Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’

The Local
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Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’
'Swiss style' by a German architect. Image: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

The traditional Swiss style of chalet so beloved by tourists visiting the alpine country is actually the creation of foreign architects, a researcher at federal technology institute ETH Zurich has found.


Daniel Stockhammer discovered the revelation as part of his doctoral thesis, the results of which are published in Horizons magazine this month.

His research focused on 19th century German architect Ernst Gladbach, a professor at the then newly-founded ETH Zurich, who created a comprehensive collection of sketches and plans of Swiss wooden houses .

In studying the drawings – which lay unpublished in the archives of the Swiss National Museum for a century – Stockhammer came across other, much older sketches of Swiss houses by architects from England, France and Germany.

He then realized it was these foreign architects who created the archetypal ‘Swiss’ style of chalet.

Speaking to The Local, Stockhammer said although wooden buildings have long been a part of Swiss rural architecture, they were “regionally so different that one could at most speak of local and regional traditions, not national ones”.

“The enormous diversity made it impossible to reduce these styles into a national Swiss style of wooden buildings”.

So foreign architects invented one.

In the late 18th and early 19th century wealthy foreign architects such as Briton Peter Frederick Robinson began travelling through Switzerland to draw and document the wooden buildings, said Stockhammer.

Back in London, they redrew these sketches, altering them in the process based on their own idealistic view of Switzerland.

“In this process, the architects did not stick closely to a faithful representation,” says Stockhammer.

Some parts were exaggerated, some were copied from different buildings and others “completely made up” to create “an idealistic picture of the Swiss house”.

This invented ‘Swiss national style’ represented a rural ideal for the European elites of the 18th and 19th century who then created buildings in this image in major European cities, according to Stockhammer.

The Rütlihaus before and after its transformation by Ernst Gladbach. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

This architectural style was then transported back to Switzerland with the advent of mass tourism in the country.

“The tourists brought their idealized images (back) to Switzerland . The Swiss responded to the needs of guests [by building] hotels and railway stations but also kiosks and souvenirs in the Swiss style.

“Since, at the beginning, they did not know exactly how to build in the 'Swiss style', the architects and chalet-builders looked back at the original works of almost exclusively foreign architects for inspiration.”

Stockhammer was particularly surprised to find that even the Rütlihaus – the 'original' Swiss house on the Rütli meadow, considered the birthplace of Switzerand – was the invention of German Gladbach, who studied the original building before it was demolished and then created a new, ‘more real’ version.

“To a great extent, Switzerland owes its national style, and its success, to tourists,” concludes Stockhammer.


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