Arbon’s answer to L’Unité d’habitation in Marseille (1952) by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was the fortunate coming together of two brothers, social capitalism and an era defined by optimism, reinvention and upward-mobility.
In postwar Switzerland architecture was expected to deliver answers to questions of radical social change and unprecedented economic growth. Saurerhochhaus apartment tower in Arbon, completed in 1960, added an early exclamation mark to the conversation. The 13-storey concrete complex on stilts brought tower block housing to Thurgovia and modular maisonette-living to working-class families.
Throughout the 20th century Arbon, a historic town located on the southern shore of Lake Constance between Constance and Bregenz, was synonymous with Saurer, a world-leading manufacturer of lorries, buses, military vehicles and textiles machinery. In the postwar era the company was at its prime, employing a workforce of over 5000. Confronted with a rapid influx of workers, Arbon was in urgent need of new and affordable housing.
It was the then Director General of Saurer, Albert Dubois who drove the change. He commissioned his architect brother to design a stand-out structure to house 200 “Saurer families”. The building was to give bold architectural form to the company’s status as a socially caring employer and forward-looking global player. Georges-Pierre was the perfect fit for the job: he had worked at Le Corbusier’s studio between 1937-1940 and happily jumped at the opportunity to realise his own take on his master’s seminal housing complex.
Dubois downsized and optimised the Unité-concept to meet local needs and regulations as well as Saurer’s higher quality standards. His original plans for a twin-tower complex were shelved on budget grounds. Comprising 95 flats, the structure is split into two units: the south-facing elevation is reserved for single-storey flats, while stacked maisonettes run along the northern part. These are accessed via open walkways. All living rooms and some of the bedrooms face west and are arranged either on the lower or the upper level of each flat. The maisonettes afford sweeping views over Lake Constance and the bucolic Thurgovian hinterland. The rooftop lacks the pool of the Marseille original, offering instead a very Swiss institution – a communal laundry room. It vaguely recalls the command bridge of an ocean liner, possibly a nod to Le Corbusier’s nautical obsession. It overlooks a row of nine, neatly lined up Stewi rotary clothes dryers.
A propos: as Arbon boasts one of the country’s most beautiful lakeside lidos, there really is no need to have a splash in a rooftop mini-pool.
Having turned 60 in 2020, the residential tower doesn’t show its age. Carefully manicured topiary flanks the driveway. Set amid a generous green area and a commmunal park the estate oozes the kind of pristine picture-postcard perfection only Switzerland manages to produce. Over the years the mix of tenants got more diverse. Today singles and couples far outnumber Saurer employees and families with children. Individual floors no longer compete in soccer games, but the strong community spirit remains intact. A thorough 2009 refurbishment updated concrete, infrastructure and kitchens. The number of rooms per maisonette flats is being gradually reduced to allow for more spacious living. The young-at-heart concrete beauty is obviously enjoying its Whiskey-years. Here’s to you.