Swiss architecture: A guide to modern and traditional buildings

Swiss architecture: A guide to modern and traditional buildings

From twee snow-dusted wooden chalets to soaring Romanesque cathedrals, architecture in Switzerland is as rich, varied and well-preserved as it comes. As with most aspects of life in the alpine nation, Switzerland’s central European location is a major factor in this diversity, putting it in prime position to catch the best of German, Italian and French influences. At the same time, the unique demands of the Swiss climate, especially those cold winters, prompted the development of some unique building styles. Let’s take a deep dive into Swiss architecture. 

Swiss architecture: A brief introduction

Having enjoyed more than 200 years of peace thanks to its commitment to neutrality, Switzerland has a fantastic range of well-preserved buildings covering almost every major trend in European architecture, from Roman, Gothic and Renaissance, to Baroque, Modern and Postmodern styles. 

Prehistoric and Roman architecture

Remains of prehistoric stilt houses dating from 4000 to 500 BC have been discovered in Switzerland, but the Romans were the first to leave significant archaeological traces in the alpine nation, establishing a number of cities containing villas, amphitheatres, aqueducts, forums, temples and thermal baths. Many of these ruins are still visible today. 

After the Romans abandoned the area that would become Switzerland, it became sparsely populated. Only in the eighth and ninth centuries did more building begin in earnest, as monasteries and churches sprung up across Western Europe, standing as a testament to the power of Carolingian kings. 

Church and crown

Indeed, most of the preserved architecture from this early medieval period speaks of the influence of church and crown: the huge wave of cathedral, church and monastery construction was accompanied by the building of forts and castles in the Romanesque style - with thick walls, large towers and plenty of semi-circular arches. 

The Gothic style, characterised by more showy elements like pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, arrived with a bang in Switzerland with the construction of Lausanne Cathedral in the late 12th century, and quickly spread to neighbouring territories. Such was the popularity of the style that many Romanesque buildings in Switzerland were later rebuilt or given additions in the Gothic style. Cities, in particular, were fond of building Gothic churches as a symbol of their wealth and power. 

lausanne cathedral

Renaissance architecture: The classical style returns

Thanks to its proximity to Italy, Ticino was the first region to start incorporating Renaissance style - which insisted on a focus on symmetry, proportion and geometry - into its architecture in the 16th century, decorating or rebuilding churches in the classical style. In the northern part of the country, Renaissance architecture became especially popular for secular buildings like town halls and fortresses. 

lugano cathedral

Image credit: Chris j wood, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The following centuries witnessed a kind of seesawing between the two extremes of showy, theatrical architecture intended to awe and inspire, and the more toned-down classical architecture which saw beauty in simplicity. While the highly decorative Baroque and Rococo styles flourished in the early 18th century, by the mid-18th century interest had turned to the Neoclassical style. 

Heimatstil: Traditional Swiss living

In the late 19th century, Art Nouveau arrived in Switzerland from other parts of Europe and began to be represented particularly in the mountains and spa resorts. At the same time, a new kind of Modern architecture known as Heimatstil was also developing.

Heimstil was a reaction to industrialisation and called for a return to traditional living, using traditional materials, and blending architecture into the natural environment. These elements are still represented in the Swiss chalet style, which is one of the country’s most iconic architectural styles. 

Modern architecture

In the early 20th century and especially after the Second World War, architecture across Europe turned to new technologies, methods of construction, and materials like steel, glass and reinforced concrete. In Switzerland, modern architecture divided into many different forms and regional styles. In Ticino, for instance, architects focused on local materials and geometric designs, while architects working in the Graubünden Movement sought to create modern structures that blended into their local environments. 

While modern architecture was thoroughly embraced in Switzerland, a range of preservation laws also helped to preserve historic buildings in Swiss cities, towns and villages. The entire old town of the city of Bern, for instance, is considered “Cultural Heritage of Humanity'' by UNESCO, having managed to conserve its medieval structure. For this reason Switzerland is sometimes referred to as an “open-air museum”. 

bern old town

Famous buildings in Switzerland

Ready to hunt down some of the most famous buildings in Switzerland? Here are our picks of the top traditional and modern constructions. 

Traditional Swiss architecture

Switzerland has a wealth of buildings done in traditional styles, from the Romanesque and Gothic to Classical and Baroque. Here are some of the most famous:

Abbey of Saint Gall

Housing one of the oldest monastic libraries in the world, the Abbey of Saint Gall in St. Gallen has a fascinating history that stretches from its eighth-century foundation right through to 1805, when it was secularised. The abbey was rebuilt and added to multiple times over the years, most notably from 1755 to 1768, when the main area was rebuilt in the Baroque style, making the whole complex a remarkable mix of architectural styles.

