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Performative Infrastructure
Interview with the Swiss architectural studio WALDRAP about the social potential of infrastructure
In 2020, the Swiss architectural studio Waldrap presented three video works at the Norm-a Space gallery in Prague. The project, entitled Liquid Projection I-III, was made in cooperation with the Zurich-based art gallery BALTSprojects. The videos visualize the conversion of groundwater basins into huge eco-swimming pools accessible to the public, providing some new spaces for local community activities. The utopian project demonstrates the social potential of urban infrastructure spaces. We further discussed the role of these “spaces between spaces” and why they are important for the city and its people with architects Renate Walter and Sebastian F. Lippok, founders of Waldrap.
gif 1 ©WALDRAP
Savka Marenic: In Zürich, specifically in the area where your studio is located, you discovered some existing groundwater basins. Therefore, Liquid Projection I-III serves as a concept or model for discovering hidden infrastructure and transforming it into accessible urban space. What was the process of discovering these spaces? Why did you decide to highlight the topic of city infrastructure in this way? Can you put the location of these basins into context for us?

WALDRAP: The videos look at the urban isolation of Grünau, a part of Zurich's Altstetten district which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Limmat river to the north, the A1H feeder road to the south, and the Hardhof green space to the west. Strict land use restrictions in Grünau, as well as a monotonous collection of sports facilities prevent the integration of the industrial district with the rest of Altstetten. The current situation, which works neither as a city park nor as an inviting sports centre, must be completely rethought.

What is actually spectacular here is hidden in plain sight at first glance. Three infiltration basins are concealed behind embankments and dense foliage. The filtrate from the banks of the Limmat is collected here in three 4,000-square-meter basins, where it is drained and then fed back into the groundwater stream. We suggest making this infrastructure accessible to the public.
foto1 ©Savka Marenić
NS: What made you choose the format of a video installation to explore this idea?

W Our office was in the direct vicinity of the BALTSprojects gallery space, which is a platform for architects and artists that shows architecture from different perspectives in an attempt to expand our profession. We proposed the project to Monika Annen, the director of the BALTSprojects gallery. Once we started testing the video clips in the gallery, it quickly dawned on us that this was the perfect place to showcase the project in front of an audience. We believe that giant eco-pools, as proposed in our project, could create a new meeting place for the local community as well as form a link between the industrial district and Altstetten, which in turn would reduce crowds at the existing public pools along the Limmat river.
“The periphery is a suburban context that is ubiquitous for us all. Mentally and physically, we find ourselves constantly in that middle space between city and countryside."
NS: In your practice, do you mostly work on projects located closer to the centre of the city, or do you also deal with the periphery? Do you perceive any difference or contradiction between these two contexts?

W: In Switzerland, the industrial periphery has been creeping closer and closer to the city, and in many places the two areas have already merged. This heterogeneity, where the city once ended and rural communities began, is extremely exciting and naturally full of contradictions. You’ll find traditional village structures, single family homes, highways, commercial areas, and shopping centres – often against a spectacular mountain backdrop. These places represent a new urban culture that must provide a high standard of living, working, and accommodation quality in the future. The periphery is a suburban context that is ubiquitous for us all. Mentally and physically, we find ourselves constantly in that middle space between city and countryside.
foto2 ©Savka Marenić
foto3 ©Savka Marenić
foto4 ©Savka Marenić
NS: In her book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014), Keller Easterling writes that the infrastructure space is becoming a manipulative medium of information in global politics: “Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written, not in the language of the law and diplomacy, but in these infrastructural technologies.” And the book Infrastructure as Space (Ruby Press, 2017), edited by Ilka and Andreas Ruby, presents a contemporary collage of essays discussing different aspects of infrastructure, expanding our knowledge of it as not only a technical but also a political, economic, social, and even aesthetic matter. In your proposal, is the hidden infrastructure also used as the primary medium of design?

