The Alpine nation has quietly collected dozens of innovative, eye-popping buildings by internationally renowned architects
Art Basel, the Alps, CERN, the Red Cross Museum, the trains, the lakes, Reichenbach Falls, chocolate, cheese, wine—all of these are excellent reasons to visit Switzerland. But a criminally overlooked one is the country’s wealth of modern architecture. Yes, it’s home to an impressive sweep of medieval buildings (the entire old city of Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for Gott’s sake), but in contemporary times Switzerland has realized a world-class collection of major architectural projects. Herewith, some of our favorites—all open to the public.
Botta’s striking cylinder replaced this village’s 15th-century church, which was destroyed by an avalanche in 1986. Two types of regional stone form stripes on the outside and checkerboard patterns inside, and you’re not mistaken if you think it all looks familiar. Botta’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, also designed in the mid-1990s, has a similar central tower.
Monte Generoso has been drawing tourists since 1890, when its cog railway (still running!) first chugged up the scenic peak. Botta used to come here himself as a teenager. His 2017 “Stone Flower”—named for the way its towers open and then close toward the top—houses two restaurants, a gallery, and a video about the construction of the precariously perched building. Spoiler alert: To load in materials, they built a cableway.
Swiss-born Zumthor is renowned for many accomplishments: his thermal baths at Vals, his upcoming redesign of LACMA, and his Pritzker Prize, to name a few. But this intimate museum-like space is an underrated treasure. Out of the way in an industrial area, it’s accessible only by a special key. The key is available at the tourist information office, but you have to know to ask for it—and most people don’t.
This swooping, low-slung museum complex—honoring artist Paul Klee, who lived and is buried in Bern—seems to grow right out of the grassy field. Each of its three steel-and-glass “hills” creates a space for the Zentrum’s three-part mission: art collection, education, and research. As far as Piano’s museum work in Switzerland goes, his Fondation Beyeler near Basel gets more attention; in fact, it’s about to get an extension by Peter Zumthor. But this swooping, low-slung complex—honoring artist Paul Klee, who lived and is buried in Bern—is arguably a more impressive work. It seems to grow right out of the grassy field, and its three steel-and-glass “hills” create spaces for the Zentrum’s three-part mission: art collection, education, and research. Don’t overlook it.
Oscar-winning Alien-monster-maker H.R. Giger originally planned his immersive bar for NYC, but when vision overreached budget he moved it to his hometown of Chur. Opened in 1992, it was the most Gigeresque bar you could’ve imagined . . . until he unveiled the Giger Museum Bar in Gruyères, where spines line the vaulted ceiling. Both locations crawl with all the spooky biomech you’d expect, including versions of the Harkonnen Capo Chair Giger designed for Jodorowsky’s failed Dune film.
Also in Chur, Barcelona architects Estudio Barozzi/Veiga added an expansion to the Graubünden Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. The museum’s original building is an 1870s ivy-covered classical building in the Palladian style. The new one is a cement cube. From the outside, they look like a structural oxymoron, but underground they mesh into one fluid exhibition space.
Le Corbusier is Switzerland’s most famous architect—and fittingly, his first- and last-realized buildings are here. His first solo commission, the Maison Blanche, emerged right in his hometown (also known for its watchmaking and urban planning). He built it for his parents, and it’s now a museum restored to what it looked like when the family lived there.
A 15-minute bus ride from Basel, Switzerland, delivers you to a design lover’s playground: the headquarters of Swiss-owned furniture company Vitra, an awesome collection of buildings by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and other big names. Take a tour, visit the Vitra Design Museum, or ogle a gallery of famous chairs (including Eames chairs, which Vitra is licensed to produce if you want to buy one). There’s even a slide.
Calatrava has a solid presence in Switzerland, including his Stadelhofen train station in Zurich and his Tabourettli theater in Basel. But this library is a literally hidden gem—it’s completely embedded in another building. Anyone is welcome to visit the soaring academic space, where open floors face a central atrium topped by a glass dome, but you might have to ask a student to help you find it.