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Interviewed by Beatrice Fontana and Noémie Jeunet

Interview with Evelyn Steiner, Curator at ZAZ—Zentrum Architektur Zürich

January 10, 2020


Evelyn Steiner welcomes us into one of the small rooms surrounding the incredibly wide anteroom on the second floor of the Villa Bellerive on a cold January morning. The small meeting room is ordered and plain, somewhat makeshift, and the big window frames the barren park skirting Zurich’s lake.

BF/NJ: Good morning, Evelyn, and thank you for having us here. You were appointed curator of the ZAZ – Zentrum Architektur Zürich last year; please tell us more about this project: its history, concept, and development.

ES: The institution is called ZAZ – Zentrum Architektur Zürich and was started in January 2018. The idea behind the project was to establish a multidisciplinary practice with a focus on architecture as well as on the urban and social development of the city of Zurich. The main intention was to offer a broader focus on the subject, in order to complement, with a different profile, other existing institutions like the Museum für Gestaltung[i] or the GTA Exhibition[ii] in Hönggerberg.

The Villa Bellerive, in which we are housed, had hosted the collection of the Museum für Gestaltung between the end of the Sixties and 2017, as Museum Bellerive. In 2017, they moved their entire archive to the Toni Areal. At that point, the Municipality, which owns the building, proposed to devote it to an alternative cultural purpose with reference to architecture. They first approached the ETH and the Architekturforum and tried to develop a draft concept. Later, BSA (Bund Schweizer Architekten) and SIA (Schweizerischer Ingenieur- und Architektenverein) also joined the project; those are the four founding members of the ZAZ. They all have representatives on the Board. The actual institution moved here at the beginning of January 2018. I started here as a curator in March 2019.

BF/NJ: How do you finance your project?

ES: The city of Zurich has allocated 1.65m CHF for this pilot project, distributed over approximately three and a half years. The biggest part of this amount covers the rent of the building; the rest is used to cover the operating costs.

The Municipality is currently evaluating the project and will decide next year, or already at the end of this year, whether it will continue or not. Of course, these evaluations are fundamental to dispense public money. The final decision will be made partially on the basis of economic considerations, but of course the activity of the ZAZ will also be evaluated content-wise. A balance among facts and figures will lead to the decision. Some of us working here have been in contact with evaluation agencies, and they also survey the public and visitors. I do not know exactly what the criteria and the modalities are, but it is of course extremely interesting to observe how this process works.

Back to the financing, what remains of the public funding after covering the costs is not enough to finance the exhibitions, so we have to raise additional money through foundations or sponsors, or a different form of collaboration. At the same time, we have to question the number and the display of exhibitions, the educational program, and in general the complete activity of the institution. As we are not a museum, and do not have a permanent collection to offer, this is, of course, a delicate issue.

This research of a balance, between financial possibility and cultural program, is for us, as well as for the board members, a learning process, as we always adopt and experiment with different strategies to diversify what we offer.

For example, the next exhibition will be about pioneering female architects, and it is an existing exhibition, curated two years ago at the DAM Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt. We will now bring it here to Zurich and add to it a section regarding Swiss women architects. For this exhibition, we were able to raise a significant amount of funds, since this is a hot topic, very much felt from different kinds of publics. And I think working with contemporary topics (Zeitgeist) is always a clever strategy.

BF/NJ: As you mentioned, the decision of locating the ZAZ in the Villa Bellerive in Seefeld came directly from the city of Zurich. How does this location impact your work?

ES: Seefeld is a neighborhood in which there are not that many architectural offices; this is a fact we have to deal with. Of course, during the summer, the proximity to the lake and the big lawn on the promenade constitutes a big benefit.          

The City is also working at the moment on a project that will ideally join the four institutions along the Höschgasse in a sort of museum mile, which will include the Villa Bellerive, together with the Corbusier Pavilion, the Atelier Haller and the Villa Egli. We would also like to be connected to the tram line Museumslinie, and I think they are working on the feasibility of this idea. That will, of course, be of great importance for us, since we are still not that visible—we also do not have a proper sign.

BF/NJ: How do you actually take advantage of the outdoor space of the Villa? Could it be considered a crucial element for connecting the ZAZ to the city?

ES: I think so, yes. Such a big outdoor space has a huge potential. However, the lawn in front of the house including the part facing the lake, while it could be furnished with small tables to host a café, can only partially be used for educational projects or as a museum space, since the building and the surrounding green area are listed. But we saw that just by installing a wooden platform, during the exhibition last summer, we had tremendous feedback; people entered the space from the lake and started perceiving it as a public space, as a public institution. That was an exceptional event. Otherwise, we usually take advantage of the small patio facing Höschgasse.

