Caruso St John + Thomas Demand: Nagelhaus, Project for Escher-Wyss-Platz, Zürich

A controversial blank structure expected to bring vibrancy to a corner of Zurich
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The Nagelhaus (Nail House) is described by the architects and the artist as a kind of contemporary twist on the Chinese pavilion, the courtly, many-roofed structures found in parks and gardens all over the world. This Chinese pavilion, however, takes the form of a Chongqing house famous because its owners resisted its demolition for years. The small restaurant on its ground floor became inaccessible as the ground around it was bulldozed away, resulting in an isolated island in the middle of a huge hole slated to become a new shopping mall, like a nail stuck into the ground. This lasted for three years until it was finally torn down in 2007.

In 2008, architects Caruso St John and artist Thomas Demand, known for his photographs of life-size paper models of spaces made famous through connections to news, politics and history, won a competition to redesign the Escher Weiss Platz in Zurich. Their proposal was to reconstruct the Nail House as a pavilion in the square, under a highway flyover, and to repurpose it as a twenty-four hour restaurant, in order to bring life to a relatively unused, dull corner of Zurich.

The proposed Zurich project is embroiled in controversy, with the right-wing SVP trying to prevent its construction. As the Venice Biennale catalogue notes, the project has triggered two different kinds of protest: the demolition of the house was protested by activists in authoritarian China, but its reconstruction is being protested in democratic Switzerland.

The installation at the Biennale consists of the reconstructed house, built to look like a Demand paper model, illustrations of the proposed restaurant under the flyover and a slide projector showing images of Chinese pavilions. It raises a whole host of questions about development and preservation, about protest and urban development and about the Western world’s attitudes towards China.

As an object, however, the reconstructed house is truly remarkable in its generic-ness and in the Potemkin-like quality of its construction: windows made as perfect cut-outs and awnings constructed as perfectly plain grey boxes. If the Zurich project goes forward, it will be very interesting to see if such a deliberately strange and blank structure can be used to, as the creators hope, ‘bring life to a square otherwise lacking in vibrancy’.

 

By Sara Goldsmith
Project Editor, Architecture & Design, Phaidon


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