Einsiedeln Abbey

Einsiedeln Abbey in Canton Schwyz is a magnificent Baroque-style Benedictine monastery with more than 1.000 years of history under its belt. It was founded in 835 AD by a monk called Meinrad. Home to the Black Madonna, Einsiedeln was and continues to be an important pilgrimage destination, a major resting point for pilgrims travelling to Spain on the Way of Saint James. 

einsiedeln abbey

Grossmünster, Zurich

The Grossmünster is a monumental Romanesque-style church in Zurich and one of the city’s most instantly-recognisable historical landmarks. According to legend, the Grossmünster was founded by Charlemagne, after his horse fell to its knees over the burial sites of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula. Construction began around 1100 and the site was inaugurated in 1220.

During the 16th century, the Grossmünster was an important centre of the Swiss-German Reformation, being the site where Ulrich Zwingli began converting the people of Zurich to his version of Protestantism in 1520. A statue of Zwingli survives to this day behind the southern wall of the nearby Wasserkirche (Water Church). 

Chillon Castle

Located on the shores of Lake Geneva with fantastic views over the lapping blue waters, Chillon Castle is often considered the most beautiful building in the whole of Switzerland. It is certainly the most-visited, raking in over 400.000 visitors per year. For hundreds of years from the mid-12th century onwards, Chillon was the home of the Counts of Savoy, who used this island to collect tolls from passing ships.

The castle was also used as a prison during the 16th century - a visit and a story from the period inspired famous poet Lord Byron to write The Prisoner of Chillon in 1816 - before being captured by Swiss-Bernese forces in 1536. It would then be claimed by soldiers from the newly formed Canton Léman (soon to be Canton Vaud) in 1798, before being decomissioned and converted into the museum we see today.

chillon castle

Neuchâtel Castle

Sitting high above the lake and town - which were both named after the fortress - sits Neuchâtel Castle. The building is a mighty construction with foundations over 1.000 years old.

The building itself provides a great example of two architectural styles, with the Romanesque-styled south of the castle pairing beautifully with the Gothic cathedral attached to the side of the fortress. After being used as a fortification, dungeon and residence, the castle is now the seat of the cantonal parliament of Neuchâtel.

Lausanne Cathedral 

One of the first buildings in Switzerland to be built in the Gothic style, between 1397 and 1427, Lausanne Cathedral sits in the heart of the old town of Lausanne and attracts more than 400.000 visitors each year. The stunning rose window on the south side, consisting of 105 individual stained glass medallions, is a particular highlight. 

Modern Swiss architecture

Traditional Swiss architecture may be what draws the tourists in, but the alpine nation is also home to a wealth of modern architecture - what Architectural Digest calls a “world-class collection of major architectural projects.” Here are some highlights:

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Opened in 2005, the Zentrum Paul Klee is an art museum dedicated to the artist Paul Klee. The building, a series of undulating curves that blend into the surrounding landscape, was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. 

zentrum paul klee

Image credit: Mihai-Bogdan Lazar /

Villa Le Lac

Also known as Villa “Le Lac” Le Corbusier, Villa Le Lac is a house designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret between 1923 and 1924 for Le Corbusier’s parents. Open to the public since 1984, the villa showcases Le Corbusier’s distinctive style and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016. Nowadays, it is considered an exemplary piece of modernist architecture.

Rote Fabrik, Zurich

This former factory in the Wollishofen neighbourhood of Zurich is now used as a music venue and cultural centre. It was originally built in 1892 and until 1940 was used as a silk-weaving mill. It stood empty for many years after production ceased, but in the 1970s and 1980s the Zurich Youth Movement repurposed it as their own independent cultural centre. It continues to function like this to this day.

Rolex Learning Centre, Ecublens

The Rolex Learning Centre is the campus hub and library for the École polytechnique fédérale in Lausanne. It was designed by the Tokyo-based design firm SANAA and contains 500.000 printed works, one of the largest scientific collections in Europe. The unusual building provides a variety of libraries, social and study spaces, cafes, restaurants and outdoor spaces in one single fluid room that rotates around a series of internal patios. 

rolex learning centre

Image credit: Mihai-Bogdan Lazar /

KKL Luzern

The KKL Luzern is a venue for concerts and conferences in the centre of Lucerne. It was built between 1995 and 2000 by the French architect Jean Nouvel and the American acoustician Russell Johnson. Like other great pieces of Swiss architecture, the concert hall is designed to fit into the natural landscape around it, with water from Lake Lucerne allowed to flow between the three central parts of the building, which are supposed to look like ships in a shipyard under a huge roof. 

