« WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SEE » | by Ittenbrechbühl Architekten | 16th Architecture Biennale – Venice, Italy

A collaborative project with the architects Andreas Jöhri, Jürg Toffol, Daniel Blum, Katharina Mayr with Yohan Zerdoun

In an oak forest bordering the river Aare near Würenlingen stands one of Switzerland’s leading research campuses: The Paul Scherrer Institute is home to SwissFEL, an X-ray free-electron laser facility. This generates extremely short and intense pulses of X-ray light with laser-like properties – the bursts can be as brief as one femtosecond (= 0.000000000000001 second). X-raying materials with such pulses opens up new insights about their interiors. This extraordinarily complex system calls for ultimate precision and control, accomplishable only thanks to novel digital planning techniques such as Building Information Modeling. The result is a building more than seven hundred metres long, yet barely visible from the outside: all there is to be seen in the oak forest clearing is a biotope for under-abundant species and crossing places for game animals.
But what has been created inside is a totally controlled and artificial world where even the climate is governed to one tenth of a degree and whose planning required compensation for the Earth’s curvature in order to achieve the requisite precision. The unique spaces deliver an impression that is alien, yet fascinating: what we see here is an aesthetic of necessity, not volition. Thus, the SwissFEL building neither represents nor symbolises – it simply is. Or, as Frank Stella famously stated:


*Frank Stella in a Q&A with Bruce Glaser and Donald Judd; Edited for the September 1966 issue of ARTnews by Lucy R. Lippard

The making-of!