With a prosperous and cultured air, the town of Lausanne on the Swiss shores of Lake Geneva is looking to its railway heritage to carry its art and cultural offer forward into the next decade. Its new Plateforme 10 arts district – so-called as it lies immediately adjacent to the town’s art-deco era railway station, which comprises nine platforms – is a new-build development on the site of the former giant engine shed.
While to some extent the project echoes other European centres (Dundee’s V&A, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, London’s Tate Modern) that have established major cultural attractions on disused or former industrial sites, Lausanne’s enterprise is distinctive in that the town already houses a variety of art and cultural riches, which over time will populate the new district in bold new purpose-built spaces.
Having vacated its former premises at the Palais de Rumine (see below), with its tightly restricted gallery space, the Musee Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (MCBA) re-opened in its new building, designed by Fabrizio Barozzi and Alberto Veiga, in October 2019; its value as a magnet for visitors and generator of revenue is already being proved, attracting more than 19,000 visitors in its first week. But construction continues apace as the Musée de l’Elysée (Cantonal Photography Museum), and MUDAC (Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts) are slated to move here from their current homes in 2021.
The new building acknowledges its railway heritage openly, both in name and with views out towards the majestic lake across the tracks next-door, with their slumbering rolling stock and trains coursing by. Indeed, before entering, you pass reminders such as a preserved locomotive turntable (cannily appropriated as the project’s graphic motif), a shaped rail on the gable-end echoing the contour of the former train-sheds, old track still set into the ground, and you can’t help but notice La Crocodile – a large green-painted aluminium sculpture of a locomotive whose type is particular to Swiss railway heritage. The scheme aims to comprise a welcoming arts district, and space has been made in the adjoining arches for cafes, shops and other amenities – convivial to visitors and locals alike.
Artmag was fortunate to enjoy a tour of the museum, arranged by Swiss Tourism and lead by Bernard Fibicher, its Director, a short time after its first opening. The vast full-height entrance hall’s centrepiece, and the first artwork to be installed, is a giant nut tree sculpture, Luce e ombra by Italian Giuseppe Penone, whose work re-appears throughout the building. As Bernard explains, there will be a mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions, with admission charged only for the latter.
The inaugural (until 12 January 2020) show is Atlas. A Cartography of Donation – an admission-free gathering of the best of the MCBA’s international collection, with each space having its own theme. The galleries are impressively enormous, sometimes giant, and the generous space available has afforded a new approach to display planning: rooms can be grouped by themes other than by artist or chronological period, with large artworks and installations afforded leeway in where they take their places. This can result in unexpected juxtapositions, such as the vast red acreage of Robert Motherwell’s ultra-minimalist Untitled, which occupies nearly an entire wall, juxtaposed with the gigantic late 19th century La Fuite de Charles le Téméraire by Eugene Burnand.
Another unusual but appropriate placement – Rodin’s famous and sensuous The Kiss sits surrounded by a series of delicately-fractured life-drawings of Swiss artist Denis Savary.
The grouping of colourways sees the jet-black of Pierre Soulage’s Painting share room-space with Anselm Keifer’s Wagnerian Die Rheintöchter and Pierre Schwerzmann’s Untitled.
A highlight for me was Julian Charriere’s We Are All Astronauts – a suspended looming installation of globes, ominously leaking sand. Further on, the large rooms make way for the enormous – possibly the largest purpose-built gallery spaces I’ve seen, showing an eclectic but cohesive mix of 20th and 21st century works.
The Museum is the home of the Fondation for Lausanne-born artist and writer Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) – his striking, symbolic work, some of whose is on display here, is now set to gain further international acknowledgement.
A significant design feature is the absence of any adornment to the stairwells and vestibules of the new building, which are intentionally left bare, becoming stark architectural set-pieces in themselves.
After lunch in Le Nabi, Plateforme 10’s new and well-appointed restaurant, I travelled by trolley-bus to the Art Brut Collection. Created by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901 -1985), who was fascinated by purely expressive and authentic art forms that run counter to the academically-tutored. Unique in Europe, the Collection features works by self-taught artists, many of whom have been affected by mental illness and have undergone lengthy terms in asylums, have been imprisoned or have even led covert existences. The spirit of Art Brut – that of the outsider, unversed in received technique, moreover uninterested in the viewer’s opinion – is more universal than we at first think; a reminder of art’s function as activity, equal or greater weight than its aesthetics, at least to the artist, who may find art therapeutic, maybe their one means of expressing themselves. The Collection’s lead exhibition was of the vigorous gouaches and collages of Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974), with their fascinating recurring motifs, lettering and busy execution – many of the works are displayed to allow the viewer to see both sides of the paper [on show until 2nd February 2020].
