Accumulation - Kim Förster - A Gray Castle

A Gray Castle

Kim Förster

NEST, Research Building and Guesthouse for Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), Dübendorf, 2012–2016. Photo: © Gramazio Kohler Architects / Roman Keller.

December 2023

NEST, short for “Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technology,” is an experimental building and research center on the outskirts of Zurich that seeks to re-imagine how society can produce and use buildings differently.1 Opened in April 2016, shortly after the UN Climate Change Conference COP21, it is a government initiative of two affiliated federal organizations, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG). The initiative aims to transform resource cycles (energy, water, and materials) in buildings to address climate change.2 To achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement beyond sustainability certificates, NEST not only suggests reframing the role of research and design, nor does it simply propose a new relevance of science and technology, but instead focuses on the marketability of new developments.3 In this context, NEST is a political guideline for architects, builders, and developers alike that is symptomatic of a wider building culture in Switzerland today, one that aims to remedy defects and eliminate shortcomings through demolition and new construction, and to create more energy-efficient (yet, somehow, also more spacious) residential and office buildings.4

When NEST, the brainchild of Peter Richner, Deputy Director of EMPA, opened its doors after four years of planning and two years of construction, it was tasked with “the future of construction.”5 Put more precisely, it was meant to ensure that construction happens in the future. Designed by the Zurich-based architects Gramazio Kohler as a platform building—both literally and figuratively—on behalf of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH) and realized with government support and funds from the private sector (with a total budget of 38 million Swiss francs), the building is comprised of a fixed structure into which Swiss universities can plug-in-and-out modular and temporary research units.6 Additionally including a new entrance lobby, conference center, guest house, and office building, NEST was placed at the heart of an upcoming master-plan extension of EMPA and EAWAG’s (late-) modern science campus, and updates the dated techno-utopian ideology of the surrounding laboratory buildings for today.7 By generating and disseminating sociotechnical imaginaries of architecture and the city, NEST promotes neoliberal policies to address the global challenges of climate change and encourages a new round of accumulation in the metabolism of resources, energy, materials, capital, and labor.8

NEST’s declared goal is to accelerate the introduction of innovations to the market by bringing together architects and engineers with industry leaders to promote start-ups and enable spin-offs.9 On opening day, the Swiss press wrote about NEST as the “house of the future” or a “super house,” showering it with advance praise.10 Since its opening, about half of the potential research units have been founded and built, and none removed. Each unit touches upon a specific topic: innovative façade technology for solar energy and daylight; natural resources and ecological building; future-oriented and flexible workplace environments; exercise, work capacity, and quality of life; digital prefabrication; urban mining and recycling; the circular economy; reuse-oriented architecture; etc. All the units are built as one-to-one experiments in optimizing construction efficiency and profitability, and offer office, as well as residential, space. EMPA sees NEST as a “living lab,” with individual units acting as model and showcase projects, and visitors, residents, and employees acting as “guinea pigs” for monitoring and reports.11

NEST is more than a laboratory, however.12 Is it also more than an incubator to “hatch” new ideas. NEST is both a pilot and demonstration project, where innovations are displayed and put to the test in the “real world” for extended periods of time.13 It is, therefore, an architectural embodiment of “future narratives,” or what in actor-network theory is called a “promissory assemblage.”14 But perhaps more than anything, following EMPA’s and EAWAG’s turn towards research and development at the beginning of the twenty-first century, NEST is a technofix—or actually an architecture-fix—that attempts to intervene within the building materials industry, construction industry, and real estate industry using the only language they understand—private, market-based solutions—all while perpetuating the modernist fetish for innovation as a driver of progress and growth.15

Outside view (rendering) of NEST, Research Building and Guesthouse for EMPA, Dübendorf, 2012–2016. Source: © Gramazio Kohler Architects.

Produced by a consortium of state officials, architects, engineers, universities, medium-sized companies, and multinational corporations, the project is a unique site to observe contemporary entanglements of higher education, research, practice, and industry. NEST therefore testifies to how contemporary worlds of government, business, science, and technology are intertwined and interact in terms of researching, designing, testing, promoting, and selling ideas about architecture, resources, efficiency, and sustainability. NEST can therefore be read as an architectural diagram of accumulation by the profit-seeking building materials and construction industries. Indeed, early renderings by Gramazio Kohler envisioned it as a permanent construction site.16 NEST, however, as shown in press photographs, has become iconic. Defying classical interpretation, the building is almost entirely lacking an exterior façade (and is thus without a standardized climate envelope), and has three prominent cantilevered concrete floor slabs engineered by Joseph Schwarz from the ETH’s Institute of Technology in Architecture. The actual façade of exposed concrete, with minimalist ornamentation, circular courtyard windows, and light fixtures, is only revealed when entering the building and passing through the lobby into the glass-roofed atrium.

