Extracting Value – Structural change in Zurich and EM2N’s Toni Site project

Text by André Bideau
in EM2N Both and, 2009


Among the effects of postmodernism and economic structural change is a change of the meanings embedded in urban space. Due to the increasing instability

of the relationship between capital and cities the architectural representation of the urban and public space seems to be available only in the form

of artifice. Investors, town planners and their political superiors tend to use terms such as identity or urbanity in inflatory ways. Particularly during the

process of de-industrialisation, which in Zurich provides the framework for postmodern urban development, architects are expected to provide the images, scenarios and scripts that

would allow the materialisation of places that allow both economic promise and sustainability. The mutation of a yoghurt factory into a university of the

arts is particularly symptomatic of expectations of this kind. Like with the used truck tarpaulins that, in the same part of the city, are

transformed into accessories in the form of Freitag bags, the central aspect of the Toni Site project is to instill added value in an

amorphous functional container.

Fig. 1: Toni Factory, Zurich, 1977, sectional diagram of functions


Fig. 2: Toni Factory, Zurich, 2006, interior before start of conversion work


In a complex that, like the Toni factory, is only thirty years old the focal point of design strategies cannot be a contrast between

authenticity and presentation. With the Escher-Wyss site in the same area of the city, where the Zurich Schauspielhaus opened a theatre branch, this strategy

was still possible. A former ship-building shed was reinvented by Ortner & Ortner to accommodate high culture exported from the city centre. But, unlike

a 19th century machine factory, the Toni factory lacks any kind of industrial patina that could be instrumentalised. Here the pressing question is what

kind of programmes, spaces and atmospheres can be introduced into a generic functional architecture. For EM2N the transformation of this very deep structure into

a university offers the opportunity to ‘bring the city into the building’, to interpret an ‘inner urbanism’ literally in the form of lots, streets

and addresses. Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli do not see this as an inducement to romanticise either the European city or the iconography of

the urban public realm, but rather to examine the discourse of the investors from a conceptual standpoint. Consequently they redefine the Zurich University of

the Arts and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, combined under a single roof, as an ‘education mall’. In the process they identify themselves

with a hybrid kind of public realm that is characteristic of the periphery (not far from Toni until recently Marcel Meili and Markus Peter

were designing a soccer stadium above a shopping centre for Credit Suisse).


The Toni project is integrated in a conversion process not just in physical terms but also as regards the economy, education and city marketing.

In the 1980s the places where machines, foodstuffs and textiles were produced still resembled a multitude of ‘forbidden cities’ in the north and west

of central Zurich. But, measured in terms of the number of workplaces it offered, industrial production in Zurich had already passed its zenith by

1971; and so, within a few years, the Toni dairy, which started operations in 1977 and was once Europe’s most modern milk factory, was

surrounded by service sector buildings. For its part the monolithic, self-contained Toni dairy has only a vaguely industrial character and lacks external spaces of

the quality to be found on other factory sites. The building and the site are almost congruent. It is primarily its dimensions that give

this complex its urban significance. The stack of unusually deep production floors has a footprint that is greater than the ground floor area of

the Centre Pompidou. But, in contrast to the Parisian ‘culture refinery’ completed in the same year, the yoghurt factory could just as easily be

a distribution centre, a refuse incineration plant or an atomic power station from the later phase of the Soviet Union. It documents a thematic

impoverishment of an industrial architecture that had reached the level of generic boxes. Its original function survived for a mere 22 years. Then, in

quick succession, followed the amalgamation of the brand Toni with other regional Swiss milk processing firms and the bankruptcy of Swiss Dairy Food, the

company that resulted from this fusion. After the dramatic disintegration the Toni Site came into the ownership of the Zürcher Kantonalbank (ZKB) in 2005.

