University of Zurich · Faculty of Law

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Library of the faculty of law in Zurich

In 2004, Santiago Calatrava has created a first-class reading landscape for Zurich university.

Of course we know that the world of modern architecture has newer and more spectacular things to offer than the library of the Faculty of Law in Zurich. Yet, we want to tell you about this building, since it deserves praise and acknowledgement, still today. Meanwhile, the initial euphoria has faded away, but the implanted building still keeps what the plans once had promised. Although not completely free of errors, the building shows how compacting can work at best within an urban environment, how modest and profound it can be done without falling victim to meaninglessness.

Sensitive Integration with strong Contrasts

Santiago Calatrava has designed and built the faculty library. The expansion building is characterized by a strong contrast between old and new buildings and the also existing remarkable integration of the new building into the surrounding cultivation. Sensitive integration along with a strong contrast? Calatrava shows in Zurich how this can be achieved on a high level.

Already at the end of the 1980s, Zurich university decided in favor of a compacting of university premises. Many faculties were too far away from each other. Thus it was decided to put the 40 faculties of law together in a building in 74, Rämisstr.  That’s exactly what happened, only the new library still took a while. In 1989 already, Calatrava received a direct assignment about designing the new library of the faculty of law. A high level of sensitivity and an outstanding design turned out to be the secret for his success. And still, after intense usage analyses, eight pre-designs and all in all 15 years of planning, the great showdown was yet to come.

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Monument Protection as a Challenge

Since only little space was available, the old building’s inner courtyard was turned into a building space. The status of a listed building for the faculty buildings in Rämisstr. (built in 1909) turned out to be quite a challenge, but was no showstopper for the construction project.

The old building consists of four wings, together forming an inner courtyard of approx. 720 m². Santiago Calatrava evened out the height of the four building parts by adding two floors to two of the four wings each. The inner courtyard he filled with a detailed airspace in a spectacular fashion, he implemented a steel structure across six floors. An air space reaches from the first floor up to the seventh one. The shape of the space is, typical for the Spanish architect, anything else than straight or rectangular. It is an “asymmetric ellipse”, filled with air.

When entering the room, you could not think of any better solution: The curved space harmoniously flows through the inner courtyard and becomes more narrow on the two sides. The glass dome on the roof allows the light to get through down to the first floor. The 500 reading places at the side of the gallery have perfect work conditions. While making brief breaks from reading and learning, the students can let their gaze wander across the floors above and below. Seen from here, the room unfolds its full glory.

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Almost weightless

The interior of the library is mainly made of bright timber and contributes to the airy, bright spatial impression. When the viewer is standing on the atrium’s first floor, the oval construction appears weightless. The banisters of the seven floors literally float in space. Only 8 nearly invisible pillars carry the weight of the construction. There are no crossing points between the new building structure and the façades of the old building. No larger interventions were made inside the old building either.

The contrast mentioned earlier between old and new can be experienced when walking through the old building and entering the new one. With its organic shapes and its high level of light exploitation, it has a clear message, despite all this it fits into the surrounding structures. A look onto the roof landscape shows how unobtrusive the glass oval fits in. From the street, the new building cannot be seen. The main entrance’s façades towards the old building were left untouched.

The only drop of bitterness within the overall ensemble is the access of the library from a side street or a side entrance, respectively. When entering the faculty of law building through the presentable main entrance, you only get to the library wing via various stairs and hallways. An impressive entrance for this in all other aspects well-made expansion building would have been the icing on the cake.

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