On Common Ground. Spatial Development in Suburban Regions and in the Alps since 1945

A book review by Dragos Dascalu

In the Architecture Series

Histories of cities, urbanism and architecture will generally present you totalizing, conceptualized views about the development of cities, highlighting extraordinary city development examples. In Ulrich Görlich and Meret Wandler’s book however, there is nothing extraordinary. Or, better said, what makes On Common Ground extraordinary is that it shows the shaping of the ordinary, common, everyday environment, in the last 60 or so years. All of the main moments of 20th century urbanism are present throughout the 240 photographs: the rapid industrialization of suburban regions, touristic resort development, expansion of road and railroad infrastructure, the 70’s energy crisis and the downfall of the industrial cities during the 80s, the reinvention of cities through tourism, commerce and services, and the development of urban sprawl. But neither of these moments are shown through the huge interventions carried: the building of highways, the great factories, large residential developments, etc. On Common Ground is about the shaping of the ordinary and the everyday in an extraordinary period of city development.

Schlieren, rolling stock factory Schweizerische Wagons- und Aufzügefabrik Schlieren (SWS), 1949. Photo: SWS/Schindler AG
Schlieren, rolling stock factory Schweizerische Wagons- und Aufzügefabrik Schlieren (SWS), 1949. Photo: SWS/Schindler AG
Silser flood plain and Sils-Baselgia. Photo: Andreas Pedrett/© Max Galli/Documental Library St. Moritz
Silser flood plain and Sils-Baselgia. Photo: Andreas Pedrett/© Max Galli/Documental Library St. Moritz

The book shows 250 photographs, organized in a chronological order starting from 1945. The images are collected from very different sources: local government offices, building companies, local and national newspapers, publishers of postcards, cultural heritage societies, and amateur photographers. Most times we are not dealing with professional, constructed images, but very specific instances of daily life, as seen by other type of professionals. This is one of the reasons for which the images quickly shift in focus from streets to neighborhoods, from aerial images to pictures of small gas stations on the side of the highway. Also, it is one of the reasons for which the story by itself could be hard to follow. There is no commentary, only a description of location, sometimes without a clear focus of the photo on a specific object. Not even the picture format unites the volume. Most images differ in size, adding to the heterogeneous character of the study. The only constant is that is shows a parallel development. Each page contains two photographs. On top, there is always a picture of Schlieren (and the Limmatal Valley in general). Below, the Upper Engadine area near St.Moritz.

Schlieren, Zürcherstrasse, intersection Engstringerstrasse, Restaurant Lilie. Photo: Paul Furrer/Association for Local History Schlieren
Schlieren, Zürcherstrasse, intersection Engstringerstrasse, Restaurant Lilie. Photo: Paul Furrer/Association for Local History Schlieren
Plaun da Lej. Photo: Max Wagner/Montabella Foto + Verlag (photography and publishing company)
Plaun da Lej. Photo: Max Wagner/Montabella Foto + Verlag (photography and publishing company)

The city of Schlieren, near Zurich, presents us a familiar story. A former farming village quickly develops due to a process of accelerated industrialization. The photos take us through the redevelopment of the city center, low rise and high rise residential developments, densification of the urban tissue, larger roads, building of the regional hospital, and the building of more and more industrial facilities in the city or at its outskirts. After the crisis of the 70s and the downfall of major industries, more and more abandoned industrial facilities appear. The reinvention of the city, starting with the 90s, targets former industrial facilities, which are beginning to be converted, redeveloped into residential, service or business areas. Alongside the reinvention of the city’s profile comes a hygienic take in the redevelopment of public spaces and the city center. A clean, neat and orderly image presents itself now, with some remnants of the cities’ rural history.

