For the visitor discovering Lausanne, the town’s architecture may seem very heterogenous: the old neighbourhoods of the Cité and the Rôtillon mixed with modern buildings, an intricate network of streets and bridges. However, a keen eye can distinguish the town’s evolution over time and the succession of styles.
The town was born under the name of Lousonna, during the Roman era. The times were peaceful, the inhabitants felt safe and settled close to trade routes by the lake, between Ouchy and Vidy. Centuries went by and during the Middle Ages, the priority was protection from possible invaders. Lausanners climbed on the Cité Hill and built fortifications. Later, the town extended to the adjacent hills of the Bourg and Saint-Laurent, as well as in the valleys that separate them. The Cathedral, one of the most beautiful gothic buildings in Europe, symbolises that era.
A town with a hectic topography
Hills and valleys make for a complex town topography, what’s more as several rivers flow through. Can you imagine that, initially, the Flon river ran in a natural valley of the same name? Later, industries that needed water such as tanneries or sawmills settled close by.
During the 19th century, bridges and tunnels were built to facilitate travel and therefore the town’s development: first the Grand-Pont, finished in 1844 with two levels of arches above the Flon to link the east and west of the city. The Flon River was channelled, then covered before the Flon valley was filled in, burying the first level of arches of the Grand Pont. After the railway arrived and the train station was built, the Chauderon Bridge was constructed to make access to the town centre easier (1905), followed five years later by the Bessières Bridge.
A unique architecture in “plots”
Until the mid 19th century, the town’s architecture was dense, with continuous building fronts. Today’s picturesque streets, such as the Cité’s, were very insalubrious. The bourgeoisie aspired to more bucolic and open houses, and built large autonomous urban villas (i.e. “plots”) in the surrounding areas, revealing diagonal views over Lake Geneva and the mountains. This “one building per parcel of land” principle became firmly established, giving Lausanne its own unique open urban character, together with the atmosphere of a countryside town.
A first wave of these urban villas with ornaments dates back to the nineteen hundreds; it was followed during the 1930s and 1940s by a second wave of plots carried by architects Le Corbusier or Sartoris, as required by the town’s development plan; however, these were more sober and modern. It’s only at the end of the 1940s and when money became scarce that apartment blocks were allowed.
It was also around this time, more specifically in 1931, that the Bel-Air Tower was built by Alphonse Laverrière. The first “skyscraper” in Switzerland, located at the end of the Grand-Pont, it links the old neighbourhoods of Saint-François with the more recent ones of Chauderon. Much criticised when it was erected, particularly by Protestants afraid it would reach higher than the Cathedral, it is nowadays sought out by all foreign architects visiting Lausanne.
Ambitious modern construction projects
In the 21st century, the town is densely built and seems to have acquired a permanent appearance. And yet… modern city builders haven’t finished transforming the cityscape. The m2 metro that connects the lakeside to the upper areas of Lausanne was built under the town between 2004 and 2008. It was a formidable technical feat, particularly with the building of the Saint-Martin Bridge under the Bessières Bridge, which required drilling through the pillars of the distinguished edifice.
Another major project, the aptly named “Métamorphose” (“Metamorphosis”), is remodelling the town from the north to the south, moving sports infrastructures as though they were pieces of Lego: new football stadiums in the north, the Vaudoise Arena in the west – a huge complex with several ice rinks and an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool – and the renovation of the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in the south. The project also includes two eco-neighbourhoods for more than 10,500 inhabitants and 4,500 jobs, while a new metro line linking the train station with the northern district of Blécherette and a new tram line connecting the Flon district to Renens will continue to improve mobility in the urban area.
Plateforme 10, a lively museum district
A stone’s throw from the station but far from its frenetic activity, the new Plateforme 10 arts district is being raised from the ground. The first building inaugurated in autumn 2019 was that of the MCBA (Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts), a huge grey-brick parallelepiped with a north façade patterned with regular vertical blades designed by architects Fabrizio Barozzi and Alberto Veiga. The structure maintains close symbolic and emotional ties with the site’s railway history, firstly by preserving the turntable that rotated the locomotives in the desired direction and can be seen in front of the MCBA and secondly with the huge lobby that is a reminder of the former locomotive shed.