Having initially considered clearing the empty factory for office use, the new owner, together with the canton and city of Zurich, developed scenarios for

recycling this piece of real estate for educational purposes. A number of Zurich architecture firms were commissioned to produce studies on this goal. Two

years later the masterplan for the Toni Site, based on EM2N’s proposals, was approved by the political authorities and a rental contract was signed

transfering the site to the canton for twenty years for educational use. Before construction started at the end of 2008 ZKB sold the real

estate along with the final construction project – not to the canton, but to a company that itself exemplifies the process of structural change:

Allreal, a developer and general contractor that grew out of the real estate and contracting operations of the powerful Oerlikon Bührle company, a machine

and weapons producer that had marketed its own brownfield sites by launching a new urban neighbourhood in the north of Zurich.


There, like in the western edge of Zurich, the shift toward a service economy led to political unrest and disputes about zoning and the

building code. The area between the Hardbrücke and the start of the freeway to Bern is particularly characteristic of a transformation process that affected

not only urban space but also its protagonists and institutions from the mid-1980s on. In Zurich one element of structural change was that the

tools required for the redevelopment of sites were only developed after the industrial shells had been placed on the market and no takers could

be found for a number of sites that had been replanned using the earlier methods. In the favourable economic climate of the late 1990s

a new response to this situation was the rebranding of the city edge, which had been characterised by innumerable disused or underutilised industrial sites

(like the Toni dairy), as the development zone ‘Zurich West’. In place of lengthy processes involving unwieldy zoning, cooperative development planning soon emerged with

a municipal administration interested in arriving at consensus and real estate owners willing to engage in discussion. For the advocates, this was the long

overdue liberation from fundamentalist debates with no more contact to reality; for the more traditional left, in contrast, it represented a betrayal of public

interests and a step towards governance catering to the realestate market behind closed doors (in Zurich a coalition between the main parties, with a

social democratic majority, has been in power since 1990).


Like the machine and foodstuff industries the Swiss educational system has recently undergone a phase of repositioning and consolidation that has had implications for

the urban realm as well. The founding of the Zurich University of Arts (ZHdK) and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) was the

outcome of the reform of higher education, as well as an attempt to integrate Switzerland in the Bologna reform that is being implemented throughout

Europe. These institutions combine performing and visual arts as well as schools for applied psychology and social work at the location Zurich. The entire

ZHdK and two departments of ZHAW – functions currently distributed in 44 different locations – are to be housed on the Toni Site. The

ensuing ‘cultural hybrid’ (the term used in the official project documentation) lends a presence to that branch of the economy that is increasingly outstripping

material production and meets the needs of postmodern societies. The fact that the public sector is undertaking a major initiative in positioning Zurich by

reprogramming the Toni Site into the third-largest educational facility after the ETH and the University of Zurich, but functions merely as tenant and beneficiary

of the complex, clearly demonstrates the specific balance of power. Although camouflaged in uncharismatic garb the newly created educational conglomerate has the task of

promoting the urbanisation of a former industrial area, not unlike like the waterfront HafenCity University in Hamburg, which is also made up of existing



As a design metaphor the education mall does not so much express Christoph Alexander’s ‘university as a market place’ (1) as it does the

nature of professional training as part of the service sector, a view much emphasised by politicians today. All the more numerous seem to be

the variables that can, nevertheless, be used to give such an institution a presence and a public quality. In handling the pancake-like factory building

from 1977 EM2N avoid any dramatic gestures, placing their trust in the urban presence that the complex will develop due to its mere size.

Its expression homogenised by a facade membrane made of metal and glass panels, and altered by the addition of further storeys, the Toni Site

will still be unable to deny ist place in the evolution of industrial architecture. The conversion concept is based on an ‘inner iconicity’ that

scenographically exploits this robust container. The bulky shell with its high-loading capacity floor slabs, large-span column grid and two-storey room heights is exploited structurally.


