Merry go roundabout

Andreas Züst's encyclopaedic libido embraced any and every phenomenon. He succumbed above all to those objects that, firstly, can be collected and, secondly, combine the ordinary with the metaphysical. Roundabouts unite usefulness with beauty, and purpose with lack of purpose. A system of single passenger cars geared exclusively toward maximum efficiency has spawned the roundabout, an elegant solution for bottlenecks caused by traffic converging from several streets on a single intersection. Driving a circular route significantly reduces conflict points between vehicles turning at junctions – for example, from 32 to a mere eight at a roundabout with four branches. Drivers move from A to B faster, more smoothly and more safely; the system flows.

In the centre of this acme of traffic control rationale, however, there is an area governed by no higher purpose than its own existence. In classical aesthetics, this is the locus of beauty and, therefore, of the divine. A fallow patch in the field of usefulness, a no man's land, a void. An urban free for all: the omnipresent onus of usefulness has been reversed. True to nature, humans, spurred by the urge to interfere and to beautify, descend on this provocative speck of land and turn it into a developmental playground. Countless expeditions of artists, landscape architects and engineers have conquered these miniature North Poles and hoisted their flags on them. Andreas Züst, collector of art and facts, scientist and artist, whose gaze was so sharply honed to off-the-wall normality, set out with his butterfly net to capture the fluttering excrescences of diligent decorators in these erogenous zones of urban development.

No one knows how many traffic circles there really are in Switzerland. The downside of Swiss federalism: how can anyone get an overall picture when one roundabout belongs to a community, another to a canton and a third to the Confederation? According to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, “Professor Philippe Bovy in Lausanne stopped counting in the mid-1990s when he had reached about 1000.” The ETH Institute for Traffic Control and Transport Systems (IVT) estimates that the number has since risen to over 2000, and the demand for them is reaching the saturation point. Those interested in vital statistics on this traffic control device may refer to the 130-page Schweizerische Kreiselhandbuch (SKH), the Swiss manual of roundabouts published in 1997. Obviously, this volume can also be found in the estate of Andreas Züst. The study analyses the history, the functioning and the practice of roundabouts. The twofold nature of the traffic circle already figures in the first sentence, namely as a traffic control device and as an urban developmental challenge: “A roundabout generally goes beyond the context of a pure traffic control measure. Its presence also aspires to improve the image of the geographical location.”

The palette of proposals for this “enhancement” is revealed in the photographs presented here. Monuments, fountains and landscaping are, of course, especially popular, