Carving an Identity

John Hill, Thomas Geuder
9. July 2018
The historic village of Unterengstringen has, since 2017, a new community center, designed by the internationally renowned architect Tilla Theus. (Photo: Thomas Züger)

In Unterengstringen near Zurich, architect Tilla Theus shows that architecture is ideally more than just a shelter: The facade of the town's new community center expresses a piece of the town's identity.

Project: Community Center, 2017 
Location: Unterengstringen, Switzerland
ArchitectTilla Theus und Partner AG
Manufacturer: Scherrer Metec AG 
Product: Laser-cut aluminum facade 
Contractor: Allreal Generalunternehmung AG 
Facade: Scherrer Metec AG 

The roof overhang on the side of the building references the warehouse (photo at bottom) that was previously located on the site. (Photo: Thomas Züger)

Unterengstringen is about halfway between Zurich and Baden, situated at the intersection of the A1 and A3 motorways. With strong transportation links, the town is just a stone's throw away from Zurich and therefore a popular residential area, with forests and recreation areas. Regardless, there is still a strong village atmosphere, one that inhabitants strongly identify with the place. So, for architect Tilla Theus, the task to build a new community center here meant dealing intensively with the place and its identity. It was important to find an architectural language that did not copy the old, but that uses contemporary methods to unite tradition and progress. Theus expressed this union through form and materials.

The two-story building is approached via a generous exterior staircase. (Photo: Thomas Züger)

The site was previously occupied by a large barn or warehouse from 1929 that had a generous roof overhang facing the road, under which cargo vehicles could be loaded and protected from the rain. Theus took up this theme in her design and folded in the outer walls on the long sides of the rectilinear building to create overhangs that cast angular shadows across the facades. The gable end on the west side features a striking pediment with a large window, a reference the architect brought from Graubünden.

The anodized aluminum facade is graced with the symbols from Unterengstringen's coat of arms. (Photo: Thomas Züger)

The focal point of the design, apart from its sculpted rectilinear form, is the facade. It consists of two layers, the outer layer cut with symbols from the town. The anodized aluminum shingles have a lazer-cut pattern in the form of a plowshare and vine knife, just like the coat of arms of Unterengstringen, which dates back to 1734. The result is a filigree dress that, in conjunction with the red aluminum surface behind it, creates a three-dimensional facade with varied shadow play. The manufacture and assembly of the aluminum facade was done by Scherrer Metec, a Swiss company with over 120 years of experience in facade and metal engineering. The design demanded high accuracy, particularly at the corners, where the pattern continues uninterrupted, like a fabric wrapped around the building.

Facade design is based on the coat of arms with plowshare and vine knife on a red background. (Source: Tilla Theus)

The windows pick up the sweep in the patterned facade and complete it into oval openings. Finally, the interior has a formal and material clarity, a kind of artistic counterpart to the exterior -- perhaps a reference to the reduction that prevails in Swiss architecture. Inside and out, architect Tilla Theus has succeeded in constructing a building that, through its characteristic ornamentation, stands fully in the tradition of its setting yet continues to look into the future.

The windows follow the shape of the arcs in the facade. (Photo: Thomas Züger)
Inside, the oval windows and filigree facade create unique light and shadows. (Photo: Thomas Züger)
The facade details recede at night, when the pattern of the windows dominates. (Photo: Thomas Züger)
Design inspirations: a barn/warehouse on the site previously, and a rectory in Igis, Graubünden (Source: Tilla Theus)

A version of this article originally appeared as "Ornamentales Kleid" on German-Architects.

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