The Migration of Urban Cranes

Those who arrive at Tecla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth  screens, scaffolding, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask “Why is Tecla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering lead strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer “So that its destruction cannot begin.” (from Tecla – Cities & the sky, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino)

Ten years ago, I came to Zurich for the first time. It was June, I had an interview at ETH and my mom, eager to have a weekend getaway, decided to come with me. The very first image of the city is still very vivid in my mind: our eyes peeled out of the window and us screaming ”Oh, look! We’re already here! And so punctual!” What we were looking at was the Zentralstellwerk (the central signalling control tower): on its facade a big clock and the name of the city, unmissable. And yes, the six-storey concrete building was the only thing to look at. If you’re a Zurich newcomer and you have not noticed it, you’re excused: the background of that 60s artefact is now a glass and aluminium facade three times its size and you can hardly perceive it.

At the time I arrived in Zurich, Europaallee was just gravel and a few industrial sheds where sometimes a party was thrown. None of the shops in Viadukt were open yet. Kalkbreite, a project representing a case study among many architecture universities across Europe, was only the name of a bus stop. Not to mention that Züri West didn’t exist and the tallest building around there was the Freitag flagship store: Prime Tower and Hardbrücke were just scaffolding and cranes whilst Toni Areal and Kornhaus were very likely not even a sketch in some architect’s notebook. In the past years, did any of you realize that HB actually does have a facade, other than the white and yellow containers that were towering in front of it? 

Moreover, the building fever has hit not only big cities such as Zurich or Basel, but also the rest of the country. If walking through the city you literally stumble on a building site every few steps, whilst enjoying a hike in the mountains or exploring tiny villages nestled on the shores of pristine lakes, you won’t be disappointed either: you will spot a crane, for sure. In 2012, following concerns by the green parties, a referendum was held in order to limit urban sprawl, reducing plot size and restricting building land over the coming 20 years. The following year the proposal for a new spatial planning law was approved, although not to everyone’s full satisfaction: cantons that relied mostly on tourism thought of organizing a counter-referendum, especially after the limitation of the spread of vacation homes had also been approved in the same year. Fast forward to 2019, called to the polls again, citizens dismissed the proposal of limiting buildable areas. The whole topic is complex and it’s not the point of this post, but for sure highlights a tendency that cannot be ignored.

As an architect, this could sound like paradise: new things to be built! Anytime, anywhere! But as an urban designer with a thing for history, I wonder whether all this new is actually good. It is, no doubt, in terms of efficiency, organization, general wellbeing. 

What I question is the essence of the city itself. Is the new Swiss city going to be a very well preserved historical centre, with cobblestone alleys and wooden bow windows, surrounded by nicely arranged cubes with big windows? But again, I’m sure back in the days, when the first constructions that we now consider historical raised above the wooden ones, people cried out “Damn, all those new brick buildings look the same!”.

If, dissatisfied with the answers, someone puts his eye to a crack in a fence, he sees cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffolding that embraces other scaffolding, beams that prop up other beams. “What meaning does your construction have?” he asks. “What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?” “We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now,” they answer.  Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. “There is the blueprint”, they say.  (from Tecla – Cities & the sky, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino)

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;