The building is designed to display innovation and transparency (not just architectural, but also institutional). The architects themselves describe their building as a “backbone,” one that EMPA has to fill with innovation and experimentation, lest it become a beautiful yet expensive (not to mention wasteful) ruin. At the very least, Gramazio Kohler’s NEST could be described as “a gray castle.” For, in spite of all the techniques of rhetoric, presentation, and moderation of sustainability, concrete—which is one the single biggest sources of carbon emissions in architecture—is still the predominant building material. Holcim, which became the world market leader in cement production in terms of volume and market value after a merger with its French competitor Lafarge in 2015, donated the building’s primary material (not recycled, of course), which accounted for a significant part of the costs of construction.17 Therefore, as much as NEST is a platform for product innovation, the building is also a product advertisement and a medium for product placement.18 NEST, then, is an outgrowth of the renaissance in concrete that has taken place in Swiss architecture, as well as of concrete’s penetration into culture, education, and institutions since the 1990s.19

NEST is perhaps best described as high-end skeleton construction. The infrastructure core, research units, and, eventually, the building itself have been thoroughly economized. The lifecycle of all parts has been carefully planned: ten to fifteen years for the building services, thirty years for the finishing, and fifty years for the load-bearing structure. In a sense, NEST seems to be a reiteration of Dutch architect N. John Habraken’s structuralist “support and infill” concept.20 Gramazio Kohler themselves said they were inspired by other examples of 1960s megastructures that feature prominently in the history of planned obsolescence: the infrastructural, high-tech, and highly flexible fantasies of Archigram/Peter Cook’s Plug-in-City or the work of the Japanese Metabolists, which once stood at the crossroads of adaptive reuse and preservation.21 These historical references, with clearly defined life cycles for each component, painted a rather optimistic picture of the future, while at the same time highlighting the inherent transience of architecture.22 Subject to obsolescence, however, NEST exemplifies the attempt to bring about change by subordinating sustainable construction to the laws of the market.23 While engaging the Swiss Employers’ Association for the construction industry as a partner, EMPA calls upon not just architects and engineers, but also, and more importantly, big builders and developers to continue business as usual.

Architecture Touring

To get a better a picture of NEST, I participated in a public tour organized by EMPA’s public relations department in early 2020, just before the Covid 19 pandemic. Processing about a thousand persons per month, tours for professionals and laypeople alike had become an important component of NEST’s media outreach and public relations efforts. In modern German literature, the tour is a classical topos and narrative device, and is instrumental here in making sense of NEST’s architectural, environmental, and future imaginings.24 In Adalbert Stifter’s mid-nineteenth century novel Die Narrenburg (The Fool’s Castle), for instance, the tour is employed as a literary device to negotiate the epochal transition towards modernism, both literary and architectural, and the overcoming of historicism.25 In the chapter “Das graue Schloss” (“The Gray Castle”), the protagonist, a supposed descendent of the castle’s owner, foolishly wanders through a ruined castle of which, he realizes, he is the rightful heir. Over the years, the castle was built, modified, and extended by each of the successors in a mix of styles, both historical and progressive, but is in an advanced state of disintegration and decay. While the castle is saved in the end by extensive restoration work and personal happiness befalls the protagonist, the end of NEST, and the future of construction more widely, is still unknown and open to interpretation.

With research units as aesthetically diverse at Stifter’s fictional architecture, NEST similarly stands at the beginning of a new epoch.26 Drawing simultaneously on the two dominant twentieth-century paradigms of growth and change—obsolescence and sustainability—and representative of the capitalist, neoliberal, and globalist ruins we now inhabit, EMPA’s flagship project is a state-initiated commercial attempt at making the building industry carbon-neutral and more resource-efficient.27 Given its institutional context, however, the metabolism of cement production in the field of architecture as a whole is left mostly as-is: dependent on fossil fuels, and itself a high-carbon emitting industry. NEST is therefore not just a literal “gray castle,” but also a metaphorical one.28

On the tour, however, NEST presents itself as a one-of-a-kind visitor and information center for everything sustainable. With open spaces for meetings and seminars, it is primarily an exhibition and showroom for ideas, images, and possibilities in architecture, science, and technology. Equipped with state-of-the-art building technology, diverse energy and water cycles overlap here in a way that is complementary to urban ecologies. Electricity from solar panels and heat from heat pumps are fed back into the grid, and two fresh and four gray and black water cycles are regulated by computer-controlled hubs in the basement. The building is, in a sense, both a power station and water plant.29 Yet more than an “architectural ecology,” NEST also incorporates an “infrastructural ecology.”30 During a diagrammatic overview of NEST presented at the start of the tour, it became clear that more than just energy and water circulate here; so does data, material, technology, ideas, knowledge, power, and capital.

Diagram of all actors contributing to NEST. Photo: © Kim Förster.

The tour only allowed a cursory glance into EMPA’s ambitions and aspirations, while persistently concealing the material realities that NEST sets out to change. In the context of the climate emergency, it is not enough to restore what is disintegrating; radically different environmental and social conditions need to be created. In this sense, as a pilot and demonstration building, NEST spans the conflicting layers of past, present, and future construction.31 If EMPA seeks to materialize, test, and verify future-oriented building materials, building technologies, and building processes, the question that should be asked of it is to what extent NEST effectively incubates ideas and generates improved designs that not only lower carbon emissions, and drastically so, but neutralize them?32

Negotiating Materials

During the main part of the tour, we were guided through two recently added units, both of which attempted to renegotiate the relationship between aesthetics, materiality, economy, and ecology in the realm of digital and circular architecture (concrete vs. wood in one, recycled materials in the other). The two are exemplary of the scope, need, and capacity of the architects and institutions then-involved with NEST (both also offer guest rooms for postgraduate students and researchers). The dfab House, an acronym for “digital fabrication,” by NCCR Digital Fabrication and ETH, is a three-story residential unit also designed by Gramazio Kohler that opened in 2019. It uses two different types of materials and prefabricated construction techniques: a system of wall, slab, and façade mullions out of concrete on the first floor for kitchen, dining, and living spaces, and a wood-frame structure for the two upper floors of bedrooms.33 UMAR (Urban Mining and Recycling), by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Werner Sobek Group, was designed by German architects Werner Sobek, Dirk Hebel, and Felix Heisel, and opened in 2018. It is a four-room apartment that serves as a showcase for recycled materials, and is based on wooden building infill.34 Both units—the dfab House as a prototype for a detached house, UMAR for an apartment house or residential tower—aim to demonstrate the extent and under what conditions a “digital” or “circular” building could be built today. In this sense, they also speak to what it might look like to market these types of buildings to potential users, private homeowners, and major public and private investors in Switzerland.35

