I am at the private view of The Memory of the Future at Musée Elysée, a photography museum in Ouchy, the lakeside port of Lausanne. In the grounds of the Musée’s handsome 18th century mansion, a folk band is playing while visitors sip wine. Sitting atop the steps of the mansion’s tiered garden, I look down to Lake Geneva and beyond to the spring water town of Évian-les-Bains in France. Just a little further back stand the Alps, haloed with a just a wisp of cloud. I can’t imagine ever being tired of this view. Judging by the number of people strolling up to take iPhone photographs, it’s one that people from the region seldom tire of either.
Yet this event will be one of the last. After two decades, Musée Elysée is moving. And it’s not moving alone – the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (Mcb-a) and the Musée de Design et d’Artes Appliqués Contemporains (Mudac), both situated in historical premises in Lausanne’s old town, are also relocating. All three museums are to move to a pair of new buildings constructed atop a recently disused train depot adjacent to the city’s central station, in one of the few unlovely areas of the town centre. This plan, preliminarily dubbed the Pôle Muséal, has now been launched as Plateforme 10. Sponsored by the City of Lausanne, the Canton of Vaud, and the Swiss Federal Railways, it is a cultural development project of unprecedented scale for the country.
Perched in the gardens of the Elysée, you might lament the passing of this gilded place. You could decry a triumph of functional modernisation over the charm of the old, of icon building for the sake of building, of the destruction of time-settled fabric of the old European city. In this case you would be wrong on all three points.
The Musée Elysée boasts a collection of over 100,000 photographs, ranging from early experiments to contemporary art; since 2011, they have owned Charlie Chaplin’s entire personal collection of photography. Their present base, though prepossessing from without, is simply too small to show more than a fragment of these resources. It’s also inconveniently located in Ouchy, a 20-minute walk from the centre of town. This may not seem particularly far, but in Lausanne distances can deceive.
Sitting at the southern edge of the Swiss plateau as it slopes down towards the lake, Lausanne grew around the River Flon, whose valley was filled in the nineteenth century. These two features, natural and manmade, conspire to create a city of precipitous inclines. From Ouchy, Lausanne goes up, and up, and up; this is a place with outdoor escalators. The M2 automated metro line, which opened in 2008, has diagonally-slanted tracks and platforms. As you ascend the line through the town centre, each stop presents a new elevation, a segment of the city you hadn’t encountered before. “The women of Lausanne,” says Chantal Prud-Hom, Mudac director and leader of the Plateforme 10 project, “are said to have the finest legs in Switzerland.” After a single ascent I feel like I might well be on my way. Add a bewildering medieval street plan atop this topography, and you have a city that can be gruelling for visitors to traverse.
The Mcb-a stands towards the top of the pile, on the mercifully flat Place de le Riponne. Approaching from the winding alleys below, the square’s architectural hodgepodge can’t diminish the joy of the open sky. Dominating the Eastern flank is the Palais du Rumine, a hulk of neo-Renaissance pomp built between 1892 and 1904 as a millionaire’s gift to the public. It would serve as a fine home for a major municipal gallery.
As the home of five separate museums and a university library, however, it’s more than a little strained. The Mcb-a possesses one wing, with three large chambers and a handful of smaller ones. Given the museum’s remit to host temporary exhibitions – future shows include the first retrospective of Piero Manzoni in the country, and specially commissioned works by Ai Weiwei – the 10,000 painting-strong collection is largely kept in storage. Two foundations hosted by the museum – the Fondation Felix Vallotton, of the eponymous Swiss painter, and the Fondation Toms Pauli, of historic tapestries and contemporary textile art – suffer from the same constraints.
You have to go even higher to reach the Mudac, to the oldest part of town. Like the Elysée and the Mcb-a, it’s based in a historic building, in this case one created in the 17th century by fusing pre-existing houses into a single imposing residence. The main exhibition on display during my visit, Safe and Sound, is the sort of show that the best smaller galleries excel at: a thrifty combination of artworks and design objects by established practitioners and recent graduates, intelligently curated into thematic clusters.
Although the Mudac does have the space to show a healthy chunk of its contemporary glass sculpture collection, the building’s ramshackle nature makes it inherently unsuited to showing design objects. The staircases and doors are too narrow to carry large items that cannot be dissembled; small thematic exhibitions have to be divided across separated rooms. The Mudac’s site, next to Lausanne’s hulking gothic cathedral, is breathtaking, but – perhaps the most of all three museums – it was trapped in a building unfit for purpose.
