©Dennis Yulov

Marianne Burkhalter & Christian Sumi

We have tried to update and modernize timber construction in order to make it architecturally powerful.” – Christian Sumi

Suddenly we were able to envision architecture not just vertically, but also horizontally, in layers.” – Marianne Burkhalter

The architect duo Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Sumi are pioneers of modern timber construction. Their innovative use of form and color in combination with timber and prefabricated components already attracted international attention in the 1980s and 1990s. They make programmatic statements by linking technical and formal aspects in their work and by taking the social and cultural dynamic of their buildings’ surroundings into account. Space is a crucial factor, as demonstrated by the spiral-shaped extension to Hotel Zürichberg of 1995.

They arrived at architecture from different angles. Marianne Burkhalter is a trained draftsperson and initially worked at Superstudio in Florence and Studio Works in Los Angeles/New York, where she gained experience in the interdisciplinary approach then cultivated by the avant-garde in Italy and the United States. Like Christian Sumi, she was interested in fundamental issues of construction. In the early 1980s, Sumi conducted research on Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, Le Corbusier, and modernism at the ETH Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta).

The two architects founded their company in 1984. In response to the political concerns of the 1970s, they worked together with environmentalists and did research of their own into energy conservation. They began building structures out of wood, as light as possible and with a minimum amount of material. In the 1990s, they were able to benefit from the possibilities offered by the development of new technologies in timber construction. Influenced by Hans Fischli, Emil Roth, and the American pioneer of industrial construction Konrad Wachsmann, as well as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many more, Marianne Burkhalter and Christian Sumi were part of an architectural scene undergoing profound change.

In the 1970s, authoritarian structures came under scrutiny; there were calls for open urban spaces and women demanded to be heard. For the first time, the destruction of the environment became a rallying cry as well. Burkhalter Sumi pursue a strategy of typological differentiation depending on the location and function of each project, for they are fully aware that an apartment is never just an empty space. Their designs reference models of modernism, which they revamp in contemporary terms, such as the Sunnige Hof housing cooperative in Zurich (2012). They have long incorporated the concept of adaptive reuse into their work, exploring how existing buildings might be structurally and sustainably adapted, and thus preserved.

A case in point is a historic build ing that they converted into offices for Switzerland Tourism in Zurich (2019). In 2021, the Federal Supreme Court ruled that their one-family home with a studio, built in 1986, was “worthy of protection for bearing exemplary witness to architectural advances in timber construction.” Construction of the privately initiated Kunsthalle Göschenen with works by the artists Hans Op de Beeck and Subodh Gupta has just been completed, and it opens this year. They participated in the Architecture Bienniale in Venice in 2014 and 2018 and shared a chair at the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio from 2008 to 2016. In addition, they have committed to several research projects such as an in-depth study of the Alpine region as a place of transit, Der Gotthard / Il Gottardo. Landscape – Myths – Technology (Park Books 2016), and a study of the Citroën DS, The Goddess – La Déesse (Lars Müller Publishers 2020). In 2021, over 100 of their handmade models for projects and study (1984–2020) were acquired by the gta archive of ETH Zurich.

Marianne Burkhalter, born in Thalwil in 1947, and Christian Sumi, born in 1950 in Biel, founded their offices Burkhalter Sumi in 1984. In 2021, they handed the company (now Oxid Architektur Zürich) over to their long-time partners Yves Schihin and Urs Rinklef. They have since a studio of their own in Zurich. They taught at the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio from 2008 to 2016. They live in Zurich.