Rather like Edinburgh, Lausanne is hilly, tumbling down an incline to the shores of the Lake. A metro (the only one in Switzerland) takes passengers directly up the gradient – useful to the footsore, as other cultural interests are at other points in the town. Lofty in its location adjacent to the Cathedral, I visited the MUDAC (Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts) to view their collection: a cross-disciplinary museum, it’s at once an educational and cultural venue, and a home for design (there was a display about the development of the training shoe), together with its displays of ceramics, photography, glass, multimedia and jewellery. Housing one of Europe’s largest glassworks collections, it’s a diverting visit to an eclectic museum, but it can be seen how the forthcoming move to Plateforme 10 will greatly boost the collection’s appeal for the tourist interested in art and design.
The town is centred over the river Flon, which is oddly invisible, long covered-over, and in recent years a new art and entertainment district has been built, named after the river, with pedestrian streets centring on a square and some distinctive medium-scale buildings and sculpture. Although quiet-ish on a chilly November daytime, the area is bustling at night, with coloured neon lighting luring its night-clubbers and cinema-goers. I liked Burckhardt Partners’ Hookah Bar.
Our tour with the experienced and knowledgeable Hilary as a guide also took us to the Church of St François, which dates back over 700 years, when Lausanne was walled. Built in the gothic, its elaborate organ is especially impressive, and a bustling market springs up in its adjacent square every Saturday, making way for a Christmas market in December.
A walk across the Pont Bessieres, you head uphill (you’re always heading up- or down-hill in Lausanne) to the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne. Construction of the gothic building began in 1170, its consecration and dedication by Pope Gregory X taking place in 1275. Restored remnants of the original colouring can be seen in the doorways and walls – a reminder of how colourful the building would have been at its zenith. Noted by organists for allowing all principal organ styles, the giant 7,000-pipe angel-shaped organ is a recent addition, from 2003, and a 700 year-old rose window, with its seasonal symbols, is quite stupendous.
Nearby, built thanks to the gift of the aristocrat Gabriel de Rumine, is the enormous Florentine-neoclassical style Palais de Rumine. Opened in 1906, it used to house the University’s library and now accommodates a variety of museums, covering archaeology and history, geology, zoology and currency. While some of the displays are 21st-century, many are charmingly old-fashioned, with their hand-written annotations, and serried cabinets housing taxidermy and inky diagrams.
A further walk took us to the Musée de l’Elysée (Cantonal Photography Museum), which was hosting an exhibition of American photographer Jan Groover (1943-2012), whose work is collected there. Her meticulously-arranged and detailed colour still-life images, shown with the enormous large-format ‘banquet’ camera that took them, form the exhibition’s basis, but her detached glimpses documenting a long-gone 1970’s urban America were an education, and I was most drawn-in by the subtleties of the spare and evocative prints produced by way of the rarely-used platinum/palladium developing process that intrigued her. The exhibition continues until 5th January 2020.
The town’s lakeside district, Ouchy, is home to its most prestigious and historic hotels, and the Olympic Museum. Until the mid-1800’s, Switzerland was seen by northern Europeans as a wild and forbidding landscape to endure en route to Mediterranean climes, but the painter J M W Turner’s repeat visits then began to popularise the romantic sweeps of its alpine scenery (in much the same way as William Wordsworth did for England’s Lake District), and the shores have inspired several English romantics including poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, who wrote The Prisoner of Chillon here in 1826, staying in the Hotel Angleterre et Residence, a plaque on the entrance wall indicating so. A stone’s throw away, the Hotel Beau Rivage is similarly redolent of the Belle Époque of privileged travel; there are reminders of Lausanne’s sustained opulence everywhere from its palatial hotels with lake views, to the neo-classicism of its public buildings and grand railway station.
