February 1, 2009
Pushed into the Limelight
A public archive in Switzerland undergoes a high-visibility renovation.
Public records hold a special place in Switzerland, where each of the country’s 26 cantons is required to operate an archive for building plans, legal documents, and valuable printed artifacts. “They call it the brain of the community,” says Bernd Druffel, an architect at EM2N. Last year his Zurich-based studio renovated and expanded the archive for the Basel-Landschaft canton’s department of building and environmental protection, a project including a double-height visitors’ lobby and library aerie that match looks to intelligence. “The archive has always been a wallflower in the public’s perception,” says Regula Nebiker, a Basel-Landschaft manager. “This change makes old stereotypes disappear.”
The canton didn’t go about its record-keeping obligations very wisely when it constructed its original facility in the 1960s in Liestal. Whereas most Swiss archives are subterranean, in order to protect documents from temperature fluctuations, rain seepage, and UV rays, this canton’s two-story building sits aboveground. By 2000, when EM2N won a competition to design the expansion, the windows of the permeable 14,800-square-foot structure were boarded up with plywood. Because officials were worried about suspending library operations during the renovation, EM2N crafted its addition around the existing T-shaped building, bricking over old windows and transforming it into a three-story rectangular plan totaling 50,600 square feet. Once construction was done, the book stacks stayed where they had always been, and the offices were moved out into the new wraparound space.
The public, previously forced to crowd into a single room, also benefits from the addition. Visitors now arrive via a dramatic double-height entryway with horizontally fluted walls (formed by pouring concrete into a rubber mold). Illuminated strips along the perimeter of the floor and ceiling graze the surfaces with light, accentuating their texture. A central black-painted steel staircase leads to the third floor, which holds a glassy, open-plan library and an exhibition space with views that were previously blocked by a nearby railway. “It allows the public to see back to the city,” Druffel says. It also lets visitors look into the archivists’ transparent offices—the one sexy building feature that has provoked grumbling among staffers, some of whom still seem to prefer a place in the shadows.