(Left) Dfab House on the upper floor of the NEST building, Dübendorf, 2016–2019. Photo: © NCCR Digital Fabrication / Roman Keller. (Right) On the ground floor of the dfab House, fifteen bespoke, digitally fabricated concrete mullions line the façade, while the freeform Mesh Mould wall supports the Smart Slab and stories above. Photo: © NCCR Digital Fabrication / Roman Keller.

The technological and processual innovation of the dfab House was developed within the framework of a well-endowed federal research program launched at ETH in 2014.36 The potential for digital fabrication presented here should be read in light of the funder’s stated goal: “to secure a leading position for Switzerland in this new and highly interesting sector, which is fast becoming a core discipline of architecture.”37 Reduced carbon emissions and the future of construction, according to this self-fulfilling view, can be found in increasing efficiency, not just materially but also financially. This is demonstrated on the first floor in concrete construction with the use of a “mesh mold” and “in situ fabricator” for robotic-assisted, formwork-free on-site fabrication of a statically optimized load-bearing concrete wall. A “smart slab” was also used for the 3D-printed, additive prefabrication of functionally-integrated concrete ceiling elements, and “smart dynamic casting” enabled the prefabrication of non-standard concrete elements with a robot-assisted slip-forming process. In the floors above, “spatial timber assemblies” were used for the customized robotic prefabrication of timber roof trusses, and a “lightweight translucent façade” comprised the roofing.38

(Left) UMAR under construction on the second floor of the NEST building, Dübendorf, 2015–2017. Photo: © Zooey Braun Fotografie. (Right) Interior view of UMAR, interior wall of recycled material. Photo: © Zooey Braun Fotografie.

UMAR, by contrast, focuses less on improving technology or process, but on materials. It is designed to promote circular architecture, unbuilding, and reassembling, based on the idea that all building materials should be able to be recovered, separated by type, and eventually fed back into construction and the economy (if not the biological cycle). Arguably, this would reduce overall construction and demolition waste minimize the production of new building materials, and thus environmental damage, including carbon emissions.39 As such, within UMAR, no surfaces are coated, and no elements are glued. Instead, they are clamped and wrapped, which facilitates deconstruction and recovery. Using a prefabricated wood construction that was assembled on site, UMAR is both an exhibition and showroom dedicated to all kinds of material products that have been recycled, upcycled, and even cultivated.40 The unit probes the acceptability, feasibility, marketability, usability, and stability of those products from commercial providers already available on the market. In addition, UMAR also promotes the idea of a comprehensive survey (comparable to a cadaster),41 as well as that of an urban mine, or a digital inventory of all building materials currently used in the existing building stock so that they can be incorporated into new design projects by way of Building Integrated Modeling (BIM) software.42 The authors of UMAR have more recently contributed to an EMPA-backed study on architecture’s contribution to global warming, identifying a clear need to transition from building in concrete to timber.43

In many respects, with its reliance on concrete and planned obsolescence, NEST demonstrates a particular approach to the practicability, feasibility, and conditionality of transitioning the building and material industries. What is suggested in these two units is profound, given that the built environment under conditions of capitalism is a dynamic site of accumulation in terms of the extraction, production, and use of materials. If what dfab House and UMAR are piloting was to become standard practice for the majority of all new construction projects, as EMPA envisions, it would put architecture’s exploitative relations with nature to the test, entailing nothing less than a restructuring of the imperatives and strategies of building under capitalism. Digital fabrication and the use of robotics is argued to almost entirely eliminate human labor from building construction.44 More practically, however, the risk is that faster and cheaper construction runs counter to the stated goal, with resource and cost-efficiency being outweighed by increased building volume. Within these shifts, then, the material—in this case, concrete—cannot be ignored. In addition, digital technologies in architecture and education create new and extractive energy dependencies.45 Similarly, making all material resources recyclable, even reusable, necessitates not only a new way of designing that starts from the end of a building’s life and its disassembly, but the creation of new types of products, supply and value chains, and a transformation in the way urbanization and urban design are understood.46 In both cases, however, the narrative of the “future of construction” was unreservedly positive: the market and demand will deliver.47

Global Atmospheric Watch, EMPA, Zurich-Dübendorf. Source: Google Maps / Emanuel Carrilho (July 2019).