It was a stroke of luck when the patch of land next to the train station became available in 2009. As well as being located next to the city’s main public transport hub, the former depot had the advantage of being on a flat plot, a rarity in central Lausanne. The planning process was not without its hiccups. Switzerland’s decentralised governance – the country is officially a “confederation” of cantons – and stridently democratic system makes it relatively easy for members of the public to delay development projects. In Britain, NIMBYism is often viewed as a scornful joke; in Switzerland, it is built into the constitution.
A more troubling critique was that the project would require the destruction of the pre-existing depot structures. Though the train sheds were hardly architectural masterpieces, they were a significant part of the city’s infrastructural heritage. Built in 1911 and expanded in 1964, they also offered the sort of large-scale, functional location favoured by contemporary art galleries. Might they not refit the sheds, creating something akin to a more modest Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof or Paris’ Musee d’Orsay? This option was jettisoned – overcoming the constraints of old buildings was the driving force of the project, and it would make it difficult to create a public space between the museums – although the British gallery-specialists Caruso St. John submitted a plan for Mcb-a to use the existing structure. Trapped in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Swiss federal and cantonal judicial system, it took until 2014 for the Pôle Muséal to be approved.
When I visited last month, constructed had finally begun. The depot has been cleared, though a series of archways built into the hillside retaining wall remain, as does a single piece of the main depot structure. The former will be used as commercial units, while the latter is to be absorbed into the exterior atrium of the new Mcb-a building. This has been designed by the young, Barcelona-based Studio Barozzi Veiga, who won the commission over the likes of Allied Works, Bernard Tschumi and Kengo Kuma. Their project is a brown brick cuboid, with a facade dominated by a row of protrusions. In concrete, it might be brutal; in brick the plans have a functional warmth. Prioritising simplicity over dazzle, it is impressive in scale and consistency.
As well as echoing the train tracks adjacent to the site, the slimness of the new Mcb-a allows an uninterrupted perspective to the second building, which will house both Mudac and the Elysée. This is a characteristically elegant white cube by the Portuguese practice Aires Mateus and Associates, who pipped Caruso St. John, Jean Nouvel and Sanaa, among others. Entered through a cavernous underbelly, it separates the museums by floor, with a shop and library in between and an administration centre curling around the back. The museums’ exhibition spaces have separate exterior entrances, underscoring that they are independent institutions. Though the flashier of the two, it remains at the subtle end of the contemporary museum scale. There’s a sense with both buildings, but especially with Barozzi Veiga’s Mcb-a, that they are made to outlast contemporary trends.
One site, two buildings, three institutions. The separation of buildings and entrances should ensure the museums remain individual. But on top of this they needed a joint identity, one that would promote the new site and provide a banner under which to foster collaboration. Precedents for such concentrations of cultural bodies have tended towards the prosaic and collective: the Museumsquartier in Vienna, for instance, or the Kulturforum in Berlin. In both cases, the (excellent) institutions within have a tendency towards discreetness, to remaining linked only by proximity. The Pôle Muséal aims for more of an interchange of ideas, and so wanted something strong and easily identifiable that had the potential to become a cultural force of their own. It was also important to draw upon the site’s history.
Plateforme 10 – the number a reference to the nine platforms at the adjacent Lausanne station – does both. Designed by Paris-based Régis Tosetti and Berlin-based Simon Palmieri, it seeks to embody motion. The customised font, Primaset LL, comes in ten variants, allowing it to shift in exact appearance while retaining a core aesthetic. The deep blue colouring is that of the Swiss Federal Railways. A platform is a place where people gather; the French word ‘Plateforme’ itself weaves between languages, with similarly spelt variants in German and English: plateforme, plattform, platform. The '0' in '10' has been slashed to mimic the form of the old railway turntable at the entrance to the site, which Tosetti and Palmieri plan to light up at night along, augmented with lights shaped into a ‘1’. Planes flying over, or scrolling across Google Earth, will be able to see the site’s '10' below.
In the past decade, Lausanne has become a hotbed for contemporary architecture. This city, with a population of around 130,000, already boasts landmark academic buildings by Sanaa and Bernard Tschumi, with a Kengo Kuma pavilion planned at the science-focused EPFL. Plateforme 10 is both a worthy addition to this spurt and gratifying in its mobilisation of public resources to making the town’s rich cultural holdings more accessible to locals and visitors alike. A city defined for centuries by the eternal lake and immovable Alps is moving ahead with clear vision. Confronted with the plans, it's difficult to feel anything less than enthusiasm: all aboard!