The capital and largest city of the Swiss French-speaking canton of Vaud, Lausanne tumbles down an incline from its lofty cathedral to the shores of Lake Geneva. Luckily, the metro – the only one in Switzerland, making Lausanne the smallest city in the world with a rapid transit system – takes passengers up the gradient. The centre of the city is cleaved by a gorge formed by an ancient river, the Fion, which has been covered over since the 19th century. Several bridges cross the depression to connect the adjacent neighbourhoods.
The old town of Lausanne has lots of atmosphere with cobble-stoned, pedestrianised streets, charming squares and handsome buildings. A roofed wooden staircase, the Escaliers du Marché, has been getting locals between the upper and lower parts of the city for centuries.
Over the years Lausanne has attracted its fair share of cultural luminaries. The English painter J. M. W. Turner visited repeatedly to popularise the romantic sweeps of its Alpine scenery, and the English Romantic poets Shelley and Byron visited. Byron’s stay in the Hotel Angleterre et Residence is memorialised with a plaque, while another plaque-worthy resident was Georges Simenon, creator of the French detective Maigret.
Other visiting celebs have included French fashion designer Coco Chanel, who stayed at the Lausanne Palace hotel to escape the disapproval of the French public after having a war-time affair with a German officer, David Bowie, who married the model Iman in the City Hall, and T. S. Elliot, who composed most of his 1922 poem The Waste Land there.
Today Lausanne has much to offer the visiting art-lover. Top of the list is a new museum hub, Plateforme 10, which has emerged where once stood a giant engine shed, with three of the city’s most important art institutions sharing the site in striking, purpose-built spaces.
So called because it is next to the town’s Art Deco-era railway station, which has nine platforms, Plateforme 10 has combined Lausanne’s fine arts, photography and design museums in a one of a kind project in Switzerland. The sprawling esplanade also includes restaurants, a cafe and a row of arcades housing creative businesses. It is the beginning of a planned new district with culture as a focus.
The first tenant of Platforme 10 was the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, known by the French acronym MCBA (Musee Cantonal des Beaux-Arts). The stark brick building, which won the Spanish company Studio Barozzi Veiga the Grand National Prize of Architecture, echoes the locomotive depot formerly on the site, while the minimalist interior is designed to highlight the art.
A common thread throughout the 13 rooms, with each one dedicated to a particular theme or era, is to showcase works by artists from the canton of Vaud and French-speaking Switzerland generally and to compare and contrast them with international art trends. Vaud painters Charles Gleyre (whose students in his Paris studio included Monet, Renoir and Sisley) and Felix Vallotton (the museum is home to his foundation and its 10,000-piece collection, the largest public body of his work in the world) are joined by compatriots such as Louis Ducros, Theophile Steinlen and Louis Soutter.
Selections from the permanent collection, which spans the second half of the 18th century to the present day, change regularly and at any time may include works by Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Vuillard, Bonnard, Rodin, Soulages, Giacometti and others. The museum also boasts a higher proportion of women artists than is normally found in a major art venue.
Two more museums share a neighbouring building. The Photo Elysee Museum for Photography is entirely dedicated to photographic art, with several large scale exhibitions a year. Its collections of over a million phototypes cover the entire spectrum of the medium, from the earliest processes of the 1840s to today’s digital images. Made by both well known professional photographers and little known amateur photographers, the images include travel photography, family portraits, artistic work, documentary projects and photojournalism.
Upstairs in the sleek building, the Museum of Design and Contemporary Applied Arts (known by its French acronym, MUDAC) is the only institution in French-speaking Switzerland entirely dedicated to design in all its facets, from graphics, fashion, ceramics, textiles and jewellery to multimedia, furniture, lighting, utensils and glass art (one of Europe’s most important collections).
The Hermitage Foundation has a lovely location in an 1850s mansion set in a wooded hillside estate with an English-style garden overlooking the city and Lake Geneva with the Alps for a backdrop.
Built in the 1840s by a Lausanne banker, the residence is notable for its openness to the surroundings, a new idea in architecture at the time. The large windows let in lots of light and seem to bring the outside in, while wide loggias on either side of the building make the most of the panorama.
Now owned by the City of Lausanne, the house shows a selection of works from a collection which includes Signac, Vallotton and Sisley along with lesser known Impressionists. It also hosts two to three special exhibitions a year devoted mainly to western art dating from the Renaissance to the present day. These shows have one of three focuses: monographs (Degas, Gauguin, etc.), themed exhibitions (Art and Cinema, Canada and Impressionism, etc.) and important public or private collections. There is also an extensive collection of Chinese porcelain.
Originally based on a legacy of 5,000 works from the French artist Jean Dubuffet, the Art Brut Collection is unique in the world. Dubuffet was fascinated by ‘authentic’ art made outside the mainstream art world, hence the terms ‘outsider art’ or ‘art brut’ (raw art).
Now grown to over 70,000 pieces, the collection features works by self-taught artists, many of whom have been affected by mental illness and have undergone lengthy terms in asylums, while others have led covert existences. These artists may find art to be therapeutic, perhaps their only means of expressing themselves.
Lausanne also has a lively programme of art in public spaces called Art en Ville (Art in the City), which sites over 80 works in streets, squares and parks. A guide is available outlining routes ranging from two to five kilometres in length.
FURTHER INFO: www.lausanne-tourisme.ch
David White contributed to this article.