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Brasilia in Biel/Bienne

The utterly striking exclamation mark of a building brought big-time International Style modernism to the bilingual watchmaking town in the southern Jura foothills. Both a nod to Mies van der Rohe’s corporate glass-and-steel temples and Oscar Niemeyer’s sinuous civic buildings for the new Brazilian capital, the structure comprises a 14-storey administrative tower and a separate tract, featuring a suspended roof, which at the time, counted as one of Europe’s largest. 

Housing a 825m2 concert hall and an olympic-sized indoor swimming-pool, the tract offers the rare chance to experience high culture and water sports in a single space. A third building contains various smaller halls and workshop spaces. The conference centre perfectly captures the boldly forward-looking spirit and unwavering belief in technological progress in Switzerland during the economic boom years of the 1960s. Grand as a gesture and in scale, the Palais remains peerless in this country.

The Palais des Congrès reflects the technocratic and industrial postwar approach adopted by a group of young architects based in the southern Jura foothills. Known as the ‘Solothurn School’,  the group included Max Schlup, Fritz Haller, Hans Zaugg, Franz Füegg and Alfons Barth. Though they all worked independently, each of them happened to be huge fans of Mies van der Rohe, prefabrication and modular systems.

Their materials of choice were glass, steel and concrete. The group’s signature steelframe constructions shaped Switzerland’s postwar architecture. But ultimately it was not architecture that produced the most enduring impact, but Fritz Haller’s modular furnishings. Better known as USM Haller they remain the gold standard in Swiss offices and companies.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut