Revving up for the art visitors of tomorrow

The Cantonal fine arts museum (MCB-A) inaugurates its new location on the extended land of the Lausanne train station. It is the first step of a vast urban project that completely rethinks the place of the arts in a fast-moving world. By placing the institution at the heart of a travel hub – one of Switzerland’s busiest train stations – it cuts across the path of people who may never have set foot in a museum before and who now decide to pop in. on 4 October 2019 published a shorter version of this article, also in Spanish and Portuguese.

The front of the MCB-A gives onto a landscaped esplanade © Plateforme 10, mcb-a, Estudio Barozzi Veiga
The back of the new museum overlooks the railway tracks © Matthieu Gafsou

The MCB-A will be joined within two years by the Elysée museum of photography and the Museum of design and contemporary arts  (mudac), making PLATEFORME 10  (the combined name) the first cultural platform next door to a major transportation system still in operation (The Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Hamburger Bahnhof  in Berlin are both in disused locations.) By 2030, the Lausanne train station’s radical rehaul will boost the number of daily passengers to 200’000 from the current 120’000.

Watch an early simulation of PLATEFORME 10, the new Lausanne arts district.

Plateforme 10, the concept

The decision to relocate the Cantonal fine arts museum from the cramped Rumine Palace – that it shared with the Cantonal museums of archaeology and history, money, geology and zoology – to a standalone building was taken in 1991 – on an idea already put forth in 1924 -but it met with fierce opposition. Numerous locations and projects were considered, including a spectacular lake-side design, much in spirit of the starchitecture that has given us the Bilbao Guggenheim (Frank Gehry) and Basel Beyeler Foundation (Renzo Piano), but it was jettisoned by a tiny majority due to the 2008 popular referendum.

Vaud canton didn’t give up and put 11 other locations on the drawing board, but one immediately stood out. The land of a disused locomotive hall adjoining the Lausanne train station had become available, traded off by the Swiss Federal Railways for land on the city’s periphery. The 25’000 m2 were enough to accommodate the photography and design museums as well, both housed in heritage, but impractical buildings.

The new project was revolutionary: rather than take people to museums, the museums would come to the people. Instead of an isolated cultural island, the entire zone was to be redeveloped to serve as a transit area for the ever-increasing number of train passengers. The concept of a cultural platform (the station’s 10th platform) was born, with the fine arts museum leading the way.

Wise to the perils of another popular defeat, the authorities embarked on a seduction campaign and worked closely with Bernard Fibicher, the director of MCB-A , to encourage a higher level of involvement of the local population: numerous visits during the entire process were organized, including a landmark exhibition, Balthus unfinished by Robert Wilson, that took place in the unfinished basement one year before the official opening.

The tall blades of the building create a beautiful interior light © Matthieu Gafsou

MCB-A, the building

The museum opens to the public in its new location on 5/6 October, almost 30 years onward from the official launch of the project. But it is generally felt that its progressive repositioning as part of an arts district in order to appeal to larger audiences was worth the wait. Entrance will be free, except for the temporary exhibitions.

The international architectural contest attracted some big names, but in the end it was a little-known Italian-Spanish architectural practice Estudio Barozzi Veiga, based in Barcelona, that won the commission with a remarkably sober design that conserves the memory of the locomotive shed. Fibicher believes that the youth of the architects, who were only 35 when the project started, contributed to the spirit of collaboration.

“The needs of a museum are very specific. The architects responded fantastically to everything we elaborated. It was great teamwork.
It is a very elegant, beautiful, powerful building, and at the same time it’s functional.” Bernard Fibicher

Watch a one-minute video on the construction of MCB-A and notice the preservation of the original frontage that has become the 17.5 meters high entrance hall to the new museum
The preserved historic frontage from the ancient locomotive hall © Matthieu Gafsou

The countertrend that puts performance and durable planning before flamboyance appears to be gaining ground: Barozzi and Veiga have recently been mandated by the ultra-prestigious Chicago Art Institute to design their new master plan, also next to a train station.

MCB-A, the content

Fibicher has other reasons to not regret the time that it took to complete the project. The tensions due to the public planning delays actually contributed to an incredible amount of good will from potential donors; to boost the project, they announced that if the museum ever happened, they would donate important works.

