When the Swiss Pavilion was erected in the recently enlarged Biennale Park in 1952, it took its place alongside the other national pavilions in what could already be read as a timeline of 20th-century European architecture. As a latecomer to the series that had to vie for attention with the mature trees of the Giardini, the pavilion was conceived as a study of the relationship between nature and built space extending far beyond the theme of the park or landscape viewed from within. The idea was rather to explore the means by which modern architecture might use the greenery and light of the park to enhance the spatial impact of the pavilion’s interior without impairing the serenity required for the contemplation of art.
Eschewing all the colonnades, plinths, and other manifestations of monumentality with which many of the older and even some of the contemporaneous pavilions sought to pay homage to their country of origin, the project instead sought to generate a mood as light and breezy as the park itself, without any formal paraphrasing and hence, by implication, to present Switzerland as an open and carefree society. The pavilion almost reads like a dictionary of Swiss architecture of that period: It is a fluid, light-flooded interior that derives its impact directly from the materials used to make it, architectural details, sophisticated statics, and gardens. Almost all the schools, garden restaurants, villas, and showrooms being built in Switzerland in those days looked like this.
The design that won the competition was the work of Bruno Giacometti, brother of the famous sculptor and one of a number of Swiss architects who had set out to forge an unspectacular, more “homey” variant of modern architecture to ensure the survival of the modernist heritage through Europe’s darkest years and into the 1950s. Interestingly, Max Bill, the avant-garde painter and sculptor, submitted an almost identical project to the same competition.
The most striking feature of the pavilion is not immediately obvious. Although conceived as an exhibition space for changing collections of art works, the pavilion is essentially a modern art museum in miniature. There is a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery with a sculpture garden, and a much smaller and more intimate connecting gallery for prints and drawings. Each of these spaces handles daylight in a slightly different way, and architectural elements are shaped so as to avoid anything that might detract from the works of art themselves. Giacometti split up the spatial program to create separate volumes, which, in a composition verging on the playful, he then placed underneath the park’s leafy canopy.
The idea was not to camouflage them, but to present them as a loose aggregation of volumes, which blend in with the trees like giant pieces of furniture. Two trees in particular dictated the layout of the pavilion: One was the large tree at the corner of the sculpture garden, which occupies the courtyard as if it, too, were a sculpture; the other was the tree to the right of the main entrance, which the composition as a whole carefully circumvents. Nowhere is the brick wall interrupted by structural elements, and, being “handcrafted,” it is scarcely legible at all, looking more like a natural rocky outcrop that has risen up out of the ground of its own accord and radiates its own earthiness. This effect becomes especially clear when compared with the very different impact made by what is essentially the same construction in the Danish Pavilion opposite. The only sign of a load-bearing structure in the Swiss Pavilion is the row of spindly, bamboo-like pillars leading up to the entrance. These will continue to flank our way even on the inside, where their fragility will help offset the impression of heaviness made by the brick walls and roof. The cubes containing the galleries are like crates shunted together so casually that there are huge gaps between them. They are held together by a series of loosely connected shed roofs, thanks to which the larger gaps—such as the atrium and the entrance to the courtyard—can be left open, allowing the mood and climate of the park to infiltrate deep inside this astonishingly complex structure. Wherever it can, the pavilion seeks dialogue with both park and sky, first and foremost in the poised, bright, concentrated atmosphere of the galleries. Remarkably, it is this same loose arrangement of parts that casually and discreetly pilots the visitor through the building.