Other public figures to have called the town home have been Coco Chanel, who stayed at the Lausanne Palace hotel, escaping the disapproving gaze of the French public after having a wartime affair with a German officer; and David Bowie, who married Somali-American model Iman in 1992 at the City Hall. British actor, writer and film director Charles Chaplin lived for 25 years in Corsier-sur-Vevey, a few miles along the lake shore, having left America in 1952 to escape the opprobrium incurred by his Communist sympathies. One other plaque-worthy resident was the creator of Maigret, Georges Simenon, who lived here and, as the sign on the Rue de Bourg states, shopped, for inspiration and comestibles.
A stroll along the Riviera-like shore is rewarding, life detached somewhat from the busy, built-up town: children lick ice-creams, local men languorously play giant chess, and cyclists and roller-bladers take advantage of the flat, level topography and wide pavement. Quayside restaurants add to the appeal, and the view across to Evian and the distant Alpes-Savoie is quite a sight, as was the sunset over the lake. Encountered artworks such as Angelo Duarte’s Ouverture au Monde complete the relaxed picture.
My last cultural stop was the aforementioned Olympic Museum. It proved to be a real highlight: as you walk in you pass under the High-Jump bar, set at the the world record of 2.45 metres, that Cuban Javier Sotomayor launched himself over in 1993. You also pass several commissioned sculptures of sporting activities by various eminent sculptors, and can try lifting the impossibly-heavy shot that Randy Barnes heaved through 23 metres of air in 1990, and a running track where you can pretend at being a true sprinting Olympian.
Having established the Olympic Movement and the modern Olympic Games in 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Lausanne in 1915. The key ideas of ‘Olympism’, based on ancient Greek sporting ideals, bringing together humankind in a shared fellowship, were born here and the Museum celebrates this history through a fascinating collection of objects (how about seeing the torches from every Olympiad lined up together?), clothing, posters, broadcasting apparatus, etc.
Every aspect of the movement and the sports is on display, the onerous political and drug-related troubles have not been side-stepped, and an enormous investment has been made in conveying the edifying glory of the enterprise, through highly-advanced interpretation – graphics, videos, mannequins, interactive exhibits. While the staggering dedication of the athletes is brought to the fore, this is equalled by the extraordinary endeavour of those who have worked to make the Games and movement a continuing, hallowed institution. Through the Museum’s dynamic presentation even those who don’t care too much for sport are likely to fall for the lofty ambitions and egalitarian ideals of the ‘Olympic spirit’, and leave with an admiration for those who achieve the seemingly-impossible. Lausanne is due to host the 2020 Youth Olympic Games.
By way of final mention, the above attractions are by no means the complete story – another asset to Lausanne’s artistic array is the Fondation de l’Hermitage, comprising a magnificent 1850 mansion, set in a beautiful park overlooking the city and Lake, and donated to the town. The Museum there mounts regular art exhibitions and houses a private art collection. Until 24th May 2020, an exhibition, mounted in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, shows how Canadian painters discovered the Impressionist revolution in France in the late 19th century. The site boasts a restaurant and educational centre.
I was one of a team of seven writers invited and made most welcome by
30 Bedford Street
London WC2E 9ED
and my thanks go to Harry White (no relation).
Thanks also to David Werlen from
Avenue de Rhodanie 2
CH- 1001 Lausanne,
and Hilary Bales from the
Association Lausannoise des Guides Touristiques (ALGT), whose knowledge of the area and its history is redoubtable. The ALGT provides quality guided tours to individuals, professionals and businesses.
I slept comfortably at the Hotel Agora Swiss by Fassbind, which boasts a rooftop restaurant with a fully-glazed cupola, affording prize views out over Lausanne’s rooftops to the Lake. Eric Fassbind, who passed by on his bike one morning and stopped to speak to us, is building a network of contemporary, characterful hotels, restaurants and bars in the region.
I ate well too, by the way:
at the cosy Café de Grancy
Avenue du Rond-Point 1, 1006 Lausanne;
at Plateforme 10’s Le Nabi
Place de la Gare 16, 1003 Lausanne;
also at La Pinte Besson, established in 1780 and Lausanne’s oldest restaurant, at Rue de l’Ale 4, 1003 Lausanne;
The centrally-located Café des Artisans, Rue Centrale 16, 1003 Lausanne;
A local favourite, the Brasserie de Montbenon
at Allée Ernest-Ansermet 3, 1003 Lausanne;
and on the Lake shore, The Lacustre
Quai Jean-Pascal Delamuraz 1, 1006 Lausanne.
Image courtesy of MCBA / Plateforme 10 / Switzerland Tourism