The Project of Hydroelectric Landscapes: Material and Cultural Constructions of Lake Sihl (1897-1937)

Speculative painting of Lake Sihl from 1900, 37 years before the actual impoundment of the reservoir. Author: R. Wydler, Einsiedeln. Copyright: Archiv Kulturverein Chärnehus Einsiedeln.
Plan of the reservoir’s water levels, ca. 1924-1937. Author unknown. Copyright: Klosterarchiv Einsiedeln, KAE Plan 3.0225.0015.

In the history of rivers in Switzerland, the emergence of hydroelectricity from 1870 to 1970 made the reservoir a new and major landscape figure. However, research works on hydropower have typically focused on dams and power plants, leaving reservoirs in the background, as a passive element. This dissertation confronts this status quo by questioning the landscape of urbanised reservoirs as a project, with Lake Sihl in Switzerland as a paradigmatic case. What is proposed is a historical analysis of material interventions and discourses on landscape, relying on W. J. T. Mitchell’s notion of landscape as an action and on Denis Cosgrove’s distinction between material and cultural constructions of landscape. The analysis highlights how this hydroelectric landscape was both invented as an idea, and redesigned as an artefact; how this project was made invisible, to promote the infrastructure by naturalising it; and how this project was mobilised not only by promoters, but also by local individuals and communities to make claims on their surroundings, as well as by scientists and artists, to exercise their skills. Ultimately, the dissertation aims to unpack the efforts, constructs and power relations around hydroelectric landscapes, in order to sharpen landscape research in this topic and to offer incentives for future, integrative practices of hydropower.

Doctoral fellow: Sarem Sunderland
First supervisor: Prof. Dr. h. c. Günther Vogt
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr. Michael Jakob, HEPIA, Geneva
Project coordinator: Dr. Seraina Renz, chair Günther Vogt
This research is part of the research project Industrialisation in the Alps: Landscape, Architecture, Art, and Labour, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
Time frame: October 2019 – March 2023