The polytechnical school as building site 1880–1940

Dr. Sarah M. Schlachetzki

In the second half of the 19th century, the success story of the Zurich Polytechnic (ETH) was reflected in the rapid expansion of its building stock. It was Gottfried Semper’s students who were significantly involved in this construction phase, especially Alfred Bluntschli and Georg Lasius. Benjamin Recordon, in turn, provided the designs for a machine laboratory and combined heat and power plant (1895). Also the early decades of the 20th century entailed conversions, extensions, as well as new buildings. From 1909 onward, Gustav Gull led the fundamental transformation and extension of Semper’s main building. Otto Rudolf Salvisberg remodeled Recordon’s machine laboratory and expanded it substantially.

With these buildings and others, ETH becomes evident as a place where architectural history, history of science and industrial history intersect. Already in the early days of the school, institutionalized science and Swiss entrepreneurship were closely linked. This becomes evident, for example, in the laboratories of the new physics building. For their construction, Bluntschli and Lasius collaborated with physicist and institute director Heinrich Weber; Ludwig Tetmajer (head of the Swiss Federal Institute for the Testing of Building Materials since 1881), in turn, used the laboratories as a testing ground for the innovative material slag cement. Other ETH professors likewise took an active part in the evaluation – and even development – of new materials and construction methods. Engineer Wilhelm Ritter presented a novel calculation method for the statics of the Hennebique system (1899). Recordon himself used this system for ceiling constructions in his machine laboratory, as well as those of Monier and Schürmann. In technical journals, he discussed the Siegwart system at length. Finally, Robert Maillart was not only alumnus and later professor of civil engineering at ETH; Maillart also developed the well-known joistless mushroom ceilings that were particularly relevant for industrial construction and that he consistently marketed through a construction company of his own.

By means of several case studies on the period 1880–1940, the subproject will shed light on the importance of patents for ETH’s architectural history. In so doing, it maps the above-mentioned linkage of the history of construction and architecture with the history of science and industry in the greater Zurich area, and – as a history of circulating knowledge – also beyond.

This project is part of the SNSF project “Architecture & Patents. The Buildings of the ETH Domain”.