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Unteraffoltern II, Georges-Pierre Dubois, Zurich, 1967-1970, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

Unteraffoltern II

Picture of Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Life is sweet in the concrete jungle

Here’s an idea for an urban walk. It takes you from the busy Oerlikon district in the north of Zurich along quiet fields, past a farm, through a forest and ends in a carefully manicured park. Sit down at one of the wooden picnic tables, sink your lips into your sandwich and admire the breathtaking view of the two Le Corbusier-style Unteraffaltern II concrete tower blocks.

Don’t be triggered: yes, the two 40-metre-high and 63-metre-long brutalist structures are worth a visit. After all, in March 2023, they were voted the “ugliest buildings in Switzerland” in a community poll by the news portal 20 Minuten (Goetheanum came in a close second). “An unsightly concrete jungle” was one of the nicer verdicts.

Ouch! Yet when they were completed in 1970, these supposed ‘eyesores’ were considered extremely progressive, both architecturally and socially. Unteraffoltern II was the centrepiece of one of the city’s largest postwar developments. In the 1960s, Zurich was in desperate need of new and affordable housing. In 1966, construction began on five housing estates for 5,000 people in Affoltern, which was still very rural at the time. Unteraffoltern II alone accounted for a third of the more than 700 new flats.

The brutalist architecture reflected the optimistic, concrete-loving spirit of the boom years. The Unité d’habitation in Marseille by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier from 1952 served as a blueprint. Its trademarks: exposed concrete, stacked and vertically nested duplexes, communal areas and integrated shops. The Unités were supposed to be surrounded by a well-maintained green space. Zurich’s answer was designed by someone who knew his job: Georges-Pierre Dubois had worked in Le Corbusier’s Paris office in the 1930s and built the first Swiss Unité in Arbon in canton of Thurgau, in 1960.

If you haven’t already ditched them, now is the time to put your prejudices to bed. For behind the (to today’s eyes) repulsive façade lies a good core. The Dubois-Unité offers an ingenious flat structure, light-flooded duplexes and spacious communal areas. The ultimate highlight, however, are undoubtedly the entrance halls. They feature a lush mini botanical garden with a water element. The mailboxes come in bright yellow, green, blue and orange. The whole thing is so inviting even the picnic table makes sense.

In the late 1990s, the two towers underwent a major refurbishment. The facades got a refresh and a wheelchair ramp was added to the entrance halls. Changing housing needs and a desire for a more diverse tenant mix led to a third of the 264 flats being combined into larger units in 2002-2003. Each building now comprises 118 flats, ranging from 1 to 5 1⁄2 bedrooms and accommodating up to 250 people.

Those who still see monsters: Lake Katzensee is on the other side of the motorway.

Le Corbusier, the Franco-Swiss pioneer of modern architecture, believed that buildings should be functional, efficient and beautiful. He introduced the idea of ‘machines for living’, likening buildings to machines that meet the needs of their occupants, just as machines are designed to perform specific tasks. Le Corbusier’s 1952 Unité d’habitation, a kind of concrete mini-city on stilts in Marseille, served as the prototype and was widely imitated in the 1950s and 1960s. While the ‘machines for living in’ were instrumental in meeting the immense demand for new and cheap housing in the 1950s and 1960s, they had no regard for the environmental and social consequences. The structures were increasingly perceived as faceless and anti-human. In the 1970s they fell into disrepute.
Georges-Pierre Dubois was born in Le Locle, Switzerland, in 1911. After working in Le Corbusier’s studio between 1937 and 1940, he completed Switzerland’s first Corbusier-style Unité tower block for the Arbon-based manufacturer Saurer between in 1960. In the late 1950s, the world’s leading manufacturer of trucks, buses, military vehicles and textile machinery was in desperate need of new and affordable housing for its workers. Albert Dubois, Saurer’s managing director at the time, commissioned his architect brother to build a striking structure for 200 ‘Saurer families’.
Unteraffoltern II, Georges-Pierre Dubois, Zurich, 1967-1970, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

PMS Kreuzlingen, Esther + Rudolf Guyer © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
Swissmill Tower, Haarder Haas Partner, Zurich, 2013-2016, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
Saurer Tower, Saurerhochhaus, Georges-Pierre Dubois, Arbon, 1958-1960, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
Stettbach School, Secondary School, Esther + Rudolf Guyer, Zurich, 1964-1967,© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut, Swiss Brutalism. Explore more on Heartbrut.com