BF/NJ: Multiple different partners are involved and support your project on a technical, cultural, and financial level. What is their influence in your curatorial choices or in your mediation program? And, on the contrary, to what extent does your program influence their institutional activity?

ES: Well, this is not so clear-cut. As I mentioned, we have a Board with eight members, but just three of them deal with exhibition content. When we talk about exhibition projects, we mainly refer to Christian Schmid, André Bideau, Daniel Bosshard and Christoph Bürkle—it is just a small group. But I would not really say that the institutions which they represent have any kind of direct influence on our choices; it is more that we benefit from the background and the competence of the person. Each of them has his own field; for example, Christian Schmid’s interests are more connected with sociology and urbanization processes, and the next exhibition will propose a project which he initiated, about the Swiss photographer Gertrud Vogler and the ‘80s protest movement Züri brännt!, on the occasion of the Fortieth Jubilee. It will display pictures and documents of those days. That does not establish for us a direct relationship with the ETH. We do not, as an example, exhibit their diploma projects, which may be a possible form of collaboration. It is somehow too early to talk about those kinds of relationships; we are still experimenting in that sense.

BF/NJ: Does the Municipality and its cultural department have a say in the topic you choose to exhibit?

ES: No, not really. Of course, there is a certain common interest in acting in a politically correct way, but so far, we have not had any direct confrontation with them in relation to the exhibition topics. On the other hand, the people working in the cultural department have a certain experience with regard to culture production and culture mediation, so I think it would be interesting to also consider input from their side.

BF/NJ: Your space does not entirely circumvent the institutional structures. It cannot in fact be properly defined as an off-space.

ES: Yes, we are definitely not an off-space, as we are partially funded by the city of Zurich. However, I have to admit that since we are not a permanent institution yet, there is a strong hands-on approach; we are all part of it, sometimes it is hard, but also kind of exciting, because it feels like you can still keep a certain amount of freedom.

BF/NJ: With your pilot project, you are implementing a certain way of mediating and communicating architecture. The exhibition formats seem to be conceived and scheduled to reconnect the city with architectural theory, and with the application of the latter to the city’s inhabitants, in order to generate interest in subjects that are normally relegated to professionals and often exclusively in an academic environment.

How do you set up an exhibition of this type? How do you make those issues accessible? What kind of display or format do you use, knowing as well the tight budget that such exhibitions have access to?

ES: As I mentioned, so far I have worked here on just two projects. The first one, when I arrived in March, was the exhibition about Zurich,[iii] and everything was finalized, it just needed to be installed. The display for this show was definitely not expensive. We implemented different strategies; for example, everything was printed here, in-house, and that meant a strong format limitation: there was no print bigger than an A3, but of course a significant saving.

As I said, the strategies are different; once we benefited from borrowing a lot of material from the GTA exhibitions archive, and maybe, going to your previous question, it is on this mutual support that you can really see that a collaboration between ETH and ZAZ does exist.

Also, we do not have restrictions in terms of security or climate conditions for what we exhibit here; we do not dispose of a special heating system, or a humidity and temperature regulation, and that allows us to recycle and reuse a lot of materials.

For the next exhibition about women in architecture,[iv] it was clear that the time was tight. I only had six to seven months to organize it, and considering that I am working here 60%, it would have been impossible to curate a full new exhibition on my own in this short time frame. We decided then to work with an existing show, and we agreed on Frau Architekt that was exhibited at the DAM in Frankfurt at the beginning of 2018.

What we did, and for me that was a key point, was adding Swiss positions. First of all, because showing just German architects would have not attracted a lot of people here in Zurich, but also because adding something new meant not merely show something already existing. That remains a great strategy to control costs and offer content.

BF/NJ: In that sense, the display is not really a curatorial choice that comes with the purpose of a certain mediation, but more the answer to a series of occurring issues?

ES: For this exhibition, it was like that, but for the next one that will change—I am already excited about it. For that, I am working with a young scenographer, Damian Fopp; he is already co-curator at the Museum für Gestaltung, and our goal is to do something fresh and new. It is, of course, my intention to implement a discussion about the display choice as a curatorial act. Also, I think that is absolutely necessary for architectural exhibitions, where the object itself (architecture) cannot be present, and you just have to work with mediums which convey it. It becomes fundamental, also to avoid becoming too academic, and consequently not accessible to everybody. This is a widely discussed topic in the contemporary discourse about exhibiting architecture. But, the lack of time and the lack of funds sometimes prevent us to really come to the point I would wish to come to; we have to go step by step.

