Across the United States, there’s no shortage of small towns where the most prominent civic and touristic buildings closely mirror, often with kitschy reverence, the vernacular architecture of a specific European region or county.
Towns like Solvang, California, and Poulsbo, Washington, for example, both pay architectural homage to their Scandinavian roots (Danish and Norwegian, respectively). Meanwhile, the tulip-growing, windmill-touting towns of Pella, Iowa, and Holland, Michigan, offer an outsized architectural taste of the Netherlands in a tourism-luring nod to the Dutch immigrants that settled in each respective community. And perhaps most famously, there’s Leavenworth, a very dedicated (architecturally speaking) Bavarian-style alpine village nestled within the North Cascades of central Washington state that was redeveloped in the 1960s into a true “theme town” with no real historic attachment to the culture that it devotedly mimics. (Frankenmuth, Michigan, similarly boasts a bevy of Bavarian-themed buildings but with actual German heritage to its credit.)
Slightly lesser known is New Glarus, a small village in Green County, Wisconsin, that was founded in the mid-1800s by immigrants from Glarus, a sparsely populated town in the east of Switzerland. Like most of the above communities, New Glarus (AKA “America’s Little Switzerland”) celebrated its European heritage by adopting an old-world architectural style, one that’s explored in Fabricating Swissness, a multimedia installation that recently debuted at the 2021 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.
Designed by Nicole McIntosh and Jonathan Louie of Swiss-American design firm Architecture Office, Fabricating Swissness builds upon the firm’s traveling exhibition Swissness Applied, which previously showed in 2019 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at Kunsthaus Glarus Güterschuppen, and the following year at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery. A corresponding publication, Swissness Applied: Learning from New Glarus, will be released this month by Park Books.
At the Seoul Biennale, Fabricating Swissness takes the form of a “three-dimensional representation of the village’s efforts to appear Swiss.” Incorporated into the four-sided, coral-colored aluminum scaffold structure that represents a traditional Swiss chalet are photographs of New Glarus captured by Brian Griffin and audio interviews with Benedikt Wechsler of the Consul General of Switzerland and architect Will Gallaher that “explore the aesthetics of Swissness,” as Architecture Office explained in a press release. Sound designer Paul Chavez of Arup was tapped to mix the aforementioned interviews “with alpine sounds derived from traditional Swiss folk music” and reconstruct them through “a variety of digital transformations.”
“Together, the media, materials, and ephemera are semi-autonomous entities that together convey concepts commonly understood as Swiss,” explained Architecture Office.
“We are questioning if ‘Swiss’ architecture can be understood as just the formal character of specific alpine building elements as suggested in the design guidelines of New Glarus,” added McIntosh. “Can material and size be disregarded? Can color be different? Seeing these ‘Swiss’ elements isolated from the actual architecture (i.e. shutters not on a facade) are they still understood as Swiss?”
As mentioned by McIntosh, New Glarus, which first started to celebrate the Swiss aesthetic in the early 1960s as a way to “enhance the social and economic base of its community,” does indeed have design guidelines written into the village building code, specifically Article II: Swiss Architectural Theme, which, as noted by the firm, “describes typical building elements that evoke certain associations with traditional Swiss architecture” like the chalet.
Designed with a single joint, the flat-pack installation uses scaled-up model parts translated from Swiss-themed Gebr Faller Modellbau train kits and was directly inspired by the overlapping, symmetrical joinery of traditional Swiss chalets. Measuring roughly 6.5-feet-by-6.5-feet-by-11.8-feet, the aluminum structure, in its dissembled form, can fit into a 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-30-inch plywood crate for easy transport. Once it arrived in Seoul, assembly only required three to four people using flathead screwdrivers. Hidden between two 1/8-inch-thick aluminum panels are audio wires as well as speakers and MP3 players for the sound component of the installation.
“[…] Americans have been trying to replicate alpine structures for a hundred years. Our interest was not to copy the chalet, but actualize its image through minimal means,” said Louie, noting the low amount of material waste involved in the fabrication process.
Arup’s Roel van de Straat served as structural engineer on the project while fabrication was led by Michael Gayk and David Goltz of the Automated Fabrication Lab at Texas A&M with Shane Bugni, William DiNisco, and Logan Froebel. Joining McIntosh and Louie on the design front was Andrew G. Atwood, Julia Valisyev, Oscar Garza Reza, Ryan Garza, and Nari Kim.
Fabricating Swissness will remain on view through October 31, 2021, at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Plaza as part of the Thematic Exhibition at the 2021 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.