The collapse of Swiss cosiness

Image of Tyler Brûlé

You probably didn’t know when you rolled out of bed this morning, pulled on your loafers, strode down to the kiosk and picked up this paper, that you’d be going on vacation with me – for three weeks.

Don’t worry: I can promise that we’re going to have a lovely time and you won’t have to do a thing other than sit back and enjoy the ride. I’ve also tried to make it as easy for you as possible, so I’ve cut out the tiring airports, crossing of time zones and immigration formalities and have gently set you down in Zürich.

We’re not going to stick around here too long (as nice as Zürich can be in the middle of summer, with its bathing clubs and al fresco dining scene and all) – we’re going to head up to the mountains for a couple of days, then jump down into Italy, back up to Switzerland, back down to Italy, and wrap things up in the Engadine Valley.

This year’s summer holiday is a bit of a throwback to the late 1990s when I used to zip between Sweden and Switzerland and a car was an essential part of exploring favourite parts of the continent.

I’ve been car-free for more than a decade now but an Easter weekend spent driving around Südtirol, filling up the back seats with wine, apple juice, Alpine straw hats, oak chopping boards and cases of beer from Forst convinced me that it was time to base a car at my place in the Engadine – so make sure you’ve gone to the loo, buckle up and settle in for the drive. Next stop: Chur.

The new wheels are very nice (hybrid too) but I’m not quite sure about all the music connectivity options, so I’m sticking with CDs for the moment. I know I could insert some type of mobile device or i-thing into one of multiple outlets in the car’s console but, as I haven’t had the chance to download Maylee Todd or Naomi & Goro on to any of my devices anyway, they’re just going to have to rotate in and out of the good old CD player.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m one of those drivers who likes to repeat a favourite song (in this case Maylee Todd’s “Baby’s Got It”) at least 50 times during the trip, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that her poppy tune will become the defining soundtrack for summer 2013.

The little Alpine town of Chur is a favourite pit stop before continuing on to St Moritz because there are always new architecture projects worth visiting and it has a small branch of Globus, the Swiss department store, with a food hall for more obscure essentials not found above 1,800 metres. At one time Chur had a buzzy main thoroughfare in the form of Bahnhofstrasse but, as part of the town’s redevelopment, the whole thing has been turned into a pedestrian zone that’s completely devoid of life.

Now I’m not against pedestrian zones as a concept, but I do think they need careful consideration when they affect passing trade or there’s little thought given to what should be done with all that wide open space.

In the case of Chur, nothing has been added to the fabric of the street to make it more inviting – instead there’s just a massive grey expanse that’s lacking trees, kiosks, cafés and all those elements that create an inviting, cosy environment and encourage a sense of community. As we wander through the town, you’ll notice that the collapse of cosiness is as big a crisis for Switzerland as the reinvention of its financial services sector.

Switzerland used to excel at cosy. In many ways, the national palette of warm woods, orange and brown awnings and furniture upholstered with nubby, woolly fabrics, was what defined a certain postwar Swiss aesthetic.

Unfortunately, a host of fixes, renovations and tear-downs is destroying what was a most welcoming vernacular. From Chur to Lugano, Lucerne to St Gallen, the national pastime of demolishing and rebuilding (I rank the Swiss second only to the Japanese when it comes to keeping their tradesmen in business) is stripping out much of the warmth. This leaves residents and visitors sitting in cafés with ghoulish lighting, sleeping in white rooms that are all hard edges and harsh shadows and living in houses that have had the Swiss hallmarks of good functional design (proper foyers, plenty of storage, working fireplaces, well designed bathrooms) completely eradicated.

While legislators in Bern fret about the future shape and size of UBS, Credit Suisse and the various cantonal banks, they might also want to think about how all of this development is playing out. Perhaps lawmakers could put a few more rules in place (and the Swiss do love a good rule or two) to protect the character of Ticino and its great mid-century architecture and the charming villages of the Graubünden region.

Time to pile back in the car. Next stop St Moritz and then a hop across the border to find out why Italians do it better.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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