Paul Klee, Am Nil, 1939, MCB-A, anonymous donation 2011

They kept their word and many of those works are included in the first exhibition, including a rare painting of the Nile by Paul Klee, a remarkable way to recognize and highlight the continued dependence of public institutions on private generosity. The most spectacular is the 14.5 meters high tree by Giuseppe Penone that adorns that entrance hall, a donation from the legendary Lausanne art gallery owner, Alice Pauli. It looks like it always belonged there.

Giuseppe Penone, Luce e ombra, 2011 in the MCB-A hall

The exhibition that kicks off the temporary programme, Atlas. A Cartography of Donation, (until 12 January 2020) is predictably engaging. Fibicher, who curated the show, is known to make art accessible, even the most contemporary art. He does this by telling stories. 400 works (many never shown before) have been woven into 11 themes: forests, tenderness, pain, flows, music, etc. that tease the visitors’ appreciation and enjoyment.

Atlas. A Cartography of Donations
Atlas. A Cartography of Donation. Rodin’s The Kiss surrounded by sensuous drawings offers a stark contrast to the more busy rooms

But don’t expect blockbusters, he warns: they are the fare of wealthy foundations like Beyeler and Louis Vuitton, that can afford them. Public institutions simply don’t have the funds. On the other hand, an ambitious programme will allow the museum to vie for a place in the international big league, starting in February 2020 with  Under the Skin. Vienna 1900, from Klimt to Schiele and Kokoschka. The show will offer a new perspective on the role of Viennese artists in the genesis of modern art.

The new museum includes a space for contemporary artists to present in situ shows. It will also commission new art pieces to be presented in its public spaces, like the one below

A new work by one of Switzerand’s most exciting young contemporary artists is presented in the restaurant. Maya Rochat, Nature Never Hurries, 2019 © Maya Rocha, photo Gabrielle Besenval


The second building that will jointly house the photography and design museums is due to be completed in autumn 2021 and is designed by Lisbon-based architects Manuel et Francisco Aires Mateus. Challenged on the hyper-concentration and possible saturation of so much culture on one spot, Tatyana Franck, the Elysée director refutes the argument. She energetically promotes sustainability and expands on the obvious advantages of the Lausanne location.

“The relocation of three museums to a single site diminishes our ecological impact. We can no longer ignore the importance of this issue. Furthermore, we’re expecting most of our visitors to come by train, which will reduce our carbon footprint.” Tatyana Franck

Just as importantly, she highlights the incredible opportunities of joint thematic exhibitions. She also refers to a common pool of digitalized artworks thanks to a pioneering 3D technology by Artmyn, a Swiss Federal Institute of Technology start-up in Lausanne: visitors will be able to compose their own virtual shows with works from each museum.

Plateforme 10, she claims, is the first cultural hub to unite fine arts, photography and design and to plan synergies from the very start.

Aerial view of the MCB-A on the left, with cranes where the MUDAC and Elysée will be © Jean-Bernard Sieber

Fabienne Levy sets a new trend

Wherever museums go, galleries follow, but Fabienne Levy is ahead of the crowd. Her eponymous gallery, within skipping distance of PLATEFORME 10, was opened one week ahead of the MCB-A. In a culturally hybrid neighbourhood, her elegant gallery stands out. She daringly announces artists with “inspiring works” and is off to a good start. The inaugural exhibition, Elevation, is a museum-quality solo show by the Mexico-based Italian artist, Andrea Galvani, a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci who queries science to produce beauteous works of mixed-media art (until 23 November).

Andrea Galvani creates a physical and spiritual sensation of “Elevation” at the Fabienne Levy Gallery in Lausanne next to the new Fine arts museum

The MCB-A in figures:

  • Free entrance to the entire museum, except for the temporary exhibitions (Atlas not included).
  • 3’200 m2, three times the surface of the museum’s previous location.
  • Four sections: temporary exhibitions, the permanent collection, contemporary art projects and spotlight projects.
  • 10,000 works in its holdings from the second half of the 18th century to today.
  • The largest collection of Felix Vallottons in the world.
  • 30’000 to 40’000 visitors expected annually, twice the previous figures.
  • 8 to 10 exhibitions a year, from classical to contemporary art.
  • A total cost of SF 83.5 mio, of which 40 percent was met by private financing (unusual for Switzerland).
  • The following foundations are hosted by the museum, the Toms Pauli Foundation and its collections, the Félix Vallotton Foundation, as well as the Balthus Archives.
  • A restaurant for local produce and wines.
Bernard Fibicher, Director of MCB-A, takes time to explain his hopes and ambitions for a project that he has followed through from start to finish.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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