Gustav Gull (1858–1942)

Professor of architecture at the Federal Polytechnic Institute

The son of builder Rudolf Gottlieb Gull and his wife Anna (née Fries), Gustav Gull was born in Altstetten (Zurich) on 7 December 1858. Upon leaving school, Gull enrolled as a student at the "Building School" of the Federal Polytechnic Institute (now ETH Zurich) in October 1876, where especially Professor Julius Stadler took him under his wing.

Final Certificat and construction of the Swiss National Museum

After he left the "Building School" in the autumn of 1879, Gull continued his education in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. For one semester, he attended courses at Geneva’s Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and completed an apprenticeship at the firm belonging to architect Benjamin Recordon, who was constructing the Federal Courthouse in Lausanne at the time. Gull capped his education as an architect with the traditional study tour of Italy in 1883/84.

Shortly after his return to Switzerland, Gull married Lydia Anna Limbacher in 1885. The same year, he won the public tender for the construction of the Federal Post Office building in Lucerne. However, his major breakthrough as an architect came in 1890 with his project for the construction of the Swiss National Museum, which he oversaw from 1892 to 1898. The realisation of this prestigious building of national importance created a permanent connection between Gull and Zurich as one of the city's most influential architects.

Working for the Federal Polytechnic Institute

Although he was only in the city's services directly as head of the newly founded Hochbauamt II from 1895 to 1900, he had a major influence on the architectural development of Zurich after his appointment as a professor of architecture at the Polytechnic Institute in 1900. In his terms of employment for the chair, Gull was even explicitly granted authorisation to "work as an architect outside the school, provided this does not compromise the performance of his teaching duties." (Presidential Decree 284 (external link), 10 May 1900).

Construction projects and revolutionizing of Zurich

Gull exploited this freedom and left a lasting mark on Zurich's urban landscape. The old Fraumünster Abbey made way for his new town hall and he laid a new axis straight through the city with the Rudolf Brun Bridge, the district buildings and the observatory in Uraniastrasse. Faced with strong opposition from other Zurich architects and the outbreak of the First World War, however, Gull was unable to bring his boldest project to fruition – a monumental administration centre in Uraniastrasse. Nonetheless, he won a competition to realize the expansion of ETH Zurich (1914 to 1925) as a kind of in-house architect. Besides new institute buildings, this primarily included the renovation of Semper's main building. Gull had the entire east wing demolished to accommodate the striking extension with the main hall, a rotunda in front and a central dome. 

Gull's value

Thanks to his prestigious public buildings, the professorship he held until 1929, his role as a judge in architectural competitions and his membership of various commissions and societies (e.g. Zürcher und Eidgenössische Kunstkommission, Schweizer Heimatschutz), Gustav Gull played a key role in Swiss architecture and Zurich's construction and urban design policies for decades. He died in Zurich on 10 June 1942 at the age of eighty-three. 


Gulls Handschrift

Excerpt from a thank-you letter from Gustav Gull to the painter and illustrator Spyridon Demetrius Sartoris from December 1938 (ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 878:70).


Gull's architecture subscribes to representative late historicism. Particularly with the design and realisation of the palatial National Museum, his style struck just the right chord for the taste of the time. Gull knew how to translate the 1890 political guidelines for the construction of a national museum for Switzerland’s historical heritage into concrete architecture. By combining different local stylistic directions and incorporating existing rooms and building sections, he created a symbolic new building in the spirit of a largely engineered, nationwide historical narrative.   

Dome construction

However, Gull faced mounting criticism for his adherence to historicising styles into the 1920s. The design vocabulary of his new and extension buildings came up against very different perceptions of modern architecture. There was no shortage of opponents to his alterations to the main ETH Zurich Semper building. The Federal Department of Home Affairs especially received objections regarding the new dome made of reinforced concrete elements, for instance. Nowadays, Gull's historicizing buildings have become part of Zurich's historical heritage themselves. The discussions on the new expansion of the National Museum, however, showed that his work is still viewed with a critical eye.


Gull's own writings (Erläuterung zu dem Projekt für die Überbauung des Werdmühle- und Oetenbach-Areals, Zurich 1911) and literature about him and his work are located at ETH Library (ETH Library's Search Portal (external link)). A selection of photographs of Gull's expansions of the main ETH Zurich buildings can be viewed directly on E-Pics Image Archive Online (external link). Gustav Gull's personal papers are curated by Archiv gta (external link). Additional items are located in various holdings in the ETH Zurich University Archives.