“Rethinking one’s ideas is worthwhile, as is standing one’s ground”

As head of urban development for 14 years, Brigit Wehrli left her mark on Zurich’s urban landscape. In that time, the city has been transformed from one of office buildings to a centre of architectural trends. How did this transformation come about and what role did Steiner AG play?

Ms Wehrli, Zurich experienced a crisis in the mid-1990s. Today, it is booming. To what extent was the City Council involved in this development?

The city of Zurich contributed to this upswing through political, social and construction initiatives. For example, in the mid-1990s we needed to find a lasting solution to the very visible drug scene in the western part of the city. Former Council Director Josef Estermann created the City Forum in 1996, a roundtable on urban development for Zurich West, historically the city’s industrial district. City council representatives, industry leaders, local residents and property owners sat down to talk – for 75 hours over several months. This created the basis for trust. The result was that everyone wanted to enhance the area. Ultimately the economy revived, gastronomic regulations were liberalised and the district’s development took its course.

So something good did come from the crisis of the 1990s?

Yes, because in times of crisis, compromise replaces confrontation. Effective cooperation between industry, local residents and the city served as the basis for the boom. The City Council can only support and reinforce this kind of development.

At the time there were industrial areas in need of redevelopment not only in the city’s western district, but to the south of Zurich as well. Why did the city resist the Steiner AG office complex on the Sihl paper-mill site for so many years?

At the time, more and more people were leaving Zurich. Councilwoman Ursula Koch, the head of the Construction department, called for the trend to be reversed during her now famous speech in front of the SIA in 1988. She wanted to turn Zurich into a city that catered to its residents once again, with more mixed areas, more shared spaces, more urbanity and fewer single-use buildings. As controversial as Koch might have been, in this case she helped realise the better project – Sihlcity – through the lengthy legal blockade of Uto Park.

So we have Sihlcity thanks to Ursula Koch?

Yes, among others. When comparing her demands in 1988 with Sihlcity today, one has to admit that Sihlcity answers to much of what she was calling for. Yet a successful solution requires the involvement of many parties. The perseverance shown by Steiner AG was also decisive. It endured a lengthy lawsuit and when planning permission was granted it was bold enough to start all over again. We now know that Steiner made the right choice when it decided in favour of the shopping mall and entertainment centre. Sihlcity is a symbol of the Zurich of today. For example, it includes public transport connections and a piazza where young and old can spend their free time. Rethinking one’s ideas was worthwhile – as was standing one’s ground.

Clients, architects, city planners, investors – teaming up for challenging projects.

Klaus Schwab

Dominique Perrault

Markus Graf

Philippe Burrin