W: Yes, I think so. Hidden infrastructure is a major issue in Switzerland. Due to their powerful impact on the social and rural landscape, there is always a tendency to try to bury public works. And add to that the fact that what we as architects find aesthetically pleasing is not commonly seen as beautiful. The scarcity of land resources, a long history of tunnel projects, and our relationship to underground shelters lead us to want to bury everything here. In addition, these structures have only a singular function, which is hard to combine with a public agenda. For the infiltration basins [in Grünau], which, although hidden, are above-ground structures, we believe there is a multi-use opportunity in both a technical and social aspect.
foto5 ©WALDRAP
NS: The splashing water, the passing train, children playing, people sunbathing, swimmers in the pool, birds in the trees, people walking by… While watching the videos and listening to the sound, I felt like the project was alive and real. It certainly has some positive, therapeutic vibes. Is video your preferred medium for the presentation of your projects?

W: As I am an architect, acquiring these technical skills is both costly and time-consuming for me. However, for many projects it’s a worthwhile investment, especially when it allows you to take a concept to another sensory level. We also feel that videos can strongly influence how well-received a project is. Unlike artists, architects always have to explain their work. Few people are familiar with these groundwater basins, but seeing them from above further accentuates this unfamiliarity. The fact that these were video collages, i.e., images that were not quite real, led to some astonishment – followed by the question, “Will that really work?”

NS: Have you managed to contact the city council by showing the video work and discussing the project for its possible further implementation and realization?

W: Water supplies in cities is a thorny issue. Local agencies are not keen on showing enthusiasm for plans that could threaten safety.
“Liquid Projection is not an argument for a possible implementation but rather a way to show how technical infrastructure can have a community use as well. It is our manifest.”
NS: What do you think about the sustainable approaches in urbanism and landscaping today? How is your office dealing with them?

W: We try to keep sustainability in mind in all our construction projects, without necessarily making it a hard and fast rule.
Planning for sustainability is thus always a delicate balance that requires weighing a variety of factors to determine what’s right for the site and the project.
“After all, if we’re building for everyone, then everyone should be part of the plan.’’
NS: Could you share with us some of your ongoing projects and interests? Something that you find exciting?

W: One project that is near and dear to our hearts and that we definitely want to implement is the Marina Tiefenbrunnen. In 2018, we won a competition for a new harbour in Zurich. It’s an infrastructure project again – a harbour for everyone, which will enhance the recreational area of the Lake Zurich basin with a 200-meter-long and 17-meter-wide public pier. The existing harbour is also a hidden infrastructure in the broadest sense. Until now, only members of the aquatic sports clubs have been allowed to use the harbour. With the construction of a new aquatic sports centre, a restaurant/bar, 450 boat slips, and the main pier, the harbour facility will be strongly geared towards broad public use. The challenge is bringing the interests of water sports enthusiasts, recreationists, residents, and nature lovers all under one roof.
WALDRAP is a collaboration between the architects Renate Walter and Sebastian Lippok. When planning and designing, their core interest is the social aspect of interaction with the space. As architects, they work thoughtfully with the programme and the context of the building’s location, eagerly experimenting with different media.

Sebastian F. Lippok (1981, Dresden) studied architecture at the Delft University of Technology and the Berlin University of the Arts, where he graduated in 2008 with the Max Taut Prize. From 2008–2014, he worked at E2A Architects in Zürich. From 2015–2018, he was an assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering at EPF Lausanne. Since 2015, he has worked as an independent architect, and he founded WALDRAP with Renate Walter in 2017.

Renate Walter (1983, Bern) studied at ETH Zurich and at the Southeast University of Nanjing, China. She graduated from ETH in 2009 under Prof. Miroslav Šik. She has worked at Vogt Landscape Architects Zurich, E2A Architects Zurich, and at the Office of Structural Engineering Zurich. She has been an independent architect since 2015 and founded WALDRAP with Sebastian Lippok in 2017.