Eternit – a uniquely versatile and timeless material

 

 

Malmö, 7.30 a.m. Commuters throng through the futuristic subway of Trianglen, the Swedish metropolis’s business district. Yet, the constant flow of motion is not restricted to the platforms: beyond the tracks, blue fireflies appear to rush across the curved walls of the tunnel. Computer-steered, light-emitting diodes inserted in the joins between the perforated white Eternit panels create a dynamic display of light and movement.

From Shanghai to Pasadena

Anders Holte, Eternit’s CEO since 1990, cites examples of spectacular architecture enabled by the fiber cement panels his company produces. The acclaimed architects at the American firm Morphosis used Eternit to clad the campus of a Shanghai computer games developer as well as the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pasadena. Further constructions include a football stadium in Chile, an office building in Sydney, Zurich’s Technopark, and a business center in Vilnius, Lithuania. The list continues to expand and contains work by many an architectural virtuoso, including the Swiss maestros Herzog & de Meuron, the undisputed wizards of innovative façades who have bedecked several of their buildings with panels produced by Eternit, one of which being the Ricola warehouse in Laufen.

It’s about meeting the architects’ exact needs.

When Ludwig Hatschek, an Austrian citizen, patented his fiber cement panels in 1901, Eternit’s sweeping global success was in no way foreseeable. On the contrary, until 1916, the elitist Swiss Architects’ Association (BSA) categorically rejected the use of Eternit’s slabs, and the Swiss office for cultural heritage shuddered at the notion of restoring historically significant buildings with gray fiber cement roof shingles, arguing that the ensuing uniformly gray roofscapes would create an intolerable eyesore. Consequently, they forbade the use of fiber cement shingles for decades.

Nevertheless, among pragmatic building contractors, the rising popularity of the fire and weatherproof material could not be stemmed. However, when the asbestos fibers used in production were identified as a serious health hazard, the production of fiber cement panels nearly ground to a halt. In 1978, the owner and chairman of the board at the time, Stephan Schmidheiny, announced that the production of Eternit fiber cement would cease to use asbestos entirely.

This commitment represented nothing less than the undertaking to reinvent the product from the bottom-up. After years of research, scientists were able to replace the microscopically small asbestos fibers with safe components. By 1984, half of the output was produced without asbestos, and, since 1994, the entire production line has been manufactured using unobjectionable textile and cellulose fibers which are mixed with Swiss Portland cement, powdered lime, and water.

Patron of the old school

As 61-year-old Anders Holte shows us around the factory grounds, it becomes clear that he holds traditional values concerning running a business. While greeting workers and employees left and right, he points out the former factory owner’s residence which he lets to a local nursery free of charge – proof of his belief in the importance of nurturing good relations with the local community. A further example of his good-neighbor policy took place in 2003 when Eternit celebrated its centennial: Holte donated a new roof to a mountain shelter, the Leglerhütte, maintained by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) in the near-by Alps. And, naturally – being of the old school – the construction material was not simply flown up to the alpine hut and deposited there. Together, he and some of the workforce and their families carried the slates up in their backpacks.

Despite his strong ties with the production location in Niederurnen, Holte, a committed Rotarian, remains cosmopolitan at heart. After studying mechanical engineering at the ETH Zurich, he served in the Norwegian marines. Afterwards, he went on to study business administration at the University of St. Gallen, and initiated his business career in the US. His employment with Eternit began in Berlin before being appointed as Head of Finance (CFO) to the headquarters in the Canton of Glarus in 1986. His wife, a native of Switzerland, to whom he has been married since 1971, is a constant source of support and even learned to speak her husband’s native language during a stay in Norway. Altogether, not an everyday biography in this rural part of Switzerland.

His affinity to architecture and design may also be considered unusual – although his company’s success is inherently rooted in these two disciplines.

Willy Guhl was a brilliant designer. With his profound understanding of materials, he was able to design aesthetically functional shapes.

Not only was Willy Guhl responsible for the unpretentious balcony flower boxes that became a part of Swiss cultural heritage, he also designed the beach chair made of a wide loop of fiber cement that found its way into the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection in New York.
An industrial designer and teacher at the Zurich University of the Arts, he launched what became a valued Eternit tradition that continues to this day: limited editions of planters, chairs, shelves, tables, stools, and benches are created as “objets de désir” by young designers. The latest creation is a four-piece set of garden lounge furniture by Austrian designer Rainer Mutsch which serves as an organically shaped antithesis to the currently ubiquitous rattan style.

Although the revenue generated by these hand-made design objects only makes up five to six percent of the overall turnover, they are essential in transporting the brand’s image.

A brand must have continuity and communicate clearly what it stands for.

In Anders Holte’s eyes, the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways), Ikea and Apple are the enterprises that best meet the criteria for successful branding – along with Eternit, of course. He has condensed the guidelines of Corporate Governance into six terms and had these printed on a card which he routinely hands out with his business card. This serves to underscore his avowal to: Quality, Substance, Transparence, Honesty, Veracity, and Sustainability.

Our customers can be certain we will continue to uphold these values.

It is this combination of diffident understatement and almost missionary pragmatism that makes Eternit the archetypal Swiss company. The products are not cheap, yet of unrivaled quality – and charged with idealistic, cultural, and historical values. The headquarters, clad in 1954-55 by the architectural company Haefeli Moser Steiger in corrugated sheets of fiber cement, justly qualify as an architectonic showpiece.

A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, architect Werner M. Moser employed core design strategies that were developed by the great mentor himself. Another sign of the building’s artistic mastery is in the entrance where a tapestry by none less than Le Corbusier hangs. Anders Holte is proud of every detail in the building, even opening his built-in office cupboards to display the insides of the professionally restored furniture to his visitors.

Artistic experimentation

From the terrace of the six-storied office building next to it – a veritable skyscraper by local standards – a prospect across the wide Linth plane to the foothills of the Alps opens up, as does a view onto the roofscape of the production halls where fiber cement panels in all shapes, colors, and sizes are manufactured. The planters and design objects, however, are produced in Payerne in the Canton of Vaud – in a building constructed by Paul Waltenspühl, who enjoys status as a design icon of Swiss architectural history in his own right.

Flowerpots, furnishing, even birdhouses are hand-produced in western Switzerland. The section “Garden and Design” not only creates favorable publicity for the company, it also generates an intensive exchange among the creative avant-garde, according to Daniel Hauri who is in charge of the department. Artists are also intrigued by fiber cement and experiment with it to create new forms of expression. The latest example is a sculpture by Beat Zoderer made from wide bands of fiber cement. While, with all due respect, Eternit’s fiber cement panels are hardly in the same league as marble, the material undoubtedly inspires works as timeless as the name suggests.

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