The sole spectacular element of the factory, a multi-storey system of vehicle ramps attached to the rear of the complex with an unintentional reference

to Le Corbusier’s design for the European Parliament in Strasbourg, is hijacked and made into the externally visible starting point of the education mall:

EM2N incorporate the concrete structure in a spatial figure that drills through the entire building and has its counterpart in the form of a

ramp at the main entrance. This circulation system is an expressive abstract figure that fathoms the complex both horizontally and vertically. Its main characteristic

is a sequence of spaces, diagonal in section, which empties into a mighty ‘sala terrena’. The cascade of space recalls the Kunstgewerbeschule at the

entrance to the industrial district, whose design was inspired by the Bauhaus in Dessau completed a short time earlier. (2) Whereas Gropius’ Bauhaus building

was an attempt to propagate an architecture embedded in industrial logic, at Toni the iconography aims in the opposite direction. Müller and Niggli employ

the term ‘contamination’ to emphasise their appropriation of an industrial typology. And accordingly their circulation system does not pay hommage to the didactics of

the ‘promenade architecturale’, but, in both haptic and atmospherical terms, condenses episodes into a sequence in which specific opportunities for identification and generic spaces

follow each other.

Fig. 3: EM2N, Toni Site, Zurich, rendering


Fig. 4: Le Corbusier, Congress
, Strasbourg, competition


Fig. 5: EM2N, Toni Site, Zurich, circulation diagram


Fig. 6: Athanasius Kircher, The ‘Hanging Gardens’ of Semiramis in Babylon, 1679


EM2N describe the cascading spatial sequence of spaces that links the classroom clusters in the teaching area as an ‘identity generator’. The production floors

of the size of a soccer field offer great potential for employing this strategy of excavation which also includes five light wells and a

vertical winter garden. The floors can be more or less freely subdivided, gutted, perforated and further levels added to them, as desired. Circulation that

is scenographically exploited to the utmost is a theme that EM2N have pursued in various public projects such as the Theater 11, the Hardau

Schools and the Public Record Office Basel-Landschaft, and which can also be found in intimate interiors such as the Flumserberg Holiday Home (2002 /

03). These decisions can be the result of economic factors – as in the case of the budget for the Holiday Home, which dictated

a focus on certain special aspects consequently worked out in a fetishistic way – or they can follow structurally imposed constraints – as is

the case with the Public Record Office or Toni.


With their attempts to mobilise internal space in an almost subversive way EM2N have expanded the Swiss Box by adding a haptic, event-based dimension.

In the case of the Community Centre Aussersihl (1999–2004), which had come under fire from local politicians, the ability to tactically exploit abnormalities and

uncertainties in the brief led to a responsive and situative concept. This project, along with others, was a provocation for formal codes of good

manners as agreed upon between Zurich and Basel. The interest that Müller and Niggli show in ugliness in general and in tinkering distinguishes them

from the grandchildren of Critical Regionalism, a generation for which subtly alienated references have functioned both as symbolic capital and a defence against postmodern

arbitrariness. Although the interests of EM2N also include a genuinely Swiss passion for the materiality of place, they understand how to address the problem

of its identity against the background of incalculable market forces and unstable scenarios of usage. They exploit this – truly postmodern – conflict with

potent images, putting their inner architectural interests to use in particular.


EM2N cultivate an architectural-historical pool that lies outside those codes with which the scene defines taste. Projects from various epochs of architectural history come

together in their open-end internal office catalogue of references. This catalogue is not used so much as a source of images and atmospheres, but

– as its taxonomy illustrates – is seen more as an operative resource. References are organised under the following headings: ‘things within things’, ‘rule

and infringement’, ‘relational’, ‘sponge-like’, ‘constellations’, ‘path through the building‘,‘precarious transitions’, ‘iconic spaces’, ‘inner urbanism’. Gordon Matta-Clark is to be found in this collection, along

with John Portman. At the two opposite ends of the economic spectrum these figures stand for an obsessive hollowing out of architectural mass –

Matta-Clark’s interventions as a comment on the waste of resources and as an expansion of artistic practice, Portman’s hotel atria as a revolution in

the American downtown in terms of both typology and real estate. Along the lines of Gordon Matta-Clark who trained as an architect and gave

the standardised products of the American balloon-frame architecture an afterlife, EM2N appropriate Toni as a site of Fordian mass production through their subjective

act of creative destruction.

