A Post-Idealistic Iceberg Clad in Steel: Switzerland’s National Film Archive Finally Completes

Over 12 years in the making, the structure conceals most of its program in a subterranean storage area.

Swiss firm EM2N connected a series of existing barracks on the grounds by giving them a unified patina and creating new structures for in-between areas. Courtesy Damian Poffet

Twelve years is a long time. Visitors to Switzerland’s new National Film Archive might wonder why it took so long to design, plan, and build what now looks like a compact and rather small structure. But what you see isn’t always what you get. The new home for the Cinémathèque Suisse, designed by Zurich-based architects EM2N, functions as a sort of architectural iceberg: Most of its volume is hidden well beneath the surface.

The film archive, which holds nationally important movies and photographs, has already had quite a history. It was established shortly after World War II as a private initiative in Lausanne, a city in Switzerland’s French-speaking west. For decades, the foundation had to make do with provisional facilities to store its collection. In 1988 it bought the vast lands of a former bookbindery located in the periphery of the small nearby town of Penthaz, its buildings taking the form of cheap sheds strewn about the grounds. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the foundation had the money to organize an architectural competition for a dramatic restructuring of its new premises, with the goal of bringing spaces for working, storage, presentation, screenings, and debates up to more contemporary standards. The winner of the competition, EM2N, was announced the following year.

Part of the structure’s subterranean area, which houses the film archive. Courtesy Damian Poffet

Reflecting on the start of the project, EM2N founders Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli remember the original charme of the existing buildings: “The home of the national collective film memory presented itself as an unpretentious accumulation of sheds. The focus was more on contents than on packaging.” The architects, who describe themselves as “post-idealistic children of the 1968 generation,” accepted the sheds as their starting point. They included most of the existing barracks—long industrial buildings arranged in rows next to one another—in their design, adding new structures and connections to fill in the in-between spaces. What results is a new, well organized spatial continuity of three main circulation routes through the new, now-single film archive building: one for the public, one for staff working in the office, and a third leading into the huge subterranean storage which the architects call a “super-functional bunker.” 

To give this collage of old and new a unified, homogeneous look, they wrapped the structure in pre-rusted steel. “The gradual weathering” of the steel is meant as “reference to the archive’s function of preserving film,“ the firm said, while the modulated roofscape alludes to industrial production facilities, like film studios.

All in all, it seems that the 12 years of planning and building were well spent. The architecture succeeds in presenting an utterly unpretentious and pragmatic building to house an archive which can now—for the first time—be smoothly organized for research and public accessibility. Aesthetically, the institution reads not as a high-security storage facility hidden in the periphery of an unassuming Swiss town, but strives to enliven its new homestead with an ambitious, vivid objective to continuously expose its hidden treasures to the public. 

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Categories: Cultural Architecture