After we were shown some of NEST’s other units, the fitness and wellness area, the solar-powered sauna and steam room, the rooftop terrace, and the building services in the basement, I left NEST and walked around the building. Behind it, in the building’s backyard, so to speak, sits an “observatory”—two sheds and some measuring instruments on a lawn—that I remember first seeing as a thumbnail on Google Maps while looking for directions.48 Since the 1990s, EMPA has been involved in the Global Atmospheric Watch, an international network of research institutions that monitors changes in the composition of the atmosphere, including rising carbon dioxide concentration. The fact that knowledge of this key earth system that makes human life possible is monitored on their own back lawn, combined with the rising awareness of the climate impact of building material and construction industries, complicates the future imaginaries that NEST demonstrates through its innovations and knowledge production. Even EMPA reports show, for instance, that concrete cannot simply be dispensed with as building material in the near future.49

(Left) Countdown at S AM, January 2020. Photo: © Countdown 2030. (Right) View of Die Schweiz: Ein Abriss (demolition waste room), September–October 2022. Photo: © Countdown 2030.

There are, however, voices from within the discipline and profession that criticize the dominant approach to housing and urban development in Zurich, and across Switzerland, Ersatzneubau (literally, new construction replacing old).50 Early in 2020, a digital countdown clock was installed above the entrance to the Swiss Architecture Museum (S AM) in Basel counting down to 2030, the target year set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% (on the way to becoming climate neutral by 2050). Countdown 2030, the group behind this intervention, also curated Die Schweiz, ein Abriss (which has the double meaning of “Switzerland, a Summary” and “Switzerland, a Demolition”) in autumn 2022, also at S AM.51 Implicitly and explicitly spotlighting federal policies, the exhibition offered an account of demolition practices and addressed the issue of carbon emissions and waste in the building industry.

(Left) Sprint under construction on the first floor of the NEST building, Dübendorf, 2020–2021. Photo: © Martin Zeller. (Right) Interior view of Sprint’s re-used walls. Photo: © Martin Zeller.

One of the most recently added research units to NEST, “Sprint,” which was inaugurated in August 2021 after a short construction period of eight months, exhibits a sense of urgency by its name alone: a race against the clock.52 Following a direct commission in November 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Sprint was designed by members of the Basel-based Baubüro in situ (Kerstin Müller, who has since founded Zirkular, a group of re-use experts, Oliver Seidel, and Marianthi Konstantinidou).53 The practice of Baubüro in situ, who had previously made a breakthrough with their award-winning K118-project in Winterthur, is characterized by its re-use of building components, if not whole buildings, rather than using recycled building materials. An example of an institutional and architectural response to the pandemic, the brief for Sprint was to create a new office floor for EMPA staff to stop working from home, with individual offices separated by temporary partition walls. Yet, the collaboration has changed the very perception and nature of NEST.

Building on a longer history of adapting, reusing, and preserving the existing building stock through co-operative approaches, Baubüro in situ have turned NEST’s “backbone” into a building redevelopment, rather than a new-build project.54 The design of Sprint is based on a frame structure made of reclaimed timber. Working closely with a carpenter, an upcycler, a building services technician, a glazier, and a façade builder, they were actively scouting available building components and elements and relied on their own stock, which was crucial at a time when there was a supply shortage for traditional materials and prices were skyrocketing. With the help of EMPA, they found elements of an acoustic ceiling hoarded by the installer, which could easily be retrofitted for heating and cooling; for the façade, which they insulated with thirty-eight-centimeters of straw, they piloted and demonstrated flexibility in applying thermal insulation capacity based on different U-values; partition walls are made from old telephone books, carpet offcuts, and other found material.55

If architecture is to drastically reduce carbon emissions and provide not only for maintenance but for care, it must reduce of the overall volume of building and use circular and biogenic materials, which must be accompanied by legal frameworks and caps.56 At the same time, we should be wary of green-, yellow-, or brownwashing, and the attempts of companies who have contributed to the climate breakdown to clean their names. NEST illustrates and contrasts different kinds of ecological imaginaries around changing attitudes, values, ideas, and political issues. Yet it is only in its more recent developments, like Sprint, that NEST addresses market-based logics of extraction, design, and construction to work towards carbon neutrality. Sprint sets an example of how to build together in what they call a “technology-neutral” way, i.e. without locking in technology up front, and also of commoning building materials, if we could only agree to not demolish, and to not construct, new buildings.57 In the era of global boiling, which threatens the very existence of life, promoting the structural change necessary not only for adaption, but for mitigation requires acknowledging our dependencies not only on petroleum, but also on cement.58 Seeing NEST not just as a building, but as an initiative, platform, program, and ruin might be a good step in that direction.


Monika Burri. “Die wissenschaftliche Materialprüfung. Institutionalisierung einer neuen Disziplin” and “Die ETH als Dienstleisterin. Die Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau,” in ETHistory 1855-2055. Sightseeing durch 150 Jahre ETH Zürich, eds. Monika Burri and Andrea Westermann (Baden: Hier + Jetzt, 2005): 67–71 & 89–92. The working areas of EMPA and EAWAG were divided in 1951, and the land for the new campus acquired subsequently.


Founded in 1881, EMPA focused from the very beginning on quality control in building science. Carrying out strength tests against tearing, crushing, twisting, and bending under Ludwig Tetmajer, it helped concrete triumph as a modern material in Switzerland. Sarah Nichols, as part of her PhD dissertation “Opération Béton. Constructing Concrete in Switzerland 1871–1972” (2021), included Tetmajer’s early bridge loading test with “Portland cement concrete” and the performances during the 1939 Swiss national exhibition. In the 1980s, EMPA then tried to navigate between the poles of high-tech and ecology, see: Brigitte Honegger. “Die Empa im Spannungsfeld zwischen High-Tech und Umweltschutz,” Schweizer Ingenieur und Architekt 105, no. 35 (1987): 1018–1019.


