“We developed the initial idea for a physical-digital consulate 20 years ago”
Swiss architects Jeffrey Huang and Muriel Waldvogel talk about how designing swissnex Boston in 2000 changed their lives and helped give rise to a new field of research: convergent architecture.
Architects Jeffrey Huang and Muriel Waldvogel were young professors of architecture and design when they first met Xavier Comtesse in Cambridge in 1999. A few weeks after meeting him, they officially became the architects of the world’s first science consulate, a project that would win them an award, accelerate their careers, and push the boundaries of architecture for many years to come. After building swissnex, they founded an architecture practice in Massachusetts in 2000, and are now based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jeffrey is now the Director of the Institute of Architecture at EPFL in Lausanne, and Muriel is the Principal of their architecture practice, Convergeo. We spoke with them to hear about the process of designing and building swissnex in Boston twenty years ago, and how it impacted their careers since.
How did you first meet Xavier Comtesse?
Jeffrey Huang (JH): Muriel and I moved from Switzerland to Boston in 1995. We were both teaching at Harvard; Muriel was at Harvard College, and I was a young assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. We were also very engaged in the local Swiss community around Cambridge and Boston. We were co-presidents of the Boston chapter of the ETH alumni association, and we would organize dinners, meetings, and events to get the Swiss scientific diaspora in the area together. As a result of some of these meetings, we met Patrick Steineman, a fellow ETH alumnus doing his PhD at MIT. Together we wrote a paper where we developed a proposal for creating a virtual community for the Swiss scientific diaspora. In 1999, we sent it to the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC, asking for support.
A few weeks later, I received a phone call from someone called Xavier Comtesse, who had read the report for the proposal and was visiting Cambridge and wanted to meet with us. So we set up a meeting with him in a little cafe at the Harvard Barker Center. This is a place where we later had many many meetings, and it eventually became what we would call the “knowledge cafe.” The cafe itself was round, with no traditional walls, lots of glass, and incredible light.
How did you wind up as the architects for SHARE/swissnex?
JH: Well, our first meeting with Xavier was extremely inspiring. He talked about his plans for the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education (SHARE), and the problem of Swiss brain drain. We discussed the possibility of joining physical and virtual committees together, the idea of building a physical Swiss house, and at the end of the meeting, he proposed that we should be the architects of the future Swiss house.
We were very young at the time and not super experienced — so the fact that he had so much faith in young Swiss talent was really quite incredible. Usually in Switzerland, you have to make your proof in order to build a consulate. But for swissnex, we just built it. It was quite a leap of faith on Xavier’s part. We are still very grateful to him for giving us that opportunity. In the meetings that followed, we developed the initial idea for a physical-digital consulate, and integrated a notion that the Swiss House could be a “global village.” We wanted a physical place where people would meet, a cafe, and an arena, but then also to create a virtual commons, a place to foster a virtual community if you will.
Later, we introduced some of the first designs to Thierry Lombard and Patrick Odier, the main sponsors of the whole project, and they were very supportive from the beginning. I think they were very courageous, bold, and visionary in encouraging us to imagine a new kind of architecture: a consulate functioning not only as a scientific outpost, but also as an interface — a portal for the Swiss scientific diaspora to connect back to Switzerland and reverse Swiss brain drain. What was truly innovative about it was that we didn’t actually need to bring Swiss scientists physically back to Switzerland. It functioned instead almost like a wormhole: a portal where scientists could walk in, transfer their knowledge virtually back to Switzerland via lectures, seminars, joint events, meetings, and so forth, and walk back out.
What were some of the inspirations and leading concepts in the design of the space?
Muriel Waldvogel (MW): There were a few. The first was to put an equal emphasis on making this as much a virtual space as it was a physical space. When we made the renovations, we had to leave the facade, because it was historical. But on the inside, we ripped the building naked and made every single wall a glass “media wall.” We wanted to link many of these media walls to other locations, transporting the wall to somewhere else in the world.
We didn’t want to transport the people, but rather the space. It’s a different thing compared to Zoom today. This wasn’t people to people — it was space to space. In the entrance for example, the large first wall was sometimes linked to the lobby of the ETH Zurich, among other locations. Because of that, we had to design the geometry of the space to follow the rules of perspective and take into account how the camera viewed our space.
