A Brief History of Art in Architecture at the Swiss Post
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The Swiss Post’s commitment to art in architecture dates to the year 1887 and the Federal decree "concerning the promotion and enhancement of Swiss art". During this period, the first new buildings for postal operations were built, financed by federal funds and adorned with artistic ornamentation. One such example is the main post office in Lucerne with statues by Karl Alfred Lanz. The Swiss federal state was founded in 1848, and the post office was its only central government institution for many years. It therefore played a decisive role in shaping the identity of the still young and culturally diverse nation.
From 1910, the Swiss Federal Council appointed the Federal Art Commission (EKK) based on the recommendation of the Department of Home Affairs. The FAC still exists today and advises the Federal Office of Culture on questions relating to the support and promotion of art and architecture; FAC members are on the jury of the Swiss Art Awards. Initially, however, the FAC was not involved in awarding artistic commissions for post office buildings. The Federal Department of Planning or the postal administration often assigned these directly, without the involvement of FAC members. It was not until the mid-1930s that the FAC took the lead in the art-in-architecture competitions. During this time, the idea of investing one percent of the construction sum in artistic works was born, and in 1949, the PTT General Management introduced this as a regular practice. The “art percent” has since become an established practice, not only at the Swiss Post but also with public builders and foundations throughout Switzerland. Art-in-architecture commissions were a vital means of support for artists in need during the Great Depression and the Second World War into the 1950s. To this day, such projects are an important source of income for artists. The selection of artists with a personal connection to the architecture’s location reflects the federal organization of both the country and its support structures, including art funding.
Since 1950, the genre of art in architecture has emancipated itself from the narrow corset of “building ornamentation” and increasingly meets architecture at eye level. This was not least connected with new construction methods. Architectural forms traditionally intended for “building ornamentation” – such as niches, gables, and friezes – were no longer available for buildings made of reinforced concrete. As for the motifs, until the 1950s the artistic interventions mainly focused on glorifying the achievements of the PTT services (post office, telephone, telegraphy). Later, the artworks looked beyond PTT themes for their subject matter. At times, art-in-architecture projects have also served to increase the acceptance of buildings, often modernist ones, that had been subject to public criticism.
Starting in 1969, it was no longer the Federal Department of Planning but the PTT itself that was responsible for the construction of post office buildings. The FAC remained active in all the juries until 1997 when PTT services were dissolved into the independent companies Swiss Post Ltd and Swisscom. In 1998, the art-in-architecture projects were placed under the oversight of the Swiss Post Real Estate Unit. Since 2020, the Swiss Post’s newly created Art Department has been responsible for all issues relating to art-in-architecture projects. It assists with the maintenance and upkeep of the artworks and provides advice on structural adjustments to the environment where they are located.
Over the years, more than 180 works of art have been created on or at postal buildings throughout Switzerland. Today, around 75 artworks are still owned by the Swiss Post and enliven the public space.
The art-in-architecture portfolio tells the history of Switzerland on an artistic level. Swiss Post continues to write this history by implementing art-in-architecture projects at suitable buildings. This dedication to art also encompasses a commitment to creating socially sustainable spaces that contribute to the quality of life of the Swiss population.