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Deep thinking

By extending downwards, Geneva Ethnographic Museum also cherishes its public realm

Intriguing alien object – the aluminium-clad concrete facade of the MEG.
Intriguing alien object – the aluminium-clad concrete facade of the MEG. · Credit: B Glauser

How do you extend a city centre museum while preserving civic space? By doing what they did at the Louvre in Paris all those years ago – dive underground while sending up a pointy entrance building as a marker. But the visible face of the new Geneva Ethnographic Museum (MEG) is no glassy pyramid, rather a folded latticework plate of aluminium-clad concrete, a façade with depth which houses a 45,000 book library and leads you to the main subterranean spaces underground.

  • Quite some space – the libary beneath the roof.
    Quite some space – the libary beneath the roof. · Credit: Nicole Zermatten – Ville de Geneve
  • Black box new basement galleries.
    Black box new basement galleries. · Credit: Nicole Zermatten – Ville de Geneve
  • Main foyer.
    Main foyer. · Credit: Nicole Zermatten – Ville de Geneve
  • Mysterious quality of internal light via diamond windows.
    Mysterious quality of internal light via diamond windows. · Credit: B Glauser
  • Quite some cantilever as the facade shoots into a canopy onto the square.
    Quite some cantilever as the facade shoots into a canopy onto the square. · Credit: B Glauser
  • The point of it all.
    The point of it all. · Credit: Nicole Zermatten – Ville de Geneve
  • Pointy but more than a marker – a substantial concrete buidling lies behind.
    Pointy but more than a marker – a substantial concrete buidling lies behind. · Credit: B Glauser
  • Behind the facade is a significant ethnographic library.
    Behind the facade is a significant ethnographic library. · Credit: B Glauser

This is a substantial job, involving the renovation of the existing buildings alongside for administration and workshops, as well as the new insertion with its 2,020 m2 of clear-span underground exhibition space. Total cost was 68 million Swiss Francs (£45m). The new MEG, with its collection of over 80,000 objects from five continents plus an unrivalled collection of sound recordings, is seen as the cultural anchor to the city’s developing Jonction district, close to the University of Geneva. It is a work of landscape as well as architecture and engineering: the esplanade in front of the museum is a public garden landscaped by Hager Partner AG, which also acts as the playground for a neighbouring school.

Section shows the iceberg quality of the building
Section shows the iceberg quality of the building

Architect Graber Pulver won the 2008 competition for this project with engineer Weber + Brönnimann. The new entrance building is designed specifically to pique interest by looking strange, even alien – an intrusion from another culture.

As a city, Geneva has a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050 and this building is a step along the way: its heating system of three water/air heat pumps supplemented by conventional gas boilers means it has reached the 75% mark with renewables.