Plateforme 10 aims to become a lively district full of activities. The long, very sober building opens up a new urban area lined on the north side with a series of arcades that will welcome cafés, bookshops, as well as perhaps galleries or other activities related to the arts. The urban furniture is an invitation to relax, whether to read a book or admire the district’s architecture.
This area, a kind of cultural walkway, leads to the building that will house as from 2021 the Musée de l’Élysée (cantonal museum of photography) and the mudac (Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts), the work of architects Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus.
The Flon district, Lausanne’s architectural success
A former warehouse district, the Flon has welcomed as from the 1950s many artists’ and crafts workshops, transforming it into an original, creative and alternative area. As the Flon occupies a key position in the town, the issue of its reallocation was the topic of debates lasting more than 10 years until the various stakeholders at last accepted a definite urban plan.
Today, the Flon is the heart of the city of Lausanne, pulsing with life in a modern and innovative setting. Bustling with activity night and day, it’s home to a wide array of restaurants, bars, clubs, boutiques, cinemas, bowling and exhibition spaces. The architects were careful to preserve the original style of this 1900s industrial area – with its rectangular building shapes and outlines, and unique character – while inserting new buildings of modern design.
Leading names in Swiss architecture created the flagship buildings in the district, and they are worth discovering:
The picturesque Rôtillon neighbourhood
A few hundred yards to the east, following the Rue Centrale, you’ll come upon the Rôtillon, one of the older neighbourhoods in Lausanne that has been recently refurbished. Its brightly coloured houses and buildings, and its half-human, half-animal sculptures make it look like a corner of Italy in the town centre.
In the south of the town, where it all began
In Ouchy, there is of course the Olympic Museum. We are, however, going further west, to Vidy. The most modern and innovative buildings are springing up in the area where the town of Lausanne originated. Adjoining the historical Vidy Castle, the new Olympic Unity House now brings together all the International Olympic Committee (IOC) staff of 500 under one roof.
Its waving, fluid lines inspired by the movement of an athlete are designed to blend the Olympic House in harmoniously with the surrounding parks. On its roof, photovoltaic panels are shaped like a dove to represent peace, while the central staircase embodying the Olympic rings brings the whole design together and symbolises unity. The IOC headquarters have recently received the most rigorous international and local sustainability certifications.
Several buildings of the neighbouring campus of EPFL (Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology) are worth a visit. With its invisible pillars, gentle undulations and terraces carved around inside “patios”, the Rolex Learning Center – signed by Japanese architectural bureau SANAA – functions both as a laboratory for learning and a library with 500,000 books.
The Artlab pavilion is architect Kengo Kuma’s project. Almost 230 metres long, it covers three distinct spaces, all dedicated to the dialogue between humanities, culture and the digital world. Its unifying roof covered in black slate is a reminder of vernacular stone buildings.
In EPFL’s North Quarter, the SwissTech Convention Center – aka STCC – is a technological gem that blends innovation and audacity. Its aluminium roof dominates the structure, with giant diagonals that project strong dynamics between the inside and the outside. Its western façade is covered in transparent, colourful solar cells.
The Cité, the heart of the medieval town
Erected during the 12th and 13th century on the hill of the old Cité, Lausanne Cathedral majestically overlooks the town. The largest in Switzerland and one of the most beautiful gothic art monuments in Europe, it attracts more than 400,000 visitors every year.
A masterwork of European art heritage and the centrepiece of the remarkable collection of 13th-century stained-glass windows is the Rose Window. Composed of 105 medallions, it depicts the medieval view of the world revolving around God the creator.
Directly opposite the Cathedral, the Lausanne Historical Museum (MHL) was entirely refurbished, with a discrete makeover of its façade, an ochre wall covered in a leafy pattern. While you’re on the Cathedral’s esplanade, contemplate the old city, with its roofs turning pink in the setting sun.
A stone’s throw from there, the Vaud Parliament House was rebuilt on the site where the previous building was burnt down in 2002. The most striking aspect of the construction is the 15-metre-high pyramidal roof. Supported only by its base and without a single beam thanks to a technique developed by EPFL, it’s a veritable technical prowess.
Located at the foot of the Cité Hill, the Rumine Palace owes its existence to Gabriel de Rumine’s legacy. The son of a Russian nobleman exiled in Switzerland, he was born and raised in Lausanne. Attached to his adopted town, he bequeathed 1.5 million Swiss francs to the City of Lausanne for the construction of a building for public use. With a design that follows a rigorously symmetrical plan, the ambitious neo-Florentine edifice is a typical example of the showy architecture that was in vogue in major cities at the end of the 19th century.
