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Essays

Nolan Giles on The Value of Design
07.03.22

Essays is a compilation of musings that examine the broad yet impactful role design plays in contemporary life. Leading design writers, commentators and thinkers are invited to contribute an individual perspective – accepting or challenging the notion that design does or should embody greater “value” by drawing on personal experience, expertise and knowledge. Contributors are encouraged to explore design’s influence and application in domestic and commercial settings, across history, culture, politics, and its power to impact all aspects of life from small gestures of the everyday, to the future and sustainability of our planet.⁠

This month we welcome the reflections of Nolan Giles – executive editor of much-loved Monocle magazine. Driven by the ambition to keep an eye and an ear on the world, Monocle curates the global experiences and observations of its wide contributor base across global affairs, business, culture, design and everything in between. Nolan is well versed in reflecting on design in everyday life, where he analyses the shifting landscape of our urban and cultural centres and observes the nuances that make cities great.

Portrait courtesy of Monocle.

The Value of Design by Nolan Giles

Beyond Swiss borders, the idea of its citizens enjoying a well-designed life is unlikely to be the first association one has with the Alpine nation. Yet, it’s good design that enhances more common cultural tropes linked with the Swiss – punctuality, preparedness, secrecy and conscientiousness. Maybe it’s because the Swiss are good at keeping secrets that those who’ve not spent serious time in this country are in the dark about the role smart design plays in everyday life here. But when it comes to punctuality, preparedness and conscientiousness, Swiss cities, homes, offices and public spaces are all carefully constructed to amplify these admirable values.

Oberhornsee, one of the Lauterbrunnen Valley’s most picturesque lakes. Photography courtesy of Stephen Hiltner.

Let’s start in the home, at the breakfast table, which on good weather days, will likely be on a generously proportioned balcony. With cities planned to perfect density in Switzerland and apartment blocks (typically five to seven storeys in height) dotting residential areas – most people live in flats. And most of these flats are blessed with a balcony – of a decent size – which, in my view, is the most underrated room in the home. Pandemic lock-downs put this into perspective in Europe. While many people in cities like London (where developers skimp on balconies in engineering profits for themselves) spent summers baking inside boxed-in abodes, the Swiss comfortably adapted to al-fresco style home-offices on shady balconies.

Of course, it’s doubtful that city planners and property developers in places like Zürich and Bern, 50 or 100 years ago, adopted this housing style to prepare for pandemic-motivated home-working. However, what is true – from then until now – is that there has always been an understanding in Switzerland of the benefit of appreciating the outdoors from your place of residence.

This attitude filters out well beyond the home. Architecture and urban developments are formed here to make the most of the outdoors. This is quickly apparent when boarding an always-on-time tram in a Swiss city and surveying public spaces and how they’re programmed on your journey. Just don’t forget your bathers.

Snow-capped Swiss Alps. Photography courtesy of On / Anne Lutz and Thomas Stöckli.

The tramways of Bern, Switzerland. Photography courtesy of Ian Boyle.

It’s definitely easier to create more enjoyable public spaces when your city is endowed with natural bounties – and Swiss cities sit on some incredible lakes, mountains and rivers. However, the fact that urban design exemplifies the virtues these wonders provide so beautifully, and most importantly, so democratically, points to a national culture of city planning to improve the quality of life for all.

Take a dive from the sunny boardwalk surrounding Zürich’s oldest river bathing club Unterer Letten (a 1909 marvel by architects Fissler and Friedrich) or swim out from Geneva’s modernist man-made peninsular, Bains des Pâquis, by architect Henry Roche and you’ll catch my drift. These places are run for the public’s free enjoyment by the city municipality – and while both examples are old – they show significant investments in architecture and infrastructure for the public good is longstanding here. Well-designed developments for the public continue to pop up in Swiss cities, just look at the renders of the massive tree-laden public forum of the University of Zurich campus, by excellent Basel-headquartered architects Herzog & de Meuron, as proof.

“It’s definitely easier to create more enjoyable public spaces when your city is endowed with natural bounties – and Swiss cities sit on some incredible lakes, mountains and rivers. However, the fact that urban design exemplifies the virtues these wonders provide so beautifully, and most importantly, so democratically, points to a national culture of city planning to improve the quality of life for all.” – Nolan Giles

Bains des Pâquis beach, Geneva. Photography courtesy of Annette Monheim.

Private changing rooms at Bains des Pâquis, Geneva – a rarity for public baths built in the 1930s. Photography courtesy of Annette Monheim.

The much-loved public diving platforms at Bains des Pâquis, Geneva, overlooking the the Jet d’Eau. Photography courtesy of Annette Monheim.

So living in Switzerland is all about being surrounded by good design, but it’s not all about recreation. It’s no surprise that some of the world’s best-designed offices and some of the world’s top office furniture companies (specifically internationally-respected giants Vitra and USM) have arisen here. In the city of Lausanne, staff at the International Olympic Committee’s new headquarters enjoy a timber-laden office, with floors cooled (and heated in winter) from waters being pumped into the building from Lake Geneva. Designed by Danish architects 3XN, it’s a world-beater for setting sustainability standards. It’s proof that brands here bank on good design to draw international talent, let’s not forget this is a nation of only 8.6 million people, with a quarter being foreigners recruited to bolster the economy. In Basel Pharma giant Novartis commissioned a dream team of architects including David Chipperfield, Frank Gehry and Kazuyo Sejima to form its university-campus-like offices on a formerly derelict part of the city. The result is a truly enjoyable and extremely well-equipped environment for scientific innovation.

The International Olympic Committee HQ, Lausanne. Rising rings define a central stair to bring light and connection to each level. Photography courtesy of Adam Mørk.

It’s important to note that everything argued in this essay is bolstered by the fact that Switzerland is a wealthy country. Its economy is propped up by some of the world’s biggest banks, pharmaceuticals companies and luxury good suppliers. However, there’s no doubt that the private sector’s prosperity is helped by good public planning legislation and incredible housing and infrastructure design, all supported by sharp governments. While we don’t need to delve into the politics of it all right now – Switzerland’s ‘direct democracy’ is a key factor here. The model means citizens have a strong say in how their surroundings are shaped (a lot of votes and referendums take place here) which is why the environments they live and work in are so closely tailored to their needs. It’s also why there’s an immense amount of trust in urban design and architecture proposals – as those creating them have to be savvy about what people actually want and need.

Pavillon Le Corbusier, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Franz Grünewald.

Facade of Pavillon Le Corbusier, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Franz Grünewald.

“Switzerland’s economy is propped up by some of the world’s biggest banks, pharmaceuticals companies and luxury good suppliers. However, there’s no doubt that the private sector’s prosperity is helped by good public planning legislation and incredible housing and infrastructure design, all supported by sharp governments.” – Nolan Giles

Finally, it’s worth adding those administering a culture of good design here by actually practising it. Architects, industrial designers and creative talent are educated at top schools such as Lausanne’s ECAL and Zürich’s ETH university, which has an impressive engineering department. Those graduating are using good design ideas to enhance life for those on home soil and far beyond the nation’s borders. Herzog & de Meuron might be the nation’s best known international architecture firm, but there’s a high standard of work being done from firms large and small in Switzerland. Of course, the only way this all can actually be proven is by you – dear reader – making a sojourn to (or a more permanent stay in) Switzerland. It’s a trip I would advise anyone plying their craft in making the places we live more enjoyable, resilient and respectful to the broader public, to take.