
EPFL’s Modern Architecture Archives Department (ACM) has put together a unique event illustrating the key role that the Lake Geneva region played in the development of modern architecture in the 20th century. The exhibition is called “Habiter la modernité. Villas de style international sur la Riviera vaudoise” (“Living in Modernity. International Style villas in the Swiss Riviera”) and is being held in association with EPFL’s Archizoom exhibit hall and L’Atelier De Grandi Museum in Corseaux.
The goal is to trace the influence that a collection of villas built in Vaud between 1920 and 1940 had on architectural trends. Some of the houses reflect innovative experiments by pioneering architects such as Le Corbusier, Henri-Robert Von der Mühll and Alberto Sartoris. Those who commissioned their work were often rich and well-educated and didn’t shy away from trying out the bold new designs of the time.
The De Grandi house and painting studio, which hosts the exhibition, is itself an example of the “international style” that the event aims to showcase. Commissioned by painter Italo De Grandi, the villa was built by Italian architect Alberto Sartoris in 1939. De Grandi’s two sons converted it into a museum in 2017 to display works by their father as well as their uncle, Vincent De Grandi, and other Swiss artists.
The exhibition will run from 6 September to 29 November 2018. The ACM Department sees it as an opportunity to introduce a new approach and to spark research into the architectural heritage of French-speaking Switzerland. We spoke with Salvatore Aprea, Head of the ACM and the exhibition curator, about the vision behind the event.
How would you describe the “international style” being presented at the exhibition?
I chose to focus the exhibition on the international style of architecture, a term coined by American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1929. The word “international” refers to the fact that the style developed simultaneously in several countries – including Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany – in the 1920s. The style’s hallmark features include a focus on harmonious spaces rather than axial symmetry, the use of large surfaces to envelop spaces, and an absence of outside embellishments. This was a sharp contrast to the eclectic style popular at the time, which characterized much of late 19th-century architecture.
Why were so many international-style villas built in the Lake Geneva region?
Between 1920 and 1940, our region offered modern architects a place to test out new ideas. They were commissioned by wealthy patrons to build villas that responded to contemporary criteria for construction, comfort and design. These architects used novel materials like concrete and steel and advanced building methods – or they used conventional materials but created new forms and spatial compositions. Our region was a hotbed of avant-garde thinking not just by architects, but also publishers, painters and writers – all of whom helped modernize local society through contemporary architecture and art. However, some of them, especially artists, had to keep their villa-construction plans under wraps. Many designs were developed but not all of the villas were actually built, which is why we wanted to include the ACM’s archives in the exhibition, so as to show how the international style expanded over the two decades. We decided to focus on Vaud, but there are some other international-style villas elsewhere in the region, especially in Geneva.
How is the exhibition structured?
Chronologically, starting with the Le Lac villa that Le Corbusier built for his parents in Corseaux in 1924. This villa was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016. The exhibition also ends in Corseaux with De Grandi’s house and painting studio, registered as Historical Monument. Drawings by Lausanne architects Henri Robert von der Mühll and Jacques Favarger show how new construction methods emerged in the late 1920s. One example is Favarger’s and Charles Dubois’ design for a “standard villa” – never built – that combined standardized industrial production methods with high-quality architecture. Contemporary approaches spread throughout the 1930s, and Lausanne architect René Bonnard even opened his 1935 villa to the public so they could “experience” modern architecture.
What will this exhibition bring to the ACM?
It gives us a chance to extend our reach beyond EPFL and opens new doors for research into modern architecture in French-speaking Switzerland. It lets us reveal another facet of Switzerland between the First and Second World Wars. Architects from our region studied in Paris and Berlin, and some patrons commissioned foreign architects. So our region became more international rather than isolated over that period, contrary to the image that a lot of people have of this being a highly rural and conservative area. This cultural heritage is just as much a part of Swiss identity as anything else. Our role is to remind people of that and showcase this extraordinary architecture.
Habiter la modernité. Villas de style international sur la Riviera vaudoise [Living in Modernity. International Style Villas in the Swiss Riviera], 6 September to 29 November 2018, L’Atelier De Grandi Museum, Corseaux
Preview on 5 September 2018, by invitation only. Exhibition will also be open during the 2018 European Heritage Days on 1 & 2 September.
Project team: Salvatore Aprea (head of EPFL’s Modern Architecture Archives Department and exhibition curator), Pierre and François De Grandi, Cyril Veillon (Head of Archizoom), Joëlle Neuenschwander Feihl, Barbara Galimberti and John-Alexandre Favre.