Swiss Re puts resilience on the map in new headquarters

Swiss Re Next, Swiss Re's iconic new headquarters in Zurich opened in September 2017. One of the things that will catch your eye is a huge mural depicting an unconventional world map created by Buckminster Fuller – the Dymaxion map. Hand painted on a wall surface measuring 5 x 13 metres, it is a visual expression of Swiss Re's commitment to help 100 major cities around the world become more resilient.

Many of the cities depicted on the map are coastal or situated next to major waterways. Now why is that important? Recent studies suggest that the world's ice caps are proving more vulnerable to global warming than expected, causing ocean levels to rise rapidly. As a result, a number of today's thriving cities may be wiped off the map by the end of this century. Even a rise of as little as 5–10 cm may leave cities like San Francisco, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and Abidjan struggling with inundation within the next couple of decades.

The writing on the wall is palpable. Only worldwide collaboration across sectors and geographies, breaking down the traditional demarcation lines between public and private sectors, will unleash the forces required to address the climate threat in a material way.

The 100 Resilient Cities movement (100RC) is designed to generate collaboration to this effect and is based on a concept developed by Swiss Re:  just as companies have Chief Risk Officers to ensure smooth, safe and effective operations, Swiss Re has for more than a decade called on governments to appoint Country Risk Managers. The first task of the mayors' offices of cities accepted to the 100RC initiative is therefore to appoint Chief Resilience Officers responsible for making their cities safer, stronger and more attractive places to live and work in. This will be the start of a much bigger local, regional and globally interconnected effort.

One island in one ocean
Commissioned with the project of creating an information wall next to the reception in Swiss Re's new headquarters, architect Frank Dittmann and graphic designer Maria Rosa Jehle explain why the Dymaxion map was chosen to symbolise Swiss Re's corporate vision of resilience and collaboration (scroll down to see the full map).

Dittman: "Richard Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, systems theorist, author and inventor. In many ways ahead of his time, he poured much energy into developing the Fuller Projection Map. Completed in 1954, it is the only flat map that depicts our planet as 'one island in one ocean'. Extending from the North Pole at its centre, there are no obvious distortions of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and no splits between the major continents."

In Fuller's own words, traditional maps cause humanity to "appear inherently disassociated, remote, self-interestedly preoccupied with the political concept of it's got to be you or me; there is not enough for both." He felt that if given a way to visualise the whole planet with greater accuracy, we humans would become better equipped to address the challenges to our common future aboard "Spaceship Earth".

Pioneering motif, traditional artisanship
The vast map was hand painted in just a week. Artists Johanna Vogelsang (on the picture; photo credit: Maria Rosa Jehle) and Sara Ambühl, schooled in ancient and traditional painting techniques, have built their experience from projects requiring a lot of skill, such as restoration work in Zurich's renowned Grossmünster church. Using chalk paint on a rough surface, the artists had to work rapidly and very precisely to get the motif in place. "Even though we had a good model to work from, it was a major challenge to transfer the concept from small pieces of paper to these very generous surfaces, and at speed," says Johanna.

They started by drawing out the latitude and longitude lines of the map in feint pencil, and then reinforcing those lines with a tightly stretched string dipped in paint. Next, they sketched in the geographical details, square by square, painstakingly completing the continental contours, and finally colouring in the continental surfaces.

Moving on to the visualization of the red messages highlighting various stats and facts from the 100 Resilient Cities story, designer Maria Rosa explains: "Some people relate better to numbers, others to words. Some messages can be captured at a glance, others require people to stop, read and contemplate. Using traditional craftsmanship to convey a pioneering perspective has helped us capture this complex theme in a simple way. We feel this also encapsulates the spirit of Swiss Re."

"I really enjoyed having people come in to watch us working," says Johanna. "They discussed the unusual perspective of the continents, searched for the cities they know and love, pondering what might happen if the seas were really to rise and engulf them. Ultimately, if a wall like this can raise awareness, change mindsets and maybe even prompt people to act – what more can one ask for?"

Photo Gallery

The Dymaxion map - Photo credit: Stefan Altenburger

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