BF/NJ: Is it possible to exhibit architecture without showing a mere representation of it?

ES: Yes, if you really cleverly choose your topic. One does not necessarily have to plan shows about buildings or monographic exhibitions about architects. I am really interested in the intersections between different disciplines, like, for example, architecture and film. I did an exhibition in Basel where I decided not to show any plans or models at all; instead I wanted to show a film, so I produced one, with a friend of mine who is a film director, and there I really tried to work with other media to convey architecture. Then, it starts to become really funny and a pleasure to deal with the architectural subject.        

Of course, I do not have anything against classic or academic exhibitions; they can be wonderful, and sometimes you can really see beautiful drawings, but here, at least in this building, that would not be possible, because of the lack of climatic or security measures. So, we have to choose and find other ways to build a show, and that is still very interesting.

BF/NJ: Making reference to the subject of your next exhibition, is there a gender problem in architecture and in its representation?

ES: Oh, well, that is certainly an issue. Things are changing, but we have not reached yet a balance in presence and a complete equality between men and women in architecture. And that, of course, affects representation and mediation of the practice. There are today many more women professionals in the field, and of course that comes with a certain amount of recognition, but still many institutional entities suffer for an evident lack of women representatives. It is our job also to make those issues visible and bring them to the table.

BF/NJ: What kind of public are you addressing with your project?

ES: I think that is really interesting to observe like, for example, for the current exhibition, Wie wollen wir wohnen?, the public is completely different than the one which we welcomed during the summer exhibition. The latter, Nach Zürich. Kontroversen zur Stadt, attracted a lot of architects and professionals, while the current one reaches regular citizens, living in cooperative housing or interested and connected with the cooperative housing scene.

Of course, we could generally say that our public includes a majority or architects and students, but it is very fascinating to acknowledge how this building can host so many different audiences. I would therefore not specifically say that we are aimed at a certain public, but it is clear so far that each exhibition reaches different categories of people.  

Furthermore, exhibitions about architecture are often seen as something “exotic” by the audience. There are not so many institutions that deal with the subject in Switzerland, and we are ourselves not a traditional institution, we are not an art or a history museum; there are for us not so many existing models to look at, and that is a reason for continuously questioning our practice.

BF/NJ: In your program are also included regular appointments, like the “Debatte” and “Akzente” series. What are they exactly?

ES: Yes, this is a thing that was introduced by WBG (Wohnbaugenossenschaften Zürich), so I cannot really say why they chose these kinds of names for the series, but I think their idea was not only to put emphasis on the exhibition but also to participate in the discourse through their program, and I have to say they are quite successful; they have more than thirty to forty visitors for each event, and for an institution like ours, this is definitely not bad. They have a very intense program—normally there are like three events every week.

BF/NJ: Do you also organize guided tours or walks in the city?

ES: Yes, depending on the exhibition, and this is a very interesting topic for me. For example, we did it for the Nach Zürich exhibitions; that was about the city of Zurich and, of course, one of the ways to discover architecture at its best is walking outside of an institution. It was great to connect the people with their city. Going out is a key element, and back then we organized a very nice thing, I think; we contacted the Tram Museum and asked permission to use the old tram line, and with that we planned three free city tours, one in the Gartenstadt-Schwamendingen, one in Oerlikon and one in Zurich West. It was a huge success.

For the next exhibition, I am in contact with Frauenstadtrundgang[v]; they also organize architectural tours, and they will integrate a tour of the Swiss women architects who we are showing in their program, in the time frame of the exhibition and afterward. Recently, I looked at other institutions like the Architektur Zentrum Wien, and they regularly offer city tours, which opens up to a completely new kind of public and provides the possibility of expanding the audience.

BF/NJ: Which one has been so far the most successful exhibition? And which the most challenging?

ES: I still was not working here, but my colleague told me that the exhibition about bunkers was a great success, considering also the limited amount of money they invested in it. It was an exhibition based on the thesis research of two formers ETH students. It attracted a lot of different people, mostly elderly, whose reaction to the topic was incredible. They organized more than twenty bunker tours, they were all fully booked, and still now we keep getting emails from people that would like to book them. Personally, I would have never thought that this topic could appeal to so many people, but its accessibility and immediacy worked very well. This is definitely an experience from which we should learn.    

The Nach Zürich exhibition was also a success, although it mostly attracted professionals who could experience a different way of learning about their own city, and to discover the different city development of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Also, for me, I mean, I have been living here for a couple of years now, and I discovered so much. I think it was clever way to shed light on Zurich.