In Switzerland, the Mingerie label came to dominate the market. For a prehistory of Swiss sustainability certificates, see: Kim Förster. “Umdenken Umschwenken: Environmental Engagement and Swiss Architecture,” in Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement, ed. Farhan Karim (New York and London: Routledge, 2018): 271–288. For a critique of sustainability certificates from an American perspective, see: Reinhold Martin. “Risk: Excerpts from the Environmental Division of Labor,” in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, ed. James Graham (New York and Zurich: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City and Lars Müller Publishers, 2016): 349–359.


As part of my research, I interviewed both Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler (January 29, 2020) as architects, and Peter Richner (March 5, 2020) as Deputy Director of EMPA.


ETH Board: “Press Release”, 6 December 2016. See ®


It remains unanswered whether, at that time of EMPA commissioned Gramazio Kohler for NEST, an alternative material, biogenic or even recycled (wood or steel) would have been quite conceivable and communicable for the structure, especially since it is a pilot and demonstration project.


This science campus, manifesting the functional separation of EMPA, EAWAG, and ETH, was the most expensive civic building in Swiss post-war history at CHF 64 million at the time; see: “Die Empa in Dübendorf,” Schweizer Bauzeitung 80, no. 15 (1962): 262–263; Eduard Amstutz, “ETH und Empa,” Schweizer Bauzeitung 81, no. 22 (1963): 415–416; “Leistungen und Aufgaben der Empa,” Schweizer Bauzeitung 81, no. 46 (1963): 803–806. The EMPA campus, designed by Werner Forrer, encompassed a wood test house, an engine house, a construction hall, a metal hall, a crane hall, a formwork hall, and a fire hall, as well as service infrastructures, gravel and sand preparation, refractory materials, and a tank facility. Eduard Amstutz, “Die Neubauten der Empa,” Schweizer Bauzeitung 81, no. 46 (1963): 806–808. The construction hall then offered space for modern testing facilities of whole building parts.


Environmental imaginaries can be traced back to those of space and society, which apply already understood processes to the future. Julie Cidell. “Environmental Imaginaries,” in Encyclopedia of Geography, ed. Barney Wharf (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2010): 933–934. The question is, what critical potential they have to address issues of social and environmental justice. Chris Hagerman. “Ecological Imaginaries,” in Wharf, ed., Encyclopedia of Geography, 829–830.


If, in the relationship between the university to the city, the transfer of knowledge to the users is a stated problem, a more critical perspective points to the long history of the connection between the university and the needs of industry, see: Tim May and Beth Perry. “Cities, Knowledge and Universities: Transformations in the Image of the Intangible” Social Epistemology 20, nos. 3–4 (2006): 259–282; see also Tim May and Beth Perry, Cities and the Knowledge Economy (New York and London: Routledge, 2018).


The conservative, business-friendly Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that NEST’s task was to bring innovative products, technologies, and materials to market more quickly. Christian Speicher, “Ein wohnliches Labor,” NZZ, May 23, 2016. The Tagesanzeiger, a more left leaning daily, also from Zurich, described NEST as “architektonische eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (a jack-of-all-trades building) because it takes a holistic view on energy transition. Martin Läubli, “Superhaus der Zukunft,” TA, May 22, 2016. The message was always the same, and with almost identical wording: that NEST is not a “Luftschloss” (castle in the air); that it works and is ready for everyday use; that, in the future, the focus shall be on building in an environmentally friendly way, recycling materials, and saving energy, etc.


Richner, in our interview, explained that both energy and water use get measured, but the results are secondary. “Living labs” have a longer tradition beginning in the 1970s, when originally developed for studies of energy, energy production, and energy consumption. For contemporary laboratory studies see: Florian Hoof, Eva-Maria Jung, and Ulrich Salaschek, eds., Jenseits des Labors. Transformationen von Wissen zwischen Entstehungs- und Anwendungskontext (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2011).


Sociologist Bruno Latour was once, with Steven Woolgar, a co-founder of science and technology studies, see: Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Los Angeles: Sage, 1979). Later, Latour applied the approach of laboratory study to the construction of laboratories and their position in the societal milieu, see Bruno Latour. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, eds. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983): 141–170. The focus, however, stayed observing science in the making, see: Bruno Latour. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).


Geographer Nigel Thrift has pointed to new developments in the early twenty-first century regarding the production of knowledge and new types of buildings as models for innovation, which he called “incubators,” see: Nigel Thrift. “Re-inventing Invention: New Tendencies in Capitalist Commodification” Economy and Society 35, no. 2 (2006): 279–306, here, 292.


Architecture in this sense might be comparable to the city as twofold “promissory assemblage”, i.e., the promises in the city and of the city, see: Alexa Färber. “How does ANT help us to rethink the city and its promises,” in The Routledge Companion to Actor-Network Theory, eds. Anders Blok, Ignacio Farias, and Celia Roberts (London and New York: Routledge, 2020): 264–272.


Under the slogan “The place where innovation starts,” EMPA today is committed to five research areas concerned with a comprehensive understanding of materials (at the atomic, molecular, and cellular scale): “Nanoscale Materials & Technologies,” “Health & Performance,” “Resources & Pollutants,” and also “Energy” and “Sustainable Built Environment.” See ®


The playfulness, even provocation, inherent in Gramazio Kohler’s work is explained by the firm’s biography: Fabio Gramazio was once a founding member and long-standing president of the artists’ group etoy, whose net art did not differentiate between art and commerce, and who had become internationally known by the end of the 1990s through the so-called “toywar.” following a takeover attempt and legal dispute with the online toy manufacturer eToy.


