EPFL is devising ways of breathing new life into an industrial site

The site has been disused since 2016.  © Alain Herzog / EPFL

The site has been disused since 2016. © Alain Herzog / EPFL

EPFL architecture students have come up with novel ways to unlock the potential of a former industrial site in Saint-Aubin. The site is opening its doors to the public for the first time on 1 and 2 September as part of the European Heritage Days event.

Geigy’s former agricultural research center covers an area of 125 hectares. For two semesters, EPFL architecture students used this impressive setting, in the town of Saint-Aubin in Fribourg canton, as a blank canvas for their creative ideas.

During the academic year, undergraduates supervised by Anja and Martin Fröhlich, directors of EPFL’s Laboratory of Elementary Architecture and Studies of Types (EAST), researched potential new uses for the site, which has been disused since 2016 (see EPFL News, 31 May 2018). On 1 and 2 September, they will present the final phase of their work in the form of an exhibition and guided tour, as part of the European Heritage Days event in partnership with Fribourg Canton’s culture department.

“The exhibition has been devised and developed by our students to appeal to all audiences. It aims to show visitors how to appreciate the site and to highlight its interesting features. Our students will present the results of their research into ways of converting and reusing the space. The exhibition also looks at the site’s industrial heritage and future potential. This is the first time that the site has been opened to the public,” explained Tiago P. Borges, researcher at EAST and joint organizer of the exhibition.

Four rooms

Visitors will be able to take a tour around four rooms: Origin, Vision, Anthology and Module. The first room, Origin, looks at the history of the site, which was built between 1967 and 1970 based on a design by Zurich-based architects Jakob Zweifel and Heinrich Strickler. The architects behind the concept later designed buildings at EPFL using the same model. In that room, visitors will be able to see a scale model of the site and photos showing the various stages of its construction.

Next, in the Vision room, visitors will be presented with ideas for converting the site that EPFL students devised in the winter 2017 semester. It also shows the site’s potential, not just at the local level but regionally and internationally as well. The four scenarios developed by the students will be on display: an agribusiness center specializing in brewing beer using potatoes, an Olympic sports center, a hub for recovering and reusing materials, and a waste sorting and recovery site.

Order forms

The third room, named Anthology, displays all items found at the site that could be reused in their current state, including hooks, shelves, lamps, sinks, handles, doors, thermometers, soap dishes, clothes horses and faucets. To raise visitors’ awareness about circular economy concepts in the construction industry, the students have developed fake order forms for each item, addressed to the Canton of Fribourg, the owner of the site.

“It’s slightly provocative, but the idea is to show the potential to reuse the site and its contents instead of demolishing it: a sustainable approach that’s still underused. Most of the items on display have a lot of life left in them. Some can still be used for their original purpose and others can take on new functions, ranging from door handles to prefabricated concrete elements,” says Borges.

Bus stop or diving board

The final room, named “Module,” looks at the site’s ingenious architectural design. The design features three modular elements made from prefabricated concrete: pillars, beams and U-shaped roof sections. These elements fit together throughout the whole site like Lego pieces, depending on the building’s intended size and function. The Module room will also show the students’ ideas for repurposing the site’s modular elements. They involve taking elements that are still in good condition and using them for new purposes, for example a bus shelter, a covered market and a diving board.

However, the Saint-Aubin site may not end up being broken down for parts, because the Fribourg authorities have recently launched an international invitation to tender to find a potential occupants for the site. Another reason to visit the site this weekend, before this unique space is occupied again.

“Gentle Brutalism” exhibition as part of the European Heritage Days event, 1 and 2 September 2018, Studio EAST – EPFL, Route de la Petite-Glâne 11, Saint-Aubin. Opening hours: 10am-5pm.

EPFL events marking the 2018 European Heritage Days


Saturday, 1 September
Les immeubles des Organisations internationales à Genève: un patrimoine d’exception [The Exceptional Architectural Heritage of Geneva’s International Organizations], a talk in French by Giulia Marino, architect and researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory of Techniques and Preservation of Modern Architecture (TSAM). Pavillon Sicli, Route des Acacias 45, Geneva, 7pm.

Saturday, 1 September
Angelo Mangiarotti, La tettonica dell’assemblaggio [Assembly Tectonics], a talk in French by Franz Graf, architect and researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory of Techniques and Preservation of Modern Architecture (TSAM) and co-curator of the exhibition. Pavillon Sicli, Route des Acacias 45, Geneva, 4pm.


Saturday & Sunday, 1 & 2 September
Epesses, le Cercle de l’Ermitage (Alberto Sartoris) [The Cercle de l’Ermitage in Epesses (Alberto Sartoris)], guided tours in French by Giulia Marino and Franz Graf, researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Techniques and Preservation of Modern Architecture (TSAM), Jean-Christophe Dunand, the architect heading the renovation, and Docomomo Switzerland. Route Cantonale 31, Epesses, 10am to 5pm.

Saturday & Sunday, 1 & 2 September
L’Atelier De Grandi Museum, visits and guided tours in French of the “Habiter la modernité : villas du style international sur la Riviera vaudoise” exhibition by EPFL’s Modern Architecture Archives Department (ACM). Chemin d’Entre-Deux-Villes 7, Corseaux, 10am to 5pm.


Saturday & Sunday, 1 & 2 September
Val-d’Illiez, entre exception et tradition [Val-d’Illiez, A Modern Take on Traditional Architecture], guided tours in French by EPFL architecture students presenting their drawings and models of traditional homes. Exhibition opening at 2:30pm on Saturday, 1 September. Route du Bas 16, Val-d’Illiez, 2:30pm to 6pm. (French, German and Italian)


Saturday & Sunday, 1 & 2 September
L’ancien centre de recherche Geigy, un site industriel à reconvertir [Plans for Renovating the Old Geigy Research Center], guided tours in French by EFPL architecture students and the Service des biens culturels (Fribourg). Route de la Petite-Glâne 11, Saint-Aubin, 10am to 5pm.

The complete program (in French, German and Italian)