Schlieren, Uitikonerstrasse, intersection Zürcherstrasse. Photo: Paul Furrer/Association for Local History Schlieren
Schlieren, Uitikonerstrasse, intersection Zürcherstrasse. Photo: Paul Furrer/Association for Local History Schlieren
St. Moritz, Garage Mathis, Via Somplaz, 1962. Photo: Andrea Pitsch AG Bauunternehmung (construction firm)
St. Moritz, Garage Mathis, Via Somplaz, 1962. Photo: Andrea Pitsch AG Bauunternehmung (construction firm)

The Upper Engadine area around St.Moritz was and still is one of the main tourist attractions of Switzerland. Its beautiful landscape, the mineral waters, the skiing slopes make it one of the main tourist destinations for the winter. We witness here, through the photos presented, the rise of mass tourism and its effect on the landscape. A common problem that came with the development of mass tourism, if we think of the Costa Iberica, and of coastal developments in general but also ski resorts, especially in the Alps, is the constant urbanization of natural landscapes. Nature, in general, has no chance in the face of profit. The urban sprawl and the development of infrastructure tames the natural landscape and urbanizes it. But just as the sprawl begins to grow, and the limits of the city the outskirts are continuously expanding, the city center tries to maintain most of its charm and attraction. History is more profitable than nature. The city center public spaces are always better designed than in Schlieren, while the buildings try to maintain the rural atmosphere, images of the constructed identity of the area. While the city is becoming more and more gentrified, its relative few permanent residents (compared to the huge number of temporary residents), are forced to move towards the sprawling suburbs. This is one of the prices of keeping our city centers neat and orderly, and thus attractive and profitable, and again, this is an all too common story across Europe.

Schlieren, Migros high rise Kesslerplatz, Badenerstrasse, ca. 1974. Photo: Hans Bachmann/Association for Local History Schlieren
Schlieren, Migros high rise Kesslerplatz, Badenerstrasse, ca. 1974. Photo: Hans Bachmann/Association for Local History Schlieren
St. Moritz. Photo: Ch. Perret/Tourist Board/Documental Library St. Moritz
St. Moritz. Photo: Ch. Perret/Tourist Board/Documental Library St. Moritz

On Common Ground thus presents us with a common story for most West European cities. But what makes Ulrich Görlich and Meret Wandler’s book about the development of our common environment extraordinary is that is shows the transformation of our daily lives, transformations which are seldom documented or even consciously acknowledged. Roads, houses, streets, hotels, are presented through ordinary photos, not through the well-constructed and composed photos of architectural magazines. As Christian Schmid argues in the closing article, Images of Urbanization in Switzerland, letting the frame slip, “showing us things that were supposed to be hidden from view: power lines, tram tracks, cables, street lamps, and such like, or in which motifs such as construction sites, signs or billboards, which would not normally be deemed worthy of a photograph, end up in the center of the picture” [Christian Schmid, Images of Urbanization in Switzerlandin: Ulrich Görlich, Meret Wandeler, On Common Ground. Schlieren – Upper Engadine Photographs of Spatial Development in Subruban Regions and in the Alps since 1945, Zurich: Scheidegger&Spiess (2012), p. 164.]. Exposing the unseen, revealing the common, acknowledging the ordinary – this should be a common exercise for all cities.

Schlieren, allotment garden grounds Im Rohr, 1986. Photo: Hans Bachmann/Association for Local History Schlieren
Schlieren, allotment garden grounds Im Rohr, 1986. Photo: Hans Bachmann/Association for Local History Schlieren
Corviglia, aerial cableway Corviglia–Piz Nair. Photo: Max Wagner/Montabella Foto + Verlag (photography and publishing company
Corviglia, aerial cableway Corviglia–Piz Nair. Photo: Max Wagner/Montabella Foto + Verlag (photography and publishing company
Schlieren, Rietbach area, Brandstrasse, grounds of the former dyeing mill, 2008. Photo: Christian Beutler/Neue Zürcher Zeitung (daily newspaper)
Schlieren, Rietbach area, Brandstrasse, grounds of the former dyeing mill, 2008. Photo: Christian Beutler/Neue Zürcher Zeitung (daily newspaper)
Salastrains, finish area Alpine Skiing World Championships, 2003. Photo: Andy Müller/freshfocus
Salastrains, finish area Alpine Skiing World Championships, 2003. Photo: Andy Müller/freshfocus
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