Over the course of the twentieth century, Holcim’s predecessor, Holderbank, originally a family business that benefited early on from the separation of production and financial business in the 1930s, not only rose to become established on the domestic market and achieve a quasi-monopoly position due to the interplay between banking and the state, but also expanded internationally as a trust in the post-war decades. See: Sarah Nichols. “Pollux’s Spears” Grey Room 71 (2018): 141–155. Since 2001, Holcim, then renamed, has been operating as a multinational corporation even more dominant in global markets, backed by the major Swiss banks Credit Suisse (now wound up) and UBS.


Not only is NEST based on a concrete structure, but its entrance hall displays a list of all sponsors, including Holcim. NEST is also featured on Holcim’s corporate website and has become a promotional tool to boost business. Holcim has long been trying to portray itself as environmentally conscious, for example through the communication efforts of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, as well as by organizing a series of international conferences and a regional and global competition to channel debate and assimilate new practices. Richner mentioned that they proposed NEST for recognition in the Holcim competition, but EMPA did not receive an award for it. Holcim also funds an ETH professorship for sustainable construction.


Adrian Forty, “A Concrete Renaissance,” in Concrete and Culture: A Material History (London: Reaktion, 2012): 279–296. Architecture history has long been content to focus on concrete structures rather than the cement industry. As a continuation of this narrative, Adrian Forty concluded his media history of the modern, industrial building material with a chapter on Swiss architecture. The complexity, even complicity, is evident in the struggling historical assessment of the sustainability of the material, which has changed radically in the past decade.


N. John Habraken. Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing (1961; London: Architectural Press, 1972). For a contemporary take, see: Sascha Roesler, “Structurally indicated potential for transformation of residential buildings,” Journal of Comparative Cultural Studies in Architecture 4 (2010): 16–23; and “Anpassungsfähiger Systembau,” in Weltkonstruktion (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2013): 547 ff; Hugo Priemus. “Support-Infill Revisited: The Increasing Say of Occupants”, conference paper, ETH Zurich, 2015. See ®


For a discussion of the complex relationship of obsolescence and sustainability as twentieth century paradigms, see: Daniel Abramson, Obsolescence: An Architectural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Daniel Abramson. “Obsolescence and its Future,” in The Routledge Companion to Critical Approaches to Contemporary Architecture, ed. Swati Chattopadhyay and Jeremy White (London and New York: Routledge, 2020): 231–243.


Gramazio Kohler also took their cue from the so-called “Wohnregal” (housing shelf), which was erected on a derelict site in Berlin-Kreuzberg by a self-building cooperative based on a design by Peter Stürzebecher, Kjell Nylund, and Christof Puttfarke as part of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in 1984/87. Yet, NEST also recalls another IBA project, Frei Otto’s and Hermann Kendell’s “Öko-Häuser” (eco-houses). These, too, were concrete structures within which single housing units were built. One major difference, however, is that the three eco-houses, a pilot and demonstration project of IBA’s research field “Natur und Bauen” (nature and building), were in a close ecological relationship with the land they occupied (i.e., unsealed soil, local water cycles, existing vegetation, and ultimately urban wildlife), while NEST is detached from the land in the middle of a science campus. I have written more extensively on the eco-houses of IBA, see: Kim Förster. “The Green IBA: On a Politics of Renewal, Ecology, and Solidarity,” Candide 11 (2019): 9–50, ®; and “Wie bauen, wie weiter leben? Frei Ottos Vision vom ökologischen und gemeinsamen Bauen,” Bauwelt 20 (2015): 28–29, ®


Abramson, “Obsolescence and its Future,” 233.


Other literary tours were also referenced, such as Bertolt Brecht’s short story “Nordseekrabben oder Die moderne Bauhaus-Wohnung,” Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, January 7, 1927, in which two former World War I combatants, in a first round, are shown around the apartment of their fellow combatant, snobbishly furnished in the modernist style, only to completely destroy it in a second round, after sending the owner away on the pretext of getting North Sea crabs.


Adalbert Stifter. “Das graue Schloss,” in Die Narrenburg, (1842; Zurich: E.A. Hofmann Verlag, 1943): 47–117. Hans-Georg von Arburg in a recent essay of the Stifter-reception writes about the relationship of architecture and text conditioning one another, and the tension between styles and epochs, see: Hans-Georg von Arburg. “Neues von der Narrenburg. Stifters Architekturen zwischen Historismus und Neuem Bauen,” in Figuren der Übertragung. Adalbert Stifter und das Wissen seiner Zeit, eds. Michael Gamper and Karl Wagner (Zurich: Chronos Verlag, 2009): 109–133. Here, von Arburg discusses building styles and lifestyles in relation to literary styles, contrasting Gottfried Semper’s and Sigfried Giedion’s theoretical positions, i.e., plainly put, decoration and construction, both of which take on new significance given the polycrises not just in, but of the Anthropocene. In Stifter’s case, however, writing at the peak of the industrial age, “gray” still refers to iron, not concrete.


In addition, NEST features neo-baroque and neo-modernist allusions cast in concrete. In architecture history, the baroque style, which characterized the façades of Prussian castles, had been taken up again in the façades of university buildings, government buildings, and company headquarters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The modern era then produced concrete structures that were prefabricated and poured in situ.