Houses in Switzerland

These structures are all mighty, but when people think of “traditional architecture in Switzerland”, grand buildings might not actually be what they’re thinking about. Indeed, the Swiss buildings that are most famous the world over are perhaps not towering structures like churches and castles, but humble everyday houses, built in a rustic style using traditional methods. 

Traditional Swiss houses

Each region of Switzerland has its own style of traditional or “vernacular” architecture. The isolated location of many villages in the Alps and Jura mountains - each with its own language, traditions, local climate, agricultural practices and building materials - means that different areas developed their own unique building style to meet the needs of the area. Houses were generally built as multi-purpose buildings, containing living quarters, food storage areas and stalls for the animals all under one roof. 

In western Switzerland and the Jura mountains, where timber supplies were limited, most houses were built of stone, while plentiful wood supplies in northern Switzerland and the Bernese Mittelland meant that construction was almost entirely done in wood. Houses in high mountainous areas were generally built with smaller windows to protect them from the elements, and steep, widely projecting roofs to make them resilient against heavy snowfall, while those in temperate areas had lighter walls, shallower roofs, and larger windows. 

traditional swiss houses

Swiss chalets

In the late 18th century, a distinct architectural style emerged that was inspired by these rural buildings, known as Swiss chalet style (Schweizerstil). It borrowed many elements from traditional local building styles across Switzerland.

Swiss chalet style is characterised by its widely projecting roofs and richly-decorated facades featuring balconies, wooden carvings and exposed construction beams. 

swiss chalet style

The style became widely popular across Europe as the rise of Romanticism inspired a sentimental embracing of the traditional “simple” nature of rural living. After initially spreading to Germany, it was further popularised by the growth of Alpine tourism and began to be seen further afield in places like Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the state of Ohio in the US. 

swiss houses in sugarcreek, ohio

Swiss style buildings in Sugarcreek, Ohio. Image credit: Nina Alizada /

Modern Swiss houses

Modern housing in Switzerland is built in a variety of styles, from blocks of flats to streets of terraced houses. Even Swiss chalets have become more modern and luxurious with the rise of ski resorts as destinations for the rich and famous, with additions like concrete extensions, huge glass windows, and hot tubs! 

Swiss architects & Architecture firms

Switzerland might be a small country, but it’s made some exceedingly valuable contributions to architecture. Here are some of the most influential architects and architecture firms the alpine nation has produced. 

Francesco Borromini (1599 - 1667)

Born in Ticino, Francesco Borromini was one of the founding fathers of Roman Baroque architecture. Despite showing great promise with his own distinctive style, Borromini’s career was held back by personal issues - he was said to be melancholic, have a quick temper and often turn down jobs. His most famous construction is the San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, considered a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. 

Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965)

No list of Swiss architects would be complete without mentioning Le Corbusier. Born in Switzerland but later a naturalised French citizen, Le Corbusier was an architect, designer and urban planner whose ideas transformed modern architecture. In a career spanning five decades, he designed structures all over the world. In 2016, 17 of his projects were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an “Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”. 

villa savoye le corbusier

Image credit: By Valueyou (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Zumthor (1943)

Peter Zumthor is one of the most famous contemporary Swiss architects. Born in Basel, he is known for his minimalist style and counts projects like the Therme Vals, the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Norway, among his greatest works. He was the 2009 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour in architecture. 

Mario Botta (1943)

Particularly known for his single-family houses in Ticino, Mario Botta is a Swiss architect whose designs tend to have a strong focus on geometry. Some of his most famous works include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dome at Europe-Park, a major theme park in Germany, and the Church of St John the Baptist in Mogno in Switzerland.

san francisco museum of modern art

Image credit: Kit Leong / 

Bernard Tschumi (1944)

Bernard Tschumi is an architect commonly associated with deconstructivism, a movement of postmodern architecture that gives an impression of fragmentation, or a lack of harmony or symmetry. Some of his notable projects include the Parc de la Villette in Paris, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens and the Blue Condominium in New York City.

Herzog and de Meuron (both 1950)

An international architectural practice based in Basel, Herzog and de Meuron was founded by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 1978. The firm received the Pritzker Prize in 2001. Among the firm’s most famous projects are the Tate Modern in London, the Allianz Arena in Munich, the National Stadium in Beijing, the M+ museum in Hong Kong, and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

Swiss architecture in a nutshell

Having enjoyed hundreds of years of peace - and putting in place a range of preservation laws - Switzerland showcases a fabulous array of architectural styles. 

Abi Carter


Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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