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Emmenbrücke Genius Loci

Position by Evert Ypma

Evert Ypma is a designer, educator, and research associate at the Science City Lab at the HafenCity University in Hamburg.
As innovator and conceptual strategist he consults international organisations in the public and private sector.

With thanks to Lucas Einsele, senior lecturer, and the students of Camera Arts, for their visual and content suggestions.
Translation: Max Bruinsma
Photos above: Baumgeschichten (Tree Stories), Özlem Petri, 2016

In September 2016 a major part of Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, School of Art and Design moved to a new location. A former factory in the Viscosi district – a partly discarded, partly still functioning industrial area in Emmenbrücke, just outside the city of Lucerne – had been extensively refurbished into a new campus for students of art and design.

Campus 745, Viscosistadt, Emmenbrücke / Lucerne. Camera Arts, 2016

In order to explore the new environment, students of Camera Arts have since 2012 investigated the urban, social, cultural, political and economic contexts of Emmen municipality, of which Emmenbrücke and “Viscosistadt” are part. In this fast-changing community, students investigated Emmenbrücke’s “Genius Loci,” the spirit of the place, with photographic and other visual media. A probe of a future habitat based on a phenomenological approach, in which students observed the urban landscape and local culture from their own perspective. They have interpreted their encounters with local inhabitants, neighborhoods, stories and histories through their own eyes and personal experience, producing a highly idiosyncratic body of work that also highlights less obvious point of view than the standard journalistic or anthropological ones.

Now that the school has moved to its new location, the viewpoint has changed: from this year onward, our students will look from the inside of Emmenbrücke to Lucerne, Switzerland and the world.

The image of the City

Since the invention of photography at the start of the 19th century, many famous photographers have placed the documentation of urban and industrial cultures at the center of their creative work. Photography revealed the ephemeral moments and exotic characteristics of the city and its environment. Like painting and drawing, photography represents a distinctive artistic image of the city. Die Eroberung der Strasse. Von Monet bis Grosz, Karin Sagner, Matthias Ulrich a.o. (ed.), München 2006, p.12. In 1975 William Jenkins curated an exhibition in New York, entitled “New Topographics – Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape.” In this exhibition the Düsseldorf artists Bernd and Hilla Becher presented photos of monumental German, European and North-American industrial constructions – an encompassing documentation, which the Bechers had been compiling in a meticulous and encyclopedic manner since the 1950s. In his documentary photography in the 1970s, photographer Robert Adams criticized the unrestrained blemishing of the American landscape by traffic infrastructure. A contrast to such analytical endeavors are Andreas Gursky’s subjective representations of urban topographies. Since the 1980s he depicts the anonymized landscapes of the service economy that have resulted from global trade and networks. Michael Wagner, «Bilder der Stadt. Fotografische Beobachtung, Analysen und Projektionen urbaner Qualitäten», in: Die Stadt als Ressource: Texte und Projekte 2005–2014, Professur Kees Christiaanse, ETH Zürich, Tim Rieniets a.o. (ed.), Berlin 2014, p.64. For architects, photography is an important instrument of dealing with complex realities and future urban developments. Beyond plans, photographic images – moving and still – have the ability to express not only the hard, but also the soft qualities of urban space. In a seminal urban study, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour showed the connections between the formal appearance of the built environment and its urban iconography and semiotics. This visual research, which was compiled in collaboration with students at Yale University and published as “Learning from Las Vegas” in 1972, made a lasting impression on the post-modern discourse in architecture.
Hilar Stadler a.o., Las Vegas Studio. Bilder aus dem Archiv von Robert Venturi und Denise Scott Brown, Kriens und Zürich, 2008 
Also the 1976 exhibition “Signs of Life,” initiated by Scott Brown, focused on the themes of historical and contemporary symbols of North-American landscapes and living environments.

Mobile technology has greatly extended our mental cartography and our capacity to orient ourselves in space and society. In the networked mediated society, we navigate on our smartphones from window to window, through virtual geographies, online communities and semantic fields. Whereas, in his 1960 book “Image of the City,” Kevin Lynch, Image of the City, Cambridge 1960, p.145 the American architectural theorist Kevin Lynch still pointed to routes, interruptions of the urban image, urban nodes, neighborhoods and landmarks as determining elements of the cityscape and our orientation within it, today these are extended by variables such as “likes” and tweets. Locative media, machine-to-machine communication, algorithms and Big Data will further change our reading modes, perception and awareness of urban daily life.

All of these have been sources of inspiration for the “Emmenbrücke Genius Loci” project of the 1st bachelor year of Camera Arts.

Photographs above:
Bosdütsch, Bosnian Muslim cultural center, Emmenbrücke. Anna-Tia Buss, Camera Arts 2017

Past and present urban context in Emmenbrücke. Leila Remstedt-Drews, Camera Arts 2017

Urban Transformation and a Change of Culture

Transformation is an important aspect of cultural production. A changing community such as Emmenbrücke offers creatives opportunities and points of departure for artistic positions. The moving of Lucerne School of Art and Design is not just a local phenomenon, but an active engagement with the changing DNA of such globally trading enterprises like Monosuisse, who’s new neighbours we have become. The “tertiary usage” of industrial infrastructure following the outsourcing of production to lower-wage countries is directly confronting students with the realities of the global economy. The influx of the creative economy represented by the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, School of Art and Design, affords the industrial building a second life, while at the same time triggering a gentrification in the form of “studentification.”

