Kathrin Simmen: Off the beaten path
Text: Sonja Irani | Photos: Kathrin Simmen Architekten
S wiss architect Kathrin Simmen tells us how work experiences in China and Spain, as well as personal experiences with her family, have all inspired her to become a very diversified, Zurich-based architect.
In the summer of 2012, Kathrin Simmen founded her own architecture office kathrinsimmen Architekten in Zurich and simultaneously started as teaching assistant at the ETH Zürich for the visiting chair of Mathys & Stücheli Architekten. Prior to that, she gained a great deal of practical experiences – both in her home country of Switzerland and abroad.
Building a business
“In 2005, I spent six months in Nanjing, China during my postgrad studies and was looking forward to learning and experiencing as much as I could about Chinese architecture,” remembers Simmen. “But this was 12 years ago and, at that time, there was still a lot of scepticism – especially towards western foreigners. So getting an insight into the Chinese architectural business wasn’t so easy.” Simmen also spent a year in Madrid, Spain from 2010 to 2011, just after the economic crash. Naturally, there wasn’t much construction going on. “However, during this time, I was assigned with the task to plan an office building back home in Switzerland,” remembers Simmen. “By working on this all by myself while still in Spain, I was able to really refine my skills of working independently. This experience strengthened my desire to start my own business when I returned home.”
Nursing homes with a difference
“Looking at my portfolio, it seems like I have a special preference for retirement homes,” she says. “I think there are several factors that contributed to this, among them the market situation at the time, lucky coincidences and a very personal experience. My grandmother spent the last few years of her lifetime in a nursing home. But she often felt lost and insecure. I started to realise that the nursing home didn’t really cater for her needs at the time.”
Thus, the aspiring architect studied the building, which seemed fresh and modern at first glance, in meticulous detail. “She had a balcony with a beautiful green view,” remembers Simmen. “It was very quiet there. But if you cannot move around that much anymore, tranquillity is really the last thing you need. Instead, you want to actively take part in life while you still can.” The other obstacle that Simmen noticed were the small and narrow hallways with many of them leading into dead ends.
“I got the chance to put all my ideas into practice when I won the bid for the extension of the retirement and nursing home Seegarten in Hünibach,” says Simmen and adds that another nursing home project followed since then. They now feature rooms that actually cater for the needs of the residents, such as a special department for residents with dementia or so-called activation rooms for group therapies. Instead of balconies, Simmen opted for safer, but equally beautiful French windows. Instead of narrow alleyways, she installed so-called circulation areas with several larger and smaller ‘bays’ for residents to meet and talk.
Making the most of limited space
“Modern living concepts are always connected to contemporary social themes and economic issues. The increase of density in our cites and the careful use of land are currently intensively discussed topics among architects, politicians and the press,” says Simmen, who has successfully converted a very space-limited basement loft in the past.
At the time of our interview, she was in the middle of moving to a newly bought Zurich apartment with her husband and two young sons. “Our new apartment only has 108 square metres – 27 square metres per person compared to the Swiss average of 44 square metres per person – so I have to get quite creative in order to make the most of the limited space.” But as an architect that specialises in space optimisation, she aspires to be a kind of “role model” for her clients and employees.
“In the future, I would like to further diversify my portfolio and take on more projects for private and residential housing construction,” reveals Simmen. “Currently, there is a lot of building activity in this sector going on in Switzerland.”
As a mother of two small children she tries to balance family life and career. “My sons are two years and 11 months,” she says. “Rather than rushing to work in the mornings, I like to spend some quality time with them. I take them to day care around noon or my family looks after them. Then I spend the day at my office. For us, this model works really well.” Simmen would like to encourage other women, even those with small children, that it is possible to have a successful career as an architect.
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