Burkhalter & Summy: The Power of the Modern Wooden House

Burkhalter & Summy: The Power of the Modern Wooden House

Zurichberg Hotel Annex, designed by Burkhalter and Summy, 1995. Heinrich Helfenstein/zVg

Swiss Architects Series, Episode 5:

In Switzerland, the architectural couple Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Summy characterized modern wooden construction with a very special language of shapes and colours: clear, expressive and never without a touch of coral red.

This content was published on 28 October 2023 – 11:35

In 2021, the innovative character of the architecture of Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Summy has been confirmed by a body usually competent in other subjects entirely: the Federal Court. The judges had to decide whether there was a separate homeExternal link With the workshop, designed by Burkhalter and Summy in 1986 in Langnau am Albis (Canton of Zurich), it could be demolished.

Architects already used prefabricated wooden elements at that time. The curved exterior facade is reminiscent of the bow of a boat. At the time, the house was exceptional, both outside and inside.

This is also what the court saw. The owners, who brought the matter before the highest court, were prevented from replacing the building with a new building for energy reasons. The judges considered this house worthy of protection, as “a high-level witness to the architectural development of wooden construction.”External link».

Brunner House in Langnau am Albis. Leonardo Venuti/zVg

Today, modern timber construction seems self-evident, but forty years ago it was rare. When Marianne Burkhalter planned her first project in 1984 — an extension to a double garage in Iglisau, in the canton of Zurich — creative wood construction was going out of style, she said in a company profile. Sunday newspaper. Even the carpenters had reached their limits in executing these extraordinary plans.

Christian Sumi explained in a lecture at the University of Lucerne in 2021 that wooden construction at that time lost its character and became ordinary.External link. From here arose a vision for him and Marianne Burkhalter, his life and work partner: “We tried to update the wooden construction, modernize it and give it architectural strength.” For construction, this meant exploring possibilities, testing limits, and taking risks.

Talented duo

Architectural couple Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Sumi. zVg

The two met in 1980 in Zurich, established their joint office in 1984 and became a talented duo. Since the mid-1980s, they have given wooden construction a new, expressive face, making them internationally recognizable. Most of its buildings are located in Switzerland, but its reputation extends beyond Swiss borders.

Their voices resonate in international debates about architecture. Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Summy publishExternal link Regularly, participate in conferences, juries and exhibitionsExternal link public debates, in Switzerland and abroad; Both have also taught as visiting professorsExternal link In the United States, England and Scotland. From 2008 to 2018, they held a joint chair at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Ticino.

What do wooden buildings offer? What forces are they resisting? Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Summy also sought to test boundaries outside of construction, in an artistic context.

1986 during the Swiss Sculpture ExhibitionExternal link In Biel, the duo placed two oversized wooden walls into the tram tracks and connected them with criss-crossing steel cables so that they stood upright. It was a play on the forces of physics and elegance, a balancing of possibilities that still defines their creations today.

During the first attempt, the building collapsed. After structural modifications, it remained standing for the second time. Christian Sumi at the University of Lucerne explained that this gathering made it possible to learn lessons for future projects.

Preparation for the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition in Bienne in 1986. gta ETHZ/zVg

The fact that wood has become an increasingly flexible building material, offering new possibilities for architects, has worked to their advantage. “The wooden construction industry has made a big leap forward. We can use wood as a slab horizontally like concrete,” said Marianne Summy during an event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.External link (EPFZ) on developments in materials at the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1994, their office used these innovations, among others, to build forestry workshopsExternal link: A popular modular system consisting of a garage, an administrative room and an open hall for tools.

We find the red coral that has become their trademark. This color also appears in the Zurichberg hotel annexExternal linkBuilt in 1995, it is an oval-shaped building that appears to be anchored to the ground. The parking levels are located below the residential floors. Red color also acts as a structural element in the interior.

Color that distorts

Color is not intended to decorate, but rather to guide the eye and structure the spaces. They deliberately modify the wood material, which is often no longer recognizable as such. It is part of the construction, not the visual.

Color gives the wood an extra dimension, Marianne Burkhalter explained in an interviewExternal link. “We deliberately refrain from showing it in its natural appearance and emphasizing its specific materiality.” Just like materials and spaces, colors create moods and give their homes the “sensory intensity” they desire.

Forestry workshop by Burkhalter and Summy in Rheinau, 1994. Heinrich Helfenstein/zVg

More than colour, it was the standardized nature of forestry workshops that concerned them. This method of modular construction, which allows similar parts to be assembled to form an always new whole, fascinated them from the beginning. Forestry workshops are undoubtedly the most striking example of the possibilities offered by this type of construction. Elements can be combined in different places, depending on local conditions.

Both architects regularly say they were inspired by the writings of German architect Konrad WaxmannExternal link For this principle of modular construction. Waxman, who immigrated to the United States in 1941, aimed to create a kind of building set with industrially manufactured wooden modules that could be used in a variety of ways.

In the United States, he developed the system of prefabricated wooden houses with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. He was not successful in his time and his work remained mostly theoretical.

Wood cannot be liquefied or shaped like steel or concrete. We can cut it up and reassemble it, wipe it with paint, use it as a support or decoration, and imagine new constructions and combinations. But wood remains, a material whose use requires the skill not only of architects, but also of engineers and craftsmen.

Through the many transformations and elevations they have made over the past decades, Christian Sumi and Marianne Burkhalter have demonstrated the services that wood can provide, including in urban areas. Wooden construction has entered the city, in particular because this light material is well suited to condensation.

The construction of buildings makes it possible to create new housing, which is essential in densely populated Swiss cities. Wooden elevations are also made possible thanks to the renewal of Swiss fire protection regulations. As wood’s insulating and fire-resistant properties continue to improve over the years, its use is now more widely permitted than before.

In the Giesshübel station projectExternal link In Zurich, which was completed in early 2013, Burkhalter Summy demonstrated how this densification can be achieved in a creative and attractive way. The duo raised the Railroad Operations and Storage Building, which dates from the 1960s and was initially two stories high, with four wooden levels.

“Pile up” project, raising the Giesshübel station in Zurich. zVg

The management of the Sihltal Zürich Uetliberg Bahn (SZU) operates on the lower floor, while 24 new apartments have been created on the upper floors. Within five weeks, the structural works can be constructed using prefabricated elements. The insulation layer is already integrated into the wood panels, allowing less surface area to be used than if this insulation was placed on concrete walls.

The wooden constructions of Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Somme have always been very modern in aesthetic terms. But in today’s climate and environmental context, their preferred materials are also particularly important. Wood is actually a sustainable raw material, absorbs carbon dioxide, is easily recycled and can be produced locally.

In 2020, the Zurich couple handed over their office to their successors, who will continue to run it under the Oxide name. Innovative timber construction remains part of their architectural programme.


After training as a building designer, Marianne Burkhalter He worked at Superstudio in Florence, Studio Works in New York and Los Angeles, and then studied at Princeton University. When she returned to Zurich, she worked as an assistant to Klaus Vogt and Mario Campi at ETHZ. This was followed by guest professorships at Sci-Arc in Los Angeles and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

Christian Sumi He studied at the ETH Zurich, then worked in Rome at the German Archaeological Institute, at the GTA Institute for History and Theory in Zurich and as an assistant to Bruno Reichlin in Geneva. He was also Mario Campi’s assistant at ETH Zurich. This was followed by visiting professorships at the University of Geneva, Harvard, Glasgow and EPFL.

In 1984, the architects founded Burkhalter Suomi, and passed it on to their successors in 2020.

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Translated from German by Françoise Schanz.

Swiss Architects Series

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