Fig. 7: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975


Fig. 8: John Portmann, Marriot Arquis, Atlanta, 1985


The sponge-like deep plans of Hans Scharoun, Alvar Aalto or Sir John Soane’s Bank of England figure as inner architectural references. With its system

of ‘streets’ and ‘squares’ the circulation figure lures the public into the depths of the building volume, whose edges are occupied by small-scale uses

and thus individualised. Externally, it is only the reappropriated concrete ramp (now used for a different purpose) that signalises the public character of the

future university: its complex internal life is more blurred than articulated – apart from the entrance situation – and indeed even veiled by the

façade membrane. When EM2N ‘bring the city into the building’, private and public are reversed – in contrast to the Novartis Campus in Basel,

a non-public site with office, research and production buildings based on a master plan by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani that imposes a ground floor arcade

on each architectural object and event. In contrast to the Novartis Campus, at Toni urbanity is not a figure of order and objectivisation; inner

urbanism seeks to achieve identity and distinction more by means of differentiation, adaptation and subversion of a given site.

Fig. 9: Cesar Pelli, Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, 1975


In architectural terms ‘inner urbanism’ is able to fathom what Peter Sloterdijk has addressed in his ‘spherology’ using the metaphor of foam. (3) In

an almost ironic way the perforated yoghurt factory delivers a commentary on the constitution of the public realm in the post-industrial leisure and education

society. As a design theme, inner urbanism has a dialectic that extends from Alberti’s analogy of the city as a large house and the

house as a small city by way of the structuralism of Team Ten to the circulation interiors by OMA. Nevertheless, the sequences of spaces

remain just a great promise, Müller and Niggli themselves conceding that a building in use 24 hours a day would have better suited their

concept. Whether the circulation can adequately animate the ramp system, roof garden and the function of the upper school floor – and justify them

in terms of spectacle – remains to be seen, especially as the artificial streets and squares, like in a mall, will not be an

unsupervised public realm. One can await with a certain amount of incredulousness the proximity of students and the ‘modern, urban crowd’ that the investors

wish to attract to the apartments in the prow of the factory. There, in addition to student apartments, a residential high-rise building with spectacular

views is to be created on ten floors above the library. The returns from this air rights development clearly document the symbiosis of public

and private interests, whereas the education mall below almost becomes a commentary on the constitution of postindustrial public realm – and on gentrification, Zurich-style.


In his essay ‘The Generic City’ Koolhaas describes Zurich as a city that now is developing only in the direction of the earth’s centre,

in a kind of ‘reverse archeology’. (4) Given the petrification of the city’s appearance, even the most timid attempts at installing architectural icons fail

in Zurich. As one of the largest continuous pedestrian zones in Europe, with excellent access and perpetual event stimulation, the core city has banished

change underground or to the periphery. Correspondingly, Zurich has seen a dramatic transformation of its western and northern edges since de-industrialisation. But in the

meantime, the signs of the careful processing and curation of an urban legacy can be found there, too. Ever since the well-known club ‘Rohstofflager’,

in the course of its nomadic wanderings across Zurich’s various industrial sites, discovered the empty Toni Site in 2003, the place has begun to

establish itself among people from the creative industries. In a way comparable to the earlier Steinfels site, Toni now plays a key role in

the colonialisation of Zurich West, which has developed from an industrial ghost to a zone of consumption – not unlike the cycle of Freitag

bags. On a Saturday evening, it is no longer the members of subcultures, but suburbanites who satisfy their entertainment needs in Zurich West. Ambiguous

economies and temporary uses have made way for a less risky, but trendy mix of multiplex cinemas, loft apartments and fitness clubs. Urbanity of

this kind is also authentic. Precisely what kind of contribution an industrial relict ‘contaminated’ with students, yuppies, and party people can make here remains

to be seen in 2013.




(1) Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language, New York 1977.


(2) Adolf Steger, Karl Egender, Kunstgewerbeschule, Zurich, 1930–1933.


(3) Peter Sloterdijk, Schäume. Plurale Sphärologie, Frankfurt a. M. 2004.


(4) Rem Koolhaas, The Generic City, in: S,M,L,XL, Rotterdam 2005.


Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in EM2N Both and on page 235.