The taskscape of a dam: temporary workers’ settlements of La Grande Dixence, 1950-1967

The “P4” workers’ settlement above Arolla, Valais, 1952 © Frank Gygli, CH-Médiatèque du Valais

SNSF project: Industrialization in the Alps: Landscape, Architecture, Art, and Labour

This research project investigates the impact of the construction of La Grande Dixence, the world’s largest dam, on the transformation of the Alpine landscape. It was built between 1950 and 1967, in response to the rapidly increasing demand for electricity in Switzerland in the post-war decades. The remoteness of the building sites, and the need to execute as much of the work as possible in the summer months, resulted in the construction of temporary housing settlements for the workers, directly located near the building sites, sometimes as high as 2,800 metres above sea. With their disappearance once the Dixence complex was completed, these witnesses to the contribution of the guest workers, the main contributors to this endeavour, have been erased. Building on Tim Ingold’s notion of “taskscape”, this thesis reconstructs the array of activities necessary to achieve this dam, and reconstitutes its spatiality. Even if this was a temporary situation, it constitutes an example of dwelling in a high-alpine environment and contributed to shaping the landscape we can see today. The tools used – such as dynamite, trucks, or cable-cranes – have marked the land in a particular manner. Likewise, roads, paravalanches, earthwork, or foundations remain as testimonies of these past activities. The description of the taskscape relates the past to the present. It allows us to question why some traces have been wilfully obliterated, simply abandoned, or highlighted, and shows how the image of the Alps has been disconnected from its true, physical materiality, and became a discursive construction.

Financing: Schweizerischer Nationalfonds SNF
Product: Dissertation
Research plan: Rune Frandsen, Doctoral Candidate
Supervision: Prof. Dr. h.c. Günther Vogt, 1st Professor | Prof. Dr.-Ing. Silke Langenberg (ETH Zurich; D-ARCH; IDB), 2nd Professor | Dr. Seraina Renz, Supervisor
Duration of the project: 2020–2023