Architecture and setting

Vera and Jan Michalski had been living in Montricher since 1983 when they had the idea of creating, alongside their publishing activities, a literary gathering place, a haven for lovers of the written word, in the peaceful surroundings they enjoyed at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Vaud. When the then mayor of Montricher Michel Desmeules informed the couple that the nearby Bois Désert summer camp, a property of the Catholic parish of Saint Joseph’s in Lausanne, was on the market, they announced their intention to buy the site. But it was only following Jan Michalski’s death in 2002 that Vera decided to create a foundation in his honor and install it at Bois Désert.

Boasting a large house and a chapel that were joined by a covered walkway, the summer camp had made a deep impression on many of the region’s inhabitants. The Lausanne parish had regularly hosted a camp at the site, and the children of the village of Montricher often spent the day there on school outings. Extensive games had been played on the playground’s covered terrace and baptisms celebrated in the charming little chapel. When Vera began thinking about renovating the site, Bois Désert had already been standing empty for several years. She was nevertheless attached to the memory of Bois Désert and initially considered restoring the existing buildings without carrying out major changes. Vera turned to the architects Vincent Mangeat and Pierre Wahlen, associates at a firm in Nyon, but it quickly became apparent that the buildings were in too great a state of disrepair to make appropriate use of them. The farmhouse and chapel were therefore torn down to make way for a more ambitious construction project, a new complex that would respect the original layout of the different buildings.

The architects initially drew up plans for a library to be built exactly were the camp house had stood and an auditorium in place of the chapel, which was to be laid out according to the traditional east-west alignment of religious architecture in the Christian faith. The auditorium would have an exhibition venue and a lobby. This was a response to the wish for a vibrant and dynamic site that was meant to serve a number of functions, including hosting exhibitions and events as varied as talks, readings, even stage performances. In a second phase, the overhead shelter was to be replaced to advantage by a broad openwork roof called the “canopy,” a reference to the tops of trees. The columns supporting this canopy are meant to give the impression of a forest of concrete trees taking over from the natural ones all around, plunging helter-skelter down the slopes of the Jura and ending their race in the middle of the Foundation.

Work began in 2009. The Swiss general contractor Losinger was put in charge of the project. The library, the building housing both the auditorium and the exhibition space, and the canopy connecting the two were completed in 2013. This vast complex made of light-colored concrete has a number of different pathways leading through it, heightening the overall appeal, while a plaza emerges at the center of the site, affording an exceptional view of the Alps and Lake Geneva. The library comprises five visible levels bordered by passageways and filled with oak bookshelves, along with two underground levels where books in transit are stored. The other building has an exhibition gallery on the ground floor and a basement auditorium, as well as the lobby and numerous technical rooms.

In 2014 the second phase of construction work began. After the so-called “anchor” buildings were put in place, attention then turned to constructing the “treehouses.” Onto Mangeat and Wahlen’s canopy, it was decided that other architects would graft various structures to complete the Foundation’s architectural program following its needs. Seven such cabins then exist for lodging writers in residence, while four others house the site’s administration and operational functions. Mangeat and Wahlen were awarded the design and construction of the Foundation’s offices, along with a conference room and a writer’s “treehouse.” Meanwhile, a design competition was opened to architects the world over for the remaining cabins, the idea being that a small settlement of “houses” in a range of different yet complementary styles would spring up around the plaza. The project specifications made it clear among other things that the architects had to work with the materials that were already employed on site, viz., concrete, wood, metal and glass. Each “writer’s treehouse” had to include a living space with a kitchenette, bathroom, and bedroom, as well as a module for working and writing. The cabins, moreover, had to be truly suspended from the canopy by a steel tie and secured to the ground using either a concrete base or stairs connected to such a base.

The following firms were eventually selected: the Swiss architectural firms Décosterd, Bonnet, AFGH (Andreas Fuhrimann and Gabrielle Hächler), and Schaub Zwicky Architekten; the Norwegian firm Rintala Eggertsson Architects; the Chilean firm Elemental (Alejandro Aravena); the Brazilian firm Studio MK27 (Marcio Kogan); and finally the Japanese firm Kengo Kuma and Associates.

This second phase of construction, which also includes landscaping around the buildings, has been completed in December 2017. The Jan Michalski Foundation as it appears today in Montricher is the outcome of imaginative work by a number of architects with a range of outlooks and styles, all in the service of a project designed to give books and writing an outstanding setting.