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Excerpt: ‘Switzerland. Deep Urbanism for an Age of Disruption’ by Markus Schaefer

Switzerland, in its current state of resilient and complex equilibrium, could provide inspiration on productive urban environments of the future and the practices that will be needed to operate within them effectively, architect and urbanist Markus Schaefer argues in his new essay published by Strelka Press.

Markus Schaefer has a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Harvard University. He also has a Master’s in Neurobiology from the University of Zürich. Prior to founding Hosoya Schaefer, Markus Schaefer was a director of AMO, the think-tank and research department of OMA.

Schaefer is a co-founder of Hosoya Schaefer, a Zürich-based studio for architectural designs, strategies, and research. He was a tutor of the Advanced Urban Design international master’s program (AUD), a unique two-year educational collaboration between Strelka Institute and the HSE University in Moscow that took place in 2016-2018.

In his essay, he exploits a rhetorical figure that allows him to use his own country, Switzerland, as a model for a particular type of holistic urbanism, defined by both topography and topology. In Schaefer’s case, the word model is cleverly used in two senses—as a physical representation of an idea and as a possible example to follow, AUD Program Director Anastassia Smirnova writes in the introduction to the essay.

Schaefer argues that Switzerland is a conceptual dream that has been realized in part due to geographical and historical circumstances, but first and foremost by conscious and robust design efforts. The country’s journey in search of identity unfolds in this essay as a consistent quest for reconciliation of traditional dichotomies between rural and urban, state and community, culture and nature.

Below is an excerpt from “Switzerland. Deep Urbanism for an Age of Disruption” by Markus Schaefer:



As emergent systems, cities have temporal depth. They can be traced back to their historic origins, often based on natural location factors. Zurich is a Roman town established at the strait where the river Limmat exits the lake of Zurich. There were earlier Celtic settlements at the lake, but the Romans built the first town. However, the toolkit of technologies and institutions making complex urban cultures possible—the urban source code, so to speak, which we inherited from the Romans—goes back even further to origins in Mesopotamia, or even earlier in today’s Anatolia, from where it has been passed onwards through different cultures and epochs by import replacement described by Jane Jacobs in her book Economy of Cities. Extrapolating this arrow of time going forward, cities have development dynamics that can be understood and—in terms of general tendencies—predicted, as Didier Sornette has shown us earlier.

As systems of infrastructural connections on a variety of scales, cities have network depth. They are networks themselves and are embedded in larger networks of cities. The polycentric city system of Switzerland and its urban landscape are part of the larger Central European economic core, the “Blue Banana.” At the same time, Switzerland is embedded again in a global network of cities based on supply chains, the flow of capital, and people. Navigating network depth, we experience as mobility. It increases by making infrastructures more effective, but also by reducing the physical footprint of a network, by increasing diversity on location. By its geographic location and specific history, Switzerland is an interesting case study for connectedness and subsidiarity, a nested system where many needs are covered on the local, others on the regional scale.

Agglomeration St. Gallen. Photo courtesy of Géraldine Recker

Hydraulic dam, Verzasca. Photo courtesy of Géraldine Recker

Cities also have cognitive depth. They are shaped by our collective actions and ideas when we plan their future. And as soon as they are built, they shape our behavior and our perception in turn. Cities are both environments and mediums of interactions between people. Without our collective activity bringing their technological, material, symbolic mélange to life, cities would be simple artifacts, not different from a randomly picturesque formation of rocks. Juval Portugali describes cities in his book Complexity, Cognition and the City as doubly complex systems. They are complex entities shaped by complex agents—us. Their stability is therefore not only a consequence of the fortitude of their built structures, but also of our belief in their future, our trust in the infrastructures and in the institutions governing them. The stories we are telling ourselves are as important as the spaces we build.

Switzerland’s agglomeration is based on an older decentralized system of settlements. Despite a lack of density, it has benefited from its unique position in the larger urban networks of the EU and the world during the era of the infrastructure state. But in the new dynamics brought about by digitalization, globalization, and the polarization of politics, it will need to redefine its position and strategies.



We cannot work on our cities without understanding the dynamics of complex systems in this moment of high volatility. In the past, we could proceed in individual steps and isolated projects. Now we need deep moves, as in a game of chess, thinking through the repercussions and interdependencies of our decisions. We cannot argue for urban density without understanding the effects on mobility, ecology, the land market, or municipal budgets in a more comprehensive manner. And we need to anticipate various events of disruption, ensuring that we can also function with less connectedness.

Digitalization will force us to rethink the relationship of space, data, and society. Switzerland is a country predestined for deep technology, the concurrent development of hardware and software for the economy of the future where services replace products and networks replace companies. Equally, when working on urban spaces, we should think in terms of performance, not just infrastructure—providing accessibility, rather than roads, for example. This requires an understanding of use and hence access to user data for a more fact-based form of planning and operating these spaces. There is data available generated by all of us when using digital services, from maps to telecom services. In order to use such data not only to predict purchase decisions, but to better understand how we use spaces and infrastructures, to really work on something like “smart cities,” we need a new social contract and the respective processes, platforms, and trust generating institutions—a digital republic.

And finally, as urban spaces are both environments and mediums for our interactions, they need to allow for deep resonance; a sense of care and attachment to the environment we live in. We need to give them form and build for people, understanding their physical, cognitive, and social needs. The ETH summarized what this entails in a report on urban qualities. Cities should be organized around centrality, accessibility, flexibility, adaptability, possibilities for appropriation, diversity, and interaction.

Deep urbanism, as stated at the beginning of this essay, is the discipline of the relationships—the connections and connectedness—that generate a complex system from people and their material, technological, and symbolic culture acting on a territory with its specific emergent dynamics and externalities. The urbanism we need today is not simply the design of cities. We need a deeper understanding of the factors involved in shaping our spaces and institutions. Only then can we think beyond potential disruptions or impasses and prepare the foundations for a livable future. While the current discourse of sustainability or resilience is still focused on preserving the status quo and its implied growth, we need to anticipate system change, and learn from science fiction as much as from science fact.

The urbanists of today should not only think like architects, but also like landscape ecologists, focusing on individual situations while also understanding the behavior of systems over time; they should be like poets, able to put individual events into the context of larger narratives, and they should be like activists with the ability to define their own causes in the context of a larger agenda.

You can find the full essay here.

Cover image: Appenzell, view to Hemberg. Photo courtesy of Géraldine Recker

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