An example of a successful city renovation

The Wakkerpreis is awarded to the city of Sempach

by Angela Schubert

This year, the Swiss Heritage Society has given recognition to the Swiss mediveal town Sempach, with its even older hamlet Kirchbühl, with the Wakkerpreis. This, because of its careful and contemporary development of its historical heritage and for the developed discussion boom about the planning and construction at its location. Henri-Louis Wakker, a businessman from Geneva, through his legacy to the Swiss Heritage Society in 1972, made it possible to award this prize each year to a political community in recognizing its engagement in the maintenance, care and the careful complimentary additions to its overall picture of the city. In central Switzerland, the cities of Cham (1991), Sursee (2003) and now Sempach have been honoured with this prestigious recognition.

Sempach Town Hall Museum, Stadtstrasse Sempach (picture: Flavio Karrer/Schweizer Heimatschutz)

Dignity and elation

The city of Sempach organized the acceptance of the prize on 24 June 2017 in the same spirit as it has been developing its up-coming construction projects: The entire parish was at the open-air fore court of the church at the time of the awarding of the board of honour, the speech of dignity from the Heritage Society and the welcoming words of the government of Lucerne each framed by the Wind quartet gathered together through the invitation of the city president, Franz Schwegler. He claimed to his citizens that this is a joyful and proud day for their city: an expression of the esteem from both sides for the community as well as for those citizens who welcome construction. As such, he wanted to express his gratefulness to both parties, for the Swiss Heritage Society due to its recognition and equally for the city’s community which supports the undertakings of the collective community and lastly, pays for it as well.
The agile construction chief and architect who has been in office since 2008, recognised that after although not very simple planning and long development times, this award is an important confirmation of the path which has been laid. “We want to continue to ‘wakkern’, not falter in our efforts to cultivate the pearl Sempach as a lively city worth living in it.

Keeping the historic town centre alive

During the guided tours given by employees of public construction authorities in the morning, attendees gain a better understanding of the mode of operation and internal standards: at the beginning of a construction project’s planning phase, ideas for the creation of these buildings and their surroundings are gathered through competitions tendered either by the town or by private clients. Afterwards, even hesitant owners confirmed that, given the broadened base of ideas and inspite of delays and additional costs, this approach added significant value to their properties. Located within the Southern ring of the town wall, two big barns that were formerly owned by so called “Ackerbürger” and were no longer in use and slowly disintegrated, can be used as an example. Next to the defendable Hell Tower within the wall ring, they did not come off well. Today, a very widely spaced residential and commercial building adapts the curved line of the town wall and on its ground floor cites the dry-stone wall while creating a green area for playing for its inhabitants on the inside and simultaneously retaining an openess to the inner town.
The late medieval town hall from 1474, located at the widely spaced Städtli main road between Lucerne Gate and the rebuilt (!) Ox Gate that formerly served as part of the trade route going from Basle to the St Gotthard Pass, was recently converted into a museum and an interesting room for gatherings with the collaboration of cultural heritage preservation. An oxblood red timber frame construction, with loggias now protected by moveable vertical wooden slats, excites from the inside as well as the outside with its opened truss and the depiction of the Battle of Sempach against the Austrians in 1386.

New old streetscape

On Oberstadt Street, within sight of the church square, there was an unsightly building gap next to the timber frame house of the flourishing bakery and café that wanted to keep its bakehouse. At first, the town‘s administration, the baker and the residents didn‘t know what to do about it. By holding a competition, the idea to abandon two old buildings unworthy of preservation was born - a project that gained the approval of all those involved through a process of multiple discussions. The houses no. 3 and 5 were integrated into the street sporting a modern aesthetic and fittings, as well as introducing varying sizes and dimensions into the street’s appearance. At first, the aforementioned vertical wooden slats that were used in this project as well, were thought to obstruct the light from reaching the inside, but when looking through, especially on the ground floor, one is able to see the baker at work. On the upper floors, the adjustability of the slats guarantees for enough light. House no. 7 remained, no. 9 was newly added, again with a commercial tenant on the ground floor. All around, families, children and customers revive the street.

At hamlet Kirchbühl

Generously organised, a bus took the group of visitors to hamlet Kirchbühl above the town, to it’s original settling ground around 1,000 year-old St. Martin’s Church. Multiple weatherproof farmer‘s houses with loggias for drying plants and laundry are located there, although nowadays, only one full-time farmer still works there. The huge neighbouring barns remained empty for some time. Two farmer‘s sons were able to erect their two-storied houses including one additional rental unit each, with views over the lake and landscape, with inventiveness and the help of all the participants. Facing the village road, there’s an additional “shed” – used as a garage and for storage – as part of the wood-paneled ensemble rounding of the surroundings. That way, young families are able to make additional income, stay in their birth place and help maintaining and enriching it. Because of its church buildings, Sempach is a favoured destination for many visitors who now have one more reason to stop by as the residents participate by caring for their living quarters and farmers gardens in order to improve the town’s image.
The information leaflet about Wakker Prize describes the design of Kirchbühl as more than the sum of its parts. After a two-hour tour of the town as a visitor, one can only agree that the administration’s and the community’s goal was fulfilled in an exemplary way by the participation of its citizens.    •