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 reinforced concrete complex on stilts brought tower block housing to Thurgau and modular maisonette-living to working-class families. Arbon’s answer to 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.
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 original 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 (or ‘streets in the sky’, in brutalist parlance). 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 upper storeys afford sweeping views over Lake Constance and the bucolic Thurgau hinterland. The rooftop features a communal laundry room, complete with nine Stewi rotary clothes dryers neatly lined up on the terrace.
The residential-only tower is surrounded by a generous green area, carefully manicured topiary and a commmunal park. The well-maintained estate oozes picture-postcard grade, polished Swissness. 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. At 60, Saurerhochaus is a perfectly aged béton brut beauty ready for rediscovery.
Saurerhochhaus in 1963 (© Bauen+Wohnen / ETH E-Periodica )