The second concept was intimacy, which was reflected in how we designed the layout of the building, which included a smaller alcove called the arena which would serve as a more intimate space for smaller group work sessions. Down to the smallest details, we really wanted this to be a flexible and intimate space. For example, we designed the wiring for the outlets, cameras, and the projectors at the same time as we designed the space. It was part of the initial structure, and as such it created a different level of intimacy. In the arena for example, you could just hook up your computer and work with eight people in a more intimate setting.
A third driving concept was transparency. We wanted every wall to be transparent, and everything was in glass. At that time, it was also a symbolic gesture, because we were in the middle of the banking crisis where Switzerland was behind a lot of scandals and diplomacy was conducted behind closed doors. So the idea of making a consulate completely transparent of course was not an easy idea to get approved, but it was something we all wanted to try, and so we went with it.
A final concept that we wanted to integrate was a sense of ambiguity. We made sure that the building materials we used would make the space unique, and non-traditional. All the materials we chose weren’t something you’d ever normally choose for a consulate. The wood floor for instance is very large planks of birch. By picking wider planks of a non-traditional wood, we wanted to make the space look almost rural, something you would not typically have in a public building. We wanted to make the space elegant and modern, and yet feel like a place where you’d want to hang out and stay.
JH: The space was also ambiguous, because it was not clear whether it was an office or a gallery, or even an exhibition room. And I think it’s that ambiguity that creates this moment of estrangement: when you come in, you stop and think twice. It creates this increased perceptual moment of recognizing, “oh, this is something different.”
MW: And that didn’t just come from our design intent, it was also the context. The neighborhood didn’t want a consulate, and Xavier really wanted openness, so even the glass walls had one centimeter gaps between them. We didn’t close them so you could hear conversation. It was all this play with privacy and intimacy that was not only visual, but also audible. You could hear everybody talking and every phone call from Xavier’s office was open to everyone. That was quite new I think, and the neighbors loved it, because they were afraid it was going to be a black box.
You’ve mentioned that you were involved with the second floor addition in 2008 as well. Can you talk a little bit how you were involved in that process?
MW: We got involved the second time around for the second floor addition in 2008. Christoph von Arb called me and said that they had about 200–300 events a year, and they needed more separate dedicated office space, which was a positive thing, as it indicated success and growth. So we designed a second floor in collaboration with Peter Darlow of Darlow Christ Architects.
At the beginning of the design with Christoph, we decided to do something that was again glass-heavy, like a lightbox, similar to the interior of downstairs, only turned inside-out. We also incorporated a green roof with the second floor, set back a few meters so that it didn’t visually crowd the street corner.
20 years later, what does this project mean to you, and how did it impact your careers?
JH: Before Swiss House, we had been working at Harvard on this theoretical idea of convergence of physical and virtual space. And swissnex/Swiss House gave us an opportunity to apply those ideas and realize some of those ideas in a real project. Once swissnex was built, we featured the project in an article in Harvard Business Review, which became a seminal article on future space where physical and virtual spaces converge. That concept of future space then became the foundation of our subsequent research and of our design firm Convergeo, which was really created for designing the convergence of physical and virtual space.
After swissnex, we designed several digital-physical projects that were inspired or built on the swissnex concept. There was a building for Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, concept stores and experimental museums for Rolex, and also a series of future offices for mostly Swiss firms, such as CreditSuisse and SwissRe, which integrate with virtual working and physical working. These projects were developed after swissnex and considered futuristic. Today, ironically, with the current pandemic due to COVID-19, the interest in virtual offices and virtual museums, in virtual stores and virtual universities, this whole idea of convergence of physical and virtual architectures is coming back full-circle, and finally becoming mainstream 20 years later.
Designing and building swissnex was a pioneering project for architecture that combines physical and virtual spaces. It became the foundation for our careers and also for our architecture practice. I’m also a professor, and the reason I’m at EPFL now is because I met Patrick Aebischer, the president of EPFL then at swissnex in 2004–5, and through our interactions at swissnex, he convinced me of the uniqueness and dynamism of the EPFL he was about to create. So the effects of this project were not just architectural, but we also met really interesting people from all walks of life. swissnex truly was a harbinger for many new things to come.