With the century-old narrative of the rise and downfall of the suburban industrial and workers town and its post-industrial revitalization, Emmenbrücke finds itself, like so many other Swiss towns, in a profoundly incisive transformation process. The economic, social and urban structures are mirroring this development. Next to retired industry workers, the town is home to commuters with young families and other immigrants in a growing cultural and religious diversity. Creatives live and work in Emmenbrücke because of its (still) low rents and the availability of large workspaces.

In the neighboring countryside, mountain farmers manage a landscape bordering on the city. Among the grazing cows, RUAG Space is building the payload protection skins for ESA rockets. Such contrasts are exemplary for contemporary Switzerland, and trigger many questions concerning future policies. Although the Emmen population in 2012 still blocked merging with the city of Lucerne, the urban integration between the two towns is inescapable. The areas of the western part of Lake Lucerne and the north side of the Alps are among the fastest-changing landscapes in central Switzerland. The compacting strategy “Emmen Urban Hybrid,” by the Rotterdam based architecture firm MVRDV, intends to stop the ongoing urban sprawl. The 2006 ETH-study “Switzerland – an Urban Portrait” Switzerland – an Urban Portrait, Roger Diener, Jacques Herzog a.o. (ed.), Basel 2006describes Emmenbrücke as the “shady side” of Lucerne, marked by urbanity, shopping malls and heavy industry but also connected to all networks of mobility.

Designers and artists have the ability to detect social changes at an early stage. They express embryonic signs of such change as artistic or design positions and communicate these back to the public. Through their personal interpretations they develop subjective alternative narratives. Such approaches are also explored in the student contributions to the “Emmenbrücke Genius Loci” project. Interest in individuals, groups and communities is among the prime motivations to professionally employ photographic visual media. Artists and designers engaged on a socially inspired media practice want to be integrated within their environment. They engage as informed participants, as creative voices for the community. Visual storytellers approach people or phenomena in a conscious slowing down, in contrast to fast moving mass-media photography.

To photograph something is a performative act vis-à-vis the subject presenting itself to the photographer. Here, technical skill alone is not enough. The significance of the interaction between the photographer, their subject and the photo’s recipients is greatly enhanced by creating social and meaningful associations between all of them. Photographers are constantly changing roles, between being curators and mediators. In this dynamic interpretation of the photographer’s role, image production and distribution are seen as social currency. Photographers are participants who provoke the production of meaning through processes of exchange by means of visual media. Such interaction within the area of tension between observing, acting and mediating proves challenging; image consumers become image producers and laypersons become experts of their ancestral city quarters.

Emmenbrücke. Nicola Boss, 2021

Investigating Urban Identity

Emmenbrücke’s identity is less and less characterized by long-term relationships of kinship, acquaintance or neighborhood; there evolves a new space for working and living relations. Designers and artists working in the area, too, are questioning which traditions typical for Emmenbrücke should be preserved, which should be discarded and which could serve as impulse for crafting a new identity. Heimat, the balance between city and countryside, and characteristics of suburbanity, agglomeration and industry are approached in an open-ended way, as are the tensions between planned and grown urban structures. Essentially, the process of exploring the urban and cultural identity of the place is already part of establishing Emmenbrücke’s new identity. Thus, we understand our long-term observation as interaction as well as laboratory in vivo for applied artistic visual practices such as photography, moving image, visualization and interactive on- and offline experimentation. To communicate questions is as important as it is to design theme-oriented transdisciplinary networks of relations. With this – also self-critical – educational work we are becoming an integral part of Viscosistadt and the community of Emmen.

Planned glitches, triggered by our students, might provoke unexpected reactions and small acupunctural urban interventions may cause more extensive action beyond our own cup of tea. During our researches into the urban fabric of Emmenbrücke we discovered that the 100-year old streetcar stop at the crossing of Gerliswilstrasse and Emmenweidstrasse, a little gem of public transportation architecture, was scheduled to be demolished because it was in the way of the reorganization of the street plan. We initiated a foundation and in 2015 succeeded in raising support for moving the 230 ton iconic building, thus preserving it for future generations.

Just like Napoleon III’s precipitous overhaul of Paris in the 19th century, the transformation of Emmenbrücke will take only 15 to 20 years. But cities are built easier than cultural life, which resists engineering. All the more vital is establishing criteria for conceiving, producing and adapting cultural processes of development. Through the “Emmenbrücke Genius Loci” project, students are confronted with such complex challenges. They acquire experience with reflective distance and local engagement, in order to do justice to the interests and peculiarities of Emmenbrücke and its inhabitants. With a sound grounding in urban-aesthetical and media-ethical knowledge, they have visualized their own future place of study.

Imaginations Beyond the Status-quo

While in the standard visualizations, which communicate Emmenbrücke’s make-over, generic and commercially motivated images prevail, we have produced an abundance of context-oriented materials, which could have visionary significance for local development. Thus we aim to enrich the public debate with artistic and design-related positions and to invite developers as well as residents to expand the imagination of their future living environment. With our “Emmenbrücke Genius Loci” project we show that artists and designers as well as their educational residences are invigorating themselves creatively, strategically and with pointed visual argumentation to become partners in urban transition.


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