Secondary Infrastructure Exposed: the Temporary Settlements of La Grande Dixence (1950-1965)

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

As a response to Susan Leigh Star’s call to study “boring things” and mundane aspects of infrastructure, this research project offers a reflection on the notion of “secondary infrastructure”, understood here as the infrastructure enabling the fabrication of the primary one. Through this lens, high alpine networks of hydroelectricity are seen as an illustration of the expansion of what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing coins as the resource frontier, in the Swiss

The Grande Dixence complex, in the canton of Valais, is the main case study. This dam, the tallest in the world by its completion in 1962, was built in response to the rapidly increasing demand for electricity in the postwar decades. The remoteness of the constructions 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 on the building sites.
In stark contrast to the fixed and massive physicalities of the primary infrastructure, a new, highly volatile, and dynamic territory emerged with the coming and going of this secondary infrastructure. Progressively proliferating into every Alpine valley, it relied on the mobility of
its components.

Two of them are investigated in detail: firstly, the labor, split between local workforce and guest workers, and secondly the use of prefabricated barracks, to house those bodies. The focus on these two aspects allows for updated readings of building processes of the dam, and of the working conditions. Together with a reframing of the notion of infrastructure and territory, this focus allows to conceptualize the landscape as an archive, and the study of the remnants of this construction as an act of remembrance. They ground claims to belonging to silenced voices, by offering a new reading of the Alpine Landscape.

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