Artists Controversies Switzerland

Far right scuppers public art project

Citizens vote against Thomas Demand’s Nagelhaus

Down the pan: Demand's project was rejected

ZURICH. A public work of art by German artist Thomas Demand, undertaken in collaboration with London-based architectural firm Caruso St John, has been rejected after the far right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) launched a petition against it, saying it was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

A referendum was ordered and the citizens of Zurich voted against the SFr5.9m (€4.3m) project, entitled Nagelhaus [Nail House], a Chinese-style pavilion that was due to be transformed into a restaurant in Escher Wyss Platz in Zurich. The project narrowly lost out on the vote, with 51% rejecting it. Turnout was 35% and the difference between the two sides was only 2,000 votes.

“The people of Zurich are fed up with the absurd waste of money by the city council,” the SVP said in a statement published after the ballot. The party had campaigned with a poster depicting a golden toilet, stating “5.9m für e Schiissi! Nagelhaus Nein” [SFr5.9m for a toilet bowl! No to Nail House]. The motif referred to the fact that a public toilet was part of the proposal. Mauro Tuena, the head of the SVP in the city council, said that Nagelhaus would “give dreamers the possibility of self-fulfilment at the expense of taxpayers”.

Demand hit back. “Nowadays it is more and more difficult for artists to realise projects in public spaces,” Demand told The Art Newspaper. “The aim is to do something for everybody, but this is hard to communicate through public debate.”

Demand and Caruso St John won a competition in 2008, launched by the city of Zurich, to redesign the square, which is in a run-down corner of the city. The team suggested building a house based on the so-called “nail house” in Chongqing in southwestern China, which became famous after its owner refused to move out when demolition of surrounding buildings began to make way for a shopping mall. The house was eventually demolished in 2007 after a three-year battle.

The city of Zurich is planning to restructure the whole area to the tune of €300m. The estimated cost for the project was €4.3m, but according to Demand, the original cost was half of this, but was pushed up owing to regulations. The restaurant, which was designed so that the road that passes over the square was used as a roof, was due to stay open 24 hours a day. The proposal also incorporated an ATM. The SVP said that a police station in the same spot, which has a high crime rate, would be a better option.

A mock-up of the proposal was on view at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture and was popular with visitors. “We find it sad that the political opponents did not really look into the subject and visit Venice to see our model of Nagelhaus,” Demand said. Despite the vote, Demand is still willing to participate in public projects. “Anything else would be huffy,” he said.

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