In German, there is a word for this, “Bauwende,” along with “Energiewende” and also “Materialwende,” that includes quite different measures designed to make construction carbon-neutral and more resource-efficient, but produces a variety of definitions, including the transition to circular and biogenic materials.


One of the great ruin narratives in recent times has been Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). While her anthropological fieldwork on the matsutake mushroom, forestry, foraging, and timber extraction and critique of globalized capitalism initially focused on all kinds of supply chains, including building materials, this unlikely assemblage becomes an allegory for the state of the world in which we live. See also: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. “What Is Emerging? Supply Chains and the Remaking of Asia” The Professional Geographer 68, no. 2 (2015): 330–337.


Both systems represent a decoupling from municipal and private providers and are instead modulated by strategies of self-management and self-sufficiency. For a discussion of promises in the city, with “infrastructure as common good”, see: Färber. “How does ANT help us to rethink the city and its promises,” 269. For a definition of commons, and of communing, to be applied to “non-rivalrous” and “rivalrous” energy sources and resources, and their politicization in terms of boundaries, rules, and communication among users, see: Silke Helfrich and David Bollier. “Commons,” in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, eds. Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis (London and New York: Routledge, 2015): 102–105.


For a discussion of an architectural ecology, see: Barnabas Calder and G. A. Bremner, “Buildings and Energy: Architectural History in the Climate Emergency,” The Journal of Architecture 26, no. 2 (2021): 79–115. For a discussion of an infrastructural ecology, see: Florian Sprenger, Epistemologien des Umgebens. Zur Geschichte, Ökologie und Biopolitik künstlicher Environments (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019).


The reason, in Stifter’s words, might be twofold: firstly, that EMPA, which since its inception has been charged with researching and ultimately legitimizing the use of modern industrial materials, would be concerned with avoiding “folly” and “rashness”; and secondly, that architects and researchers invited to contribute solutions to the energy and materials conundrum, entering the market, would avoid “vice” and “malpractice.”


We were told NEST is reinventing the relationship between architecture and materials from the inside out, but there was no mention of the great impact that the building materials industry and the construction industry (and architecture as a social and cultural factor, and therefore architecture criticism) have on the environment through carbon emissions from construction and large-scale demolition waste generation.


On dfab House, see ® and ®. In addition to cooperation with local industry, big industry players Holcim (cement) and ABB (robotic technology) are listed as partners on the EMPA website.


On UMAR, see ®, ® ,and ®


Especially the large real estate holdings, pension funds, and insurance companies that have been increasingly investing in fixed assets since the 1990s.


The National Centres of Competence in Research work on “digital fabrication” was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and managed by Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler; see ®. It is an initiative for the strategic development and integration of digital technologies in architecture, on which researchers from eight ETH professorships are working in collaboration with forty industrial partners. The management has since been transferred to Philippe Block, also a Professor of Architecture and Structure at ETH and, since 2020, a member of the Board of Directors of Holcim.


“NCCR Digital Fabrication,” Swiss National Sciences Foundation. See ®


On the six innovations—four for concrete, two for wooden construction—in digital fabrication, as is possible at ETH with their equipment, for example, in the Robotic Fabrication Laboratory, see: Konrad Graser et al., “Social Network Analysis of dfab House: A Demonstrator of Digital Fabrication in Construction,” Working Paper Proceedings, 17th Engineering Project Organization Conference, Vail, Colorado, 2019.


Lionel Devlieger, “Reverse Architecture. The Virtues of Unbuilding and Reassembling,” in Rewriting Architecture, 10+1 Actions, eds. Floris Alkemade, Michiel Minkjan, Mark van Iersel, and Jarik Ouburg (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2020): 146–152. In this sense, UMAR to some extent continues and brings to the market what ROTOR DC once established in Brussels, in scouting salvageable materials, extracting them, and making them available again. Ironically, ROTOR DC contributed a door handle to UMAR, while being more than a door opener. See also: Dirk Hebel, Marta Wisniewska, and Felix Heisel, eds., Building from Waste (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014); Dirk Hebel and Felix Heisel, Circular Construction and Circular Economy. Fundamentals Case Studies, Strategies (Basel: Birkhäuser: 2022).


Felix Heisel. “Reuse and Recycling. Materializing a Circular Construction,” in The Materials Book, eds. Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2020): 156–160; Dirk Hebel and Felix Heisel. “Cultivated Building Materials: The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” in Ruby and Ruby, eds., The Materials Book, 145–149.


The idea of a comprehensive survey was also promoted by the City of Zurich at the time.


This only becomes relevant when applied to all existing building stock and not only to newly approved and constructed buildings. Barbara Buser. “Re-use!,” in Re-use in Construction. A Compendium in Circular Construction, ed. Institute of Constructive Design; ZHAW School of Architecture, Design and Civil Engineering; Eva Stricker, Guido Brandi, and Andreas Sonderegger (Zurich: Park Books, 2022): 11–16.


By contrasting conventional dwellings, single-family houses, and urban apartments made of different materials, based on the recently constructed building stock in Switzerland as a case study, they have calculated the cumulative energy demand, global warming potential, and environmental impact of contemporary construction to argue for a transition away from concrete and towards timber, a circular and regenerative material; see: Efstathios Kakkos, Felix Heisel, Dirk Hebel, and Roland Hischier. “Towards Urban Mining—Estimating the Potential Environmental Benefits by Applying an Alternative Construction Practice. A Case Study from Switzerland” Sustainability, 12 (2020): 5041.


