“Disused railway sites offer the opportunity for a practical exercise in urban densification”

“Disused railway sites offer the opportunity for a practical exercise in urban densification”
4 December 2018, Alexander Muhm in conversation with Jean-Baptiste Ferrari

“Disused railway sites offer the opportunity for a practical exercise in urban densification”

Symbolic of the industrial activity of times gone by, disused railway sites on the edges of stations are now becoming the focus for urban (re)development throughout Switzerland. In Renens, a town in the district of Ouest Lausannois currently undergoing a transformation, the old depot area is being turned into a new quarter. How do you “build” new cities in the middle of major urban centres? Architect Jean-Baptiste Ferrari, Managing Director of Ferrari Architectes and the creative mind behind the Parc du Simplon project, addresses this question.

How would you describe the architectural culture in our country, or what architecture means to Switzerland?

Switzerland is a real hotbed of architects! This is due on the one hand to the presence of major, world-class schools of architecture (EPFL, ETH Zurich and the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture), which have trained up entire generations of architects and continue to do so. Even more so, however, it is thanks to the incredible mix of architectural styles that make up our country. The Savoy period, for example, is still reflected in the historical buildings found in the hearts of the towns and cities around Lake Geneva, while St. Gallen, with its façades adorned with oriel windows, is an architectural space very much dominated by central European influences. In fact, no other country in Europe offers such tremendous diversity and such a wide variety of architectural expression within its borders.

Yet there is a real sense of national cohesion too. In think this is particularly apparent in our respect for contexts and in the continuous presence of an architectural approach based on a human aspect. In Switzerland, we have not yet succumbed to the showy style of celebrity starchitects, which can be seen almost everywhere else.

In your view, what role does the SBB Real Estate division have to play as a project developer in Switzerland?

It is fortunate to have a unique portfolio of land at its disposal, though this is also a huge responsibility. It has plots ripe for repurposing, close to stations, situated right in the heart of urban areas and serving as a central axis in the lives of people who travel around from place to place, which is most of us. Yet now it is time to redefine these zones, to “integrate” them into the existing urban fabric. In simple terms, this involves building cities within cities. Moreover, these must be designed to meet an urgent and genuine need in light of the demographic challenge we are facing. Disused railway sites therefore offer us the opportunity for a practical exercise in urban densification.

I should also add that the architectural competitions organised by SBB Real Estate are great for stimulating competition and ideas. However, we think it shouldn’t be impossible to apply the SIA’s competition rules to the letter.

What makes your winning design for the Parc du Simplon project in Renens stand out from the other entries submitted for the architectural competition?

We don’t criticise our peers and/or our rivals. That’s not considered good sportsmanship. So I would say they were all excellent! On a more serious note, with our project, which we called “Platform 9¾”, we tried to address a whole host of challenges presented by the site in question.

First of all, we needed to build an urban frontage facing the railway to ensure peace and security in the quarter behind it. Secondly, we had to find ways to facilitate interaction and flows of traffic in terms of human-powered mobility. Finally, we suggested using broken angles on our 3D plan to set the tempo in the outside spaces and give them a sense of vibrancy.

Knowing that we were operating in a town environment, and that there would be more than just one isolated building involved, we had to consider how to incorporate the project into the existing urban fabric. Or how to renovate the area without distorting it. Remember that the depots on this site dated back to 1850, which is why, for symbolic purposes, we are planning to retain the footprint of the railway line that served those depots on the ground. It will serve as physical reminder, continuing the thread of a history going back nearly two centuries.

What makes a good architectural project or a good first draft?

That’s a difficult question to answer. A good project is always a compromise between imagination and practical constraints. Or, put differently, you try to find the closest thing possible to what the architect would like to be able to do if there were no constraints, once these have been taken into account... I think that if you manage to clearly convey (to the client, the public and future users) the way in which you have tried to respond to the various parameters imposed, then your project is a good one.

What added value does a project developed near or on the site of a station bring?

It creates huge added value. Remember, Switzerland is a world leader in urban rail systems. If you take away the Jura mountains and the Alps, we live within the confines of the useable third of our territory. We live on a plateau, a corridor which runs from Geneva to Lake Constance and through which all the principal transport routes pass. And since almost all of us are invariably commuters, or at least potential commuters, stations really do represent the quintessence of this contemporary Swiss urban life. The fact that we can now redevelop the urban zones around these hubs is a real opportunity. Offices, housing, shops, administrative centres, schools and colleges, and so on: we can provide concrete solutions for the city of the future.

Renens is a prime example: the station had become a seemingly endless landscape dotted with depots and empty warehouses. In fact, the site had cut itself off from the rest of the town. Now we are seizing back control of this no man’s land so that we can offer clear solutions for tackling demographic challenges. Densification, that’s exactly what it’s about.

What elements does a town or city have to contain and what elements do the (Swiss) urban centres of the future need?

This is one of the things I’ve come to talk to you about using the example of our project in Renens, since it is aiming to address precisely this question in an elegant way. I would add that for a town or city to function effectively, first and foremost it needs diversity, coupled with sufficient density. With this in mind, I think we can safely say that the age of urban sprawl is thankfully finally over! Nowadays we think about consolidating different uses, in planning the way spaces are allocated, for example. It is also important not to ignore the essential role played by public spaces. They need to be innovative and attractive.

Is the term “smart city” nothing more than a slogan as far as you’re concerned or does it offer any benefits?

Both... I’m not a great fan of empty phrases. The “smart city” idea appeared on the scene twenty years ago as a paradigm shift, a revolutionary approach that would radically change things. But things never happen that way. The reality is much smarter than the concepts. In particular, it is much more pragmatic.

In fact, we are taking new forms of human-powered mobility into consideration. One example is the size of car parks, which are generally getting smaller. And this is not just because we are building close to stations for people who will presumably be taking the train, but also, and most importantly, because the world is changing. Owning our own cars is no longer necessarily the reality of the future. So you see the “smart city” is not so much a concept as an adaptation. Towns and cities are becoming “smart” by themselves!


Share article
Jean-Baptiste Ferrari
Jean-Baptiste Ferrari
Jean-Baptiste Ferrari was born in Lausanne in 1948. He studied at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), completing his degree in 1972 and receiving a prize from the Swiss Society of Engineers and Architects (SIA). During his studies, he worked as an apprentice to architects Jean-Marc Lamunière in Geneva and Fonso Boschetti in Lausanne. Jean-Baptiste Ferrari set up his own architectural practice in Lausanne in 1986. He also served as President of the Vaud section of the SIA from 1988 to 1990. He is a member of numerous judging panels for architecture competitions and is currently involved in the Chamber of Architects of the Canton of Vaud.

Interviewed of

Alexander Muhm
Alexander Muhm
Alexander Muhm has been Head of SBB Real Estate and a member of the Management Board since January 2019. Before this, he headed up the Development division. The qualified architect and doctor of engineering sciences blogs about all kinds of topics and trends from the industry, reporting on the specific challenges that a state-owned real estate company faces.
Author profile
Author profile

Hot topics


Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked with an *.
The fields "E-mail" and "Confirm e-mail" must correspond.
*Mandatory fields