Architecture & Patents. The Buildings of the ETH Domain

funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

Project Proposal and Director: Prof. Dr. Silke Langenberg and PD Dr. Robin Rehm
Co-Director and Contact: Dr. Sarah M. Schlachetzki

Around 1800, due to the invention of new materials, constructions and machines, architecture began to take on a new relationship toward tradition. At the same time, patents entered the scene. Initiated by the ministries of commerce of the respective states, patents now legally authenticated constructional innovations. In the field of architecture, patents made a significant contribution to differentiating technological innovation. They also assumed the role of a strategic instrument: they regulated productive efficiency, economic measures and political power relations between institutions and individuals.

The project «Architecture & Patent» examines patents focusing on the Swiss Institutes of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and Lausanne, the sites of the Paul Scherrer Institute as well as the EMPA from 1855 to the present day. Although it is hard to imagine the innovative, technological and creative aspects of architecture without them, architectural patents have still little been researched. In the project, we regard the architectural patent as a mediator in the transformation of architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries – from historically legitimated building styles up to architecture’s derivation from function-oriented building constructions. The main question to be pursued in the project, namely the role of patents in the development and distribution of technical inventions at the architectural level, arises from the relationships that arise in such processes. 

The buildings of the ETH domain are particularly suitable for the project’s thrust. They constitute an ensemble that has developed over a period of 150 years and that emerged under economically and politically largely homogeneous conditions. The building stock of the ETH is of high technological and architectural quality. It includes architectural landmarks of their time, such as Gottfried Semper’s Polytechnical School in Zurich (1868) and SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne (2010). Finally, the ETH has always intended to represent innovation and technological development – also with its buildings. The project scrutinizes this claim by analyzing and contextualizing relevant historical patents.


The polytechnical school as building site 1880–1940
Dr. Sarah M. Schlachetzki

From Semi-Finished Component to Ready-Made Building Product 1930–1960
Nina Irmert

Structure and Process 1960–1980
Tiago Matthes

Selected, relevant publications

«Open as a Matter of Principle». 2021
«Das Patent als Akteur technischer Innovationen. Hochschularchitektur der 1960er und 1970er Jahre». 2021
Designpatente der Moderne. 1840–1970. 2019
Bauten der Boomjahre. 2011
System & Serie. Systembau in der Schweiz – Geschichte und Erhaltung. 2022