Historical, stylish hotels
Among the town’s hotels, some have a rich past that is reflected in their classical architecture. Opened in 1861, the Beau-Rivage symbolises the beginning of the luxury hotel industry in Lausanne. The simple and elegant first building displays a neo-Renaissance style. At the very beginning of the 20th century, it was completed by a second one that is predominantly neo-Baroque, the two wings being connected by a spacious rotunda crowned by an impressive Renaissance dome. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, it offers a splendid view on the lake landscape, since a time when Ouchy was no more than a fishing village.
Not far from there, the Château d’Ouchy is a neo-Gothic castle built between 1888 and 1893 where a medieval fortress once stood. Higher on the Avenue d’Ouchy, the Hotel Royal Savoy seems to come straight out of a fairy tale. This castle palace in an Art Nouveau and neo-Baroque style was inaugurated in 1909 and recently renovated.
A few years later, the Lausanne Palace was inaugurated in 1915 nearby Saint-François Square to compete with the Beau Rivage. Its superb Belle Époque façade is magnified during the festive season thanks to sumptuous Christmas decorations.
The beautiful residences between the train station and Ouchy
The area between the train station and Ouchy was developed as from 1877 thanks to the inauguration of the funicular connecting Ouchy to the Flon, fondly known as “la Ficelle” (“the String”) and ancestor of the m2. The neighbourhood was sought after by the middle and upper classes, who had buildings and villas built. Architectural styles were varied, although “Heimatstil” is often featured. It is recognisable in particular due to prominent roofs, asymmetrical façades, the use of wood, recesses and decorative elements belonging to Art Nouveau.
Audacious buildings in the north of the town
As Lausanne extends over an elevation exceeding 500 metres from the Ouchy lakeside (374 m) to the Chalet-à-Gobet (873 m), the urban elevator that is the m2 connecting Ouchy to Epalinges is much appreciated to reach the heights above the town in order to contemplate a couple of recent large-scale buildings.
Located close to the Canton’s University Hospital (CHUV), the Cancer Research Centre AGORA brings together more than 300 doctors, researchers and bioengineers in a single construction with an innovative and open architecture. The concrete building is covered in a grid – that is a thermo-coated aluminium mesh layer – and has very few right angles. The shell is designed to bring as much natural light as possible deep into the building. Inside, the layout is conducive to encounters, discussions and interdisciplinarity.
A few metro stops further, a surprising circular building houses Aquatis, the largest freshwater aquarium-vivarium in Europe. Its huge façade with no visible opening is covered in 100’000 thin metal disks, a sparkling casing that is reminiscent of reflections on water or fish scales.
Architecture in the service of modern scenography
Back in town at the Avenue de la Gare, the venerable Lausanne Opera born in 1871 was well worth refurbishing to establish it among the major European stages dedicated to operatic art. Covered in glass and stainless steel panels that make up a mosaic of different sizes, its dazzling cube reflects the surrounding buildings, the sky or the greenery.
Let us go down to the lakeside to contemplate another theatre, the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. One of the remnants of the 1964 National Exhibition and initially designed to be short-lived, it is considered a work testifying to the outstanding achievement of Max Bill. Its extension project will respect that identity by paying special attention to the materiality and composition of spaces and volumes.
Star architects and local talent incubators
The architecture design competitions organised since the end of the 1990s for large-scale projects have attracted star architects to Lausanne and boosted large local firms, which often employ architects trained at the Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).
There, they acquire a solid polytechnic training and learn to engage in the broadest possible architectural reflection to create buildings that carry meaning and fit into an existing context. They must demonstrate great creativity to model spaces and volumes, study the light, dare to try new materials or design a structure. The challenges of sustainable development which, for example, mean careful use of energy, space and land, are today part and parcel of their approach.
In Renens, the former textile factory Iril that was converted by architect Bernard Tschumi now houses the Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). Ranked among the world’s top 10 universities of art and design thanks to the quality of its teaching, it trains around 600 students representing more than 40 nationalities.
The ECAL showcases its work all over the world at trade shows, exhibitions and conferences, as well as the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Cooper Union in New York and Design Days in Dubai.