Let us commence our tour at the entrance. The entrance hall is no longer as it was originally, when there was a wall to prevent people from walking straight into the connecting gallery, forcing them instead to turn either left into the garden or right into the painting gallery. When the sculpture garden was open for all to see, the dominant role of the park in the architecture could be grasped more readily. The spatial motif with which Giacometti guides people so effortlessly through the pavilion becomes apparent when we enter the painting gallery: After the low ceilings and subdued lighting, our curiosity is aroused by the light-flooded space up ahead, which ultimately will lead back to the park; the result is a continuous ebb and flow of proportions and brightness. Once inside the painting gallery, however, we lose sight of what is outside, since not even trees are allowed to compete with the paintings hung here. What does catch our eye, on the other hand, is the extraordinary intricacy of the roof truss, which supports the skylights in the roof like the crown of a tree that allows us to glimpse patches of sky. The room below, which as a whitewashed cube provides a background that is both as intense and as universal as possible, is thus flooded with daylight, perhaps excessively so for a museum, although the trees have a filtering effect in places, and Giacometti was careful to prevent the paintings on the walls from being exposed to direct sunlight. Nor do the brickwork walls tell us anything of their thickness, their construction, their weight. As massive as its walls are, the room retains the abstract lightness of a stage set. No less remarkable is the filigree steel frame, whose austere rationalism initially makes us think of an iron bridge but on closer inspection reveals a striving for intricacy that allows the roof to rest on the tie beams. When the pavilion first opened, the steel frame was concealed behind lengths of cloth spanned across the ceiling to make for softer, more diffuse light.
Walking the full length of the gallery along its main axis, we eventually catch sight of the connecting gallery along which we are to continue. This is an unconventional rendering of the 19th-century museum with its wide openings leading from room to room. There are no corridors. If we look carefully, however, we will notice the architect’s love of detail even here, whether in the door jambs and the skirting board, or in the pattern made by the air vents in the outer walls, which on the outside echoes that of the brickwork modules. Everything is subordinated to the clarity and serenity of the cuboid room. The connecting gallery, which formerly adjoined an open, atrium-like space, hence providing another allusion to the pavilion’s larger setting, is now the most intimate room in the complex and therefore a safe and sheltered space in which visitors can engage even with small and intricate works of art. Only here did Giacometti risk challenging art with a building material that might likewise claim our attention: the wooden paneling on the outside wall on which the drawings and prints were hung. It was later removed and the gallery whitewashed, however, with the result that it is now too bright for its function as a connecting space. It ends in the abrupt, upward thrust of the sculpture gallery, which surprisingly has a vaulted ceiling and used to be much less brightly lit than it is today, when the ceiling on all three sides rested on narrow light wells. The clerestory glazing in the side walls is a later addition, which regrettably has blurred the carefully calibrated progression from the very bright painting gallery to the diffuse light of the atrium to the soft refracted light bathing the sculptures. The amazing progression of proportions and light that Giacometti used to impel the visitor through the complex has thus been impaired.
The sculpture gallery’s vaulted roof is an especially notable element: A concrete shell no more than a few centimeters thick, it was designed by a famous Swiss engineer, whose solution (building on concrete’s ability to maintain the stability even of thin, self-supporting vaulted roofs) is very much in the tradition of Swiss engineering. To appreciate the sturdiness of this elegant, paper-light construction we need only admire the slimness of the side beams that absorb its downward thrust. The vaulting makes the dome intrinsically stable, at least longitudinally. Where the vaulting comes into its own, however, is in its interaction with the sculpture garden. The park’s infiltration of the sculpture gallery is thwarted by vaulting that flattens out at the back. The sculpture gallery’s architectonic sky with the lightness of a palm frond also arrests the momentum. And once we enter this lovely garden room, we know instantly that this is where the project ends—with nature in the form of a mighty tree providing an exit and pointing out into the park. Seeing this interplay between huge tree and brick wall, we realize that what the architect was searching for was the lightness of a model, a lightness that would allow the works of art to be exhibited in the park itself, as it were, and hence assure them of the central role.
The pavilion’s key theme is recapitulated in the garden: The walls here have a calming effect on the interior space and focus our attention on the art exhibited there, while the view over the walls and through the gaps in between is like peeking over a cemetery wall into the world of nature beyond. In this homage to nature, and in his avoidance of the kind of heavy-handed symbolism to which representative buildings are prone, Giacometti succeeded in producing an elementally valid, almost optimistic image of Switzerland as it was then.