by Jerry ElengicalDec 06, 2022
On geological time scale, a period of 20 millions years is little more than a minor chapter of a larger chronicle in stone extending eons into the past, back when the earth was a vastly different place from its current conditional state. In the city of Lucerne, at the heart of the European nation of Switzerland, a large sandstone rock formation defining the site of the city’s Gletschergarten Museum on Wesemlin Hill, narrates a tale structured over a similar time period, from a point when its current Alpine-adjacent setting was once a tropical marine beach.
Following the dawn of human civilisation, the site has since served as a quarry from the Middle Ages onward, even providing a canvas for internationally acclaimed Danish sculptor, Berthold Thorvaldsen, to fashion his famous ‘Lion Monument’ - a rock relief honouring Swiss guards who lost their lives defending the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution of 1792. However, a chance encounter in 1872 led to the discovery of 17,000-year-old glacial potholes, which were gradually integrated to develop guided tours of these enchanting subterranean caverns, contributing to the location’s prominence as a tourist destination. Eventually the Gletschergarten Museum (Glacier Garden of Lucerne) was established in 1895, under the stewardship of the Stiftung Gletschergarten Luzern - the foundation tasked with the conservation of the natural monument and its supplementary facilities.
More than a century later in 2012, Basel-based architecture practice Miller & Maranta was enlisted by the Stiftung Gletschergarten Luzern to conduct a feasibility study into redesigning the historic site and its associated spaces. The project’s scope also entailed the creation of a new access point to the property’s mirror labyrinth, renovating the historic Schweizerhaus in its vicinity, and building the rock garden as well as a new exhibition space as part of the Gletschergarten Museum’s overall extension. The earlier configuration of the premises had cropped up as a densely packed yet decentralised arrangement of attractions, including the Schwyzerhüsli, Schweizerhaus, Aussichtsturm observation tower, along with nearby ponds and public spaces that, in the eyes of the architects, were connected in a manner "reminiscent of English landscape parks".
Hence, the key aim of Miller & Maranta’s intervention was to induce a more evident sense of clarity in the three-dimensional layout of the garden and the spaces placed around it, while respecting the stunning geological formations that had defined the site for millennia. For this purpose, the architects sought to dismantle many of the annexes to the Schweizerhaus - expanding the park and weaving neighbouring attractions together across its grounds in a more coherent spatial order, meant to function like an intermediary landscape garden. Such an ambitious and large-scale endeavour necessitated a great deal of sensitivity to the preservation of the site’s urban scale function, alongside its cultural and ecological significance.
Taking heed of these concerns, the Swiss architecture practice added a new central square adjacent to the Schweizerhaus, from which paths to all other attractions now emanate, as part of their redevelopment of the site. In this vein, the space acts as a nexus for the glacial potholes, the rock path to the Sommerau meadow, the Schweizerhaus and the new exhibition rooms, with the mirror labyrinth in the basement. Furthermore, they adopted a design vocabulary composed of monumental, geometrically-designed concrete forms, whose smooth but worn textures not only complement the natural Lucerne sandstone, but also appear to be hewn directly from it. This is particularly evident in the sculptural form of the entrance portal, with its angular projections that resemble polished slabs of stone precariously poised against the terrain.
In fact, the mood within the caverns is defined by this interaction between natural rock formations and the concrete architecture. Beyond the portal, visitors are led towards a columned hall, with daylight seeping in through gaps between the assemblage of structural supports. Contrasts between darkness and light overcome the senses on moving into the depths of the rock, with a cool and contemplative ambience pervading the brutalist-tinged interior design, as a result of its near monolithic materiality. According to the design team at Miller & Maranta, this humid atmosphere remains relatively unaffected by seasonal climatic variations.
A winding path leads guests on a journey through time, further into the rock formation along the various grotto-like chambers within the complex, with each one reporting on a specific geological epoch - from the formation of the Lucerne sandstone along the erstwhile marine beaches of eras past, to the folding of the Alps, and the subsequent Ice Ages that succeeded these phases in the site’s history. This narrative is supplemented by lighting design elements, sound, and animations projected onto the rock.
Oblique orientations of internal caverns and rooms within the subterranean complex shape "experiences of light and darkness, confinement and expanse, sound and silence". This arrangement of built forms is layered over the natural stone primarily to ensure structural stability, leaving much of the rock exposed to speak for itself. At the end of the path is an angular cavern containing a mountain lake that harvests rainwater dripping down from the surface. The mood here borders on the hallowed and otherworldly, fully manifesting its nature as a primeval space that has endured through the ages.
Monumental stairways lead visitors upwards from this chamber, with fissures in the structure allowing daylight to trickle inwards. These openings gradually expand to permit unbridled views of the sky. The architects explain in an official release, “From a depth of 20 metres, visitors climb step by step towards the light and experience elementary natural phenomena and perceptions: vegetation is found on the rock surfaces as the sunlight increases, until one finds oneself on the surface of the earth." The tour then leads to the Sommerau meadow, offering a view of the city of Lucerne, followed by the observation tower - which appears along the existing rock path back to the central square.
In conversation with STIR, the team at Miller & Maranta shares, “The vertical walk was shaped with dynamite inside the sandstone rock and completed with concrete to generate a unique composition of volumes. It was designed with geological concerns in mind, however, since the material was not built up but rather removed by this method - contrary to the construction of a building - it was always a surprise to see what the result was. We often did not know where the journey would lead, and it was primarily our intensive study of the conditions of the sandstone rock and subsequent readjustment of the design that enabled us to forge its segments into a whole”.
Winding staircases guide visitors to the 19th century mirror maze in the basement while the auxiliary spaces for special exhibitions are in the northern part of the site as organic architectural extensions of the mountain using excavated material. Additionally, the structure of the Schweizerhaus has also been reinforced, with its displays of stuffed animals, fossils, engravings, furniture, maps and reliefs, reflecting norms in museum design from the 19th century.
The design team at Miller & Maranta notes in a press statement, “The garden area has been thematically structured and its qualities are now strengthened. Existing structural elements can be understood as follies within the garden, which is at times naturalistic and enchanted, at times staged and whimsical.” In its new form, following the firm’s intervention - which blends sculptural architecture with landscape design for the purpose of geological tourism, the ethereal environment of the Gletschergarten Lucerne recounts a saga set in stone through the ages, embedded into the belly of the earth itself.
Name: Museum Extension Gletschergarten Lucerne
Location: Lucerne, Switzerland
Client: Stiftung Gletschergarten Luzern
Year of Completion: 2022
Architect: Miller & Maranta
Design Team: Quintus Miller, Paola Maranta, Jean-Luc von Aarburg
Project Team: Sven Waelti, Emilie Appercé, Simon Bammer, Martin Caduff, David Capell, Annina Hauenstein, Sayako Hirakimoto, Gaëtan Iannone, Dominik Kreuzer, Camilla Minini, Maya Scheibler, Silvio Schubiger, Solange Piccard, Florian Voigt, Tobias Vögtli, Josua Wahl, Katharina Welper
Landscape Architect: Müller Illien Landschaftsarchitekten, Zürich
Scenographers: Velvet Creative, Luzern, Tweaklab, Basel
Lighting Design: LLAL AG, Zürich
Site Management: Schärli Architekten, Luzern
Geologist: Geotest, Horw
Civil Engineer: Conzett Bronzini Partner, Chur, Lombardi Bauingenieure, Luzern
Building Physics: BWS Bauphysik
Electrical Engineer: Jules Häfliger, Luzern
HVAC: Ing. Büro Berchtold, Sarnen
Gastro Planner: axet, Embrach