This explains the fear of the disappearance of small and medium sized businesses, construction jobs, and craftmanship as we know them. Adrian Forty, “Forget Material,” in Expanding Fields of Architectural Discourse and Practice: Curated Works from the P.E.A.R. Journal, ed. Matthew Butcher and Megan O’Shea (London: UCL Press, 2020): 357–361. For a discussion on the last big shift in the relation of concrete, capital, labour, and the construction site beginning of the twentieth century, see: Michael Osman, “Managerial Aesthetics of Concrete” Perspecta, no. 45 (2012): 67–76.


Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, “The Devil is in the Details: Who is it that the Earth Belongs to?,” in Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing without Depletion, vol. 1, ed. Space Caviar (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2021): 85–96.


Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby. “Mine the City,” in Re-Inventing Construction, ed. Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2010): 243–247; Mazen Labban. “Rhythms of Wasting / Unbuilding the Built Environment,” New Geographies no. 10 (2019): 33–41.


It remained unsaid whether and to what extent trade union issues such as wage dumping, precarious employment, and permanent stress are addressed with NEST.


The thumbnail photograph, taken by an amateur photographer, has since been removed from Google Earth and replaced with a proper photograph of NEST.


According to EMPA, the maintenance and repair of the existing building stock and infrastructure would already require the volume of cement currently produced. In 2015, EMPA was involved in a study on “Bauwerk Schweiz” (“the built fabric of Switzerland”), which looked at the building stock nationwide, quantities of material built with, and energy imported for it, to advocate for a better efficiency in material and energy flows, given an annual consumption of forty million tons of concrete to either retrofit and extend. Accordingly, concrete, gravel, and sand constitutes the majority (75%) of material flows in Switzerland. See: Marcel Gauch et al. Projekt MatCH – Bau, Material- und Energieressourcen sowie Umweltauswirkungen der baulichen Infrastruktur der Schweiz (St. Gallen: EMPA—Materials Science & Technology, 2016): 2; For a problematization of life cycles, see also: Lucia Allais and Forrest Meggers. “Concrete Is One Hundred Years Old. The Carbonation Equation and Narratives of Anthropogenic Change,” in Writing Architectural History: Evidence and Narrative in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Aggregate (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021): 75–89.


Urs Rey. Zürich baut sich neu. Ersatzneubauprojekte 2004–2015 (Zurich: Statistik Stadt Zürich, 2015).


Countdown 2030, who installed the digital clock on January 1, 2020, is a Basel-based architecture group that had formed shortly before, and who have since been involved in a lot of the “bottom up” approaches to achieving “net zero” in architecture. After S AM, the countdown was exhibited at Bund Schweizer Architekten in Basel, Hochparterre in Zurich, istituto internazionale di architettura in Lugano, andZentrum Architektur Zürich in Zurich. However, the countdown was never shown at NEST.


On Sprint, see ® and ®


For the conclusion, I interviewed Kerstin Müller and Oliver Seidel on June 19, 2023.


“K.118 – Kopfbau Halle 118,” Baubüro in situ. See ®. See also: Institute of Constructive Design, ZHAW School of Architecture, eds., Reuse in Construction: A Compendium of Circular Architecture (Zurich: Park Books, 2022). Baubüro in situ was awarded a prize by the Holcim Foundation for K118; they explained what they had invested the prize money in, including translation of the publication and networking.


A partition wall made from clay by the Zurich start-up Oxara, easily re-useable since it is not mixed with cement, had not yet been realized at that time.


Marc Angst, one of the architects of K118, interviewed on May 16, 2023. Angst highlighted that Baubüro in situ work with the Swiss Society of Engineers and Architects (SIA) to reformulate SIA norms for reuse. They also participate in political life and democratic processes by advising on petitions at the national level.


In this spirit, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, following Bruno Latour’s suggestion to pause once in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, had called for what she called a “global moratorium on new construction.” Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, “A Global Moratorium on New Construction.” See ®


In this sense, Zirkular, in collaboration with researchers of EPFL Lausanne, has begun to test and validate the reuse of concrete elements (while EMPA has been investing in CO2-negative CSA cement, which is double-edged, since it suggests that building with concrete can continue as before). Celia Küpfer, Maléna Bastien-Masse, and Corentin Fivet, “Reuse of Concrete Components in New Construction Projects: Critical Review of 77 Circular Precedents,” Journal of Cleaner Production 383 (2023): 135235.

Accumulation is a project by e-flux Architecture and Daniel A. Barber produced in cooperation with the University of Technology Sydney (2023); the PhD Program in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design (2020); the Princeton School of Architecture (2018); and the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, the Speculative Life Lab at the Milieux Institute, Concordia University Montréal (2017).

Architecture, Technology, Economy
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This article was written in the context of a larger research project that concerns global cement. Thanks to the interviewees (Marc Angst, Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Kerstin Müller, Peter Richner, Oliver Seidel), readers (Brett Mommersteeg, Sascha Roesler, Hans-Georg von Arburg), and those who provided valuable feedback on the various occasions where I have presented this research.

Kim Förster is a researcher, writer, and teacher, and currently a lecturer in architectural studies at the University of Manchester and member of MARG (Manchester Architecture Research Group). Previously he was Associate Director, Research at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where in the framework of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s “Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative” he directed the multi-disciplinary research project on “Architecture and/for the Environment” (2017–2019), which is published under the title Environmental Histories of Architecture via Library Stack.


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