But this was also the most challenging for me so far. I came here a month before the opening during the set-up, and as you can imagine, it was so chaotic. It was the biggest exhibition for the ZAZ, we used the full house. Also, there were many partners involved, and it was quite challenging to put together all these voices.

BF/NJ: What would your wishes be in this case, and how do you see yourself and your contribution for the Zurich architectural and cultural scene in the future?

ES: I think what I really would like to achieve is to offer a platform to connect people and initiatives and institutions, both directly related to architecture or not.

I think it might stem from the federalist system of Switzerland, the tendency for which everybody here tends his own garden. I realized that when I was doing the preparation for the women architect exhibition. There are a lot of initiatives related to women’s lives, culture, and societal role, but they do not really connect. And an exhibition offers the opportunity to show people what is going on around them and how rich the scene actually is. I imagine this platform offering not just an exhibition, I do not really want to play the museum, but a space to gather and connect ideas. All the institutions I know that are dealing with architecture are mostly museum-like institutions, and I do not know if that is enough; the challenge is to find a new, very sharp and complementary profile to differentiate the what we are offering.

BF/NJ: Would you like to continue after the first three years?

ES: I am convinced that there is huge potential in this project, and that it should continue further.

We have a beautiful house, in a beautiful location, which, of course, has advantages and disadvantages, but the outdoor space, as we said, could be developed. The BWG already tried to revive the space during the summer period, it was quite nice; the question if there should be a café or a restaurant is there, it is an issue, maybe once we get to the point where we are able to afford a good coffee machine.          

But also for the city of Zurich, there are a lot of architectural offices here, there is a nice and rich architecture scene in Switzerland, and of course we have Basel and the GTA exhibition already, but still I think it would be sad if the project would stop and the building all of a sudden would go to a bank or an insurance company. Also, in terms of educational projects and mediation, it would be great to expand also with projects for children and elderly people, to improve our collaboration with the Volkshochschule, for example.

Yes, I really hope it will continue.


Evelyn Steiner (*1981, Zug) is an architect and art historian, currently holding the position of curator at the ZAZ (Zentrum Architektur Zürich, Switzerland). She was appointed as main Salonnière for the Salon Suisse in 2020, taking place during the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. After completing her architectural studies in Zurich (ETH) and Buenos Aires, she worked in different architecture practices in Rome, Barcelona, and Zurich. In 2012, she received a Master of Arts in Art History at the University of Berne with a special qualification in Curatorial Studies and Museology. She then moved to Frankfurt to work at Deutsches Architekturmuseum (2012-2014). From 2014 to 2016, she was curator at the S AM (Schweizerisches Architekturmuseum) in Basel, where she curated the exhibitions Constructing Film. Swiss Architecture in the Moving Image and Aristide Antonas. Protocols of Athens, among others. Afterwards, she worked as a freelance curator and writer, and as an assistant lecturer at Hochschule für Gestaltung Basel at the Institute of Interior Design and Scenography.

Zentrum für Architektur Zürich (ZAZ) is an exhibition space, an interdisciplinary forum, and a venue for cultural events. It focuses upon themes related to the city and architecture, to space and the environment. With its program of events geared toward a broad public, ZAZ covers a diverse range of topics. It asks what urban planning and architecture do to people, respectively could do for them. The focus is on the city as the site of decisions involving architecture and urbanism – with all their implications for the coexistence in a society facing social and environmental challenges. The public is invited to adopt and learn about various perspectives on a given subject, but also to introduce viewpoints of their own.

Noémie Jeunet (b. 1988) is a Swiss architect; she received her Diploma at the EPFL in Lausanne (CH). She has lived and worked in Zurich (CH) since 2013. After working as an architect for Park Architekten and Armon Semadeni Architekten for several years, she decided to study curation in more depth, beginning a CAS program at the ZHdK in Curating in 2019. At the same time, she is now working as an exhibition designer at the Museum Rietberg. She has been part of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS, at the ZHdK since 2019.

Beatrice Fontana is an architect, based in Zurich. She finalized the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, MAS at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2020.


[i] The Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich houses a broad collection of design and visual communication items. Founded in 1875, it owns today, in two different locations in the city of Zurich, over half a million objects relevant to graphic and design history.

[ii] As part of the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at the ETH Zurich, gta exhibitions display theoretical and practical research subjects of the architecture department.

[iii] Nach Zürich. Kontroversen zur Stadt.

[iv] Frau Architekt. Seit mehr als 100 Jahren: Frauen im Architektenberuf.

[v] Frauenstadtrundgang  is an association of around twenty historians who have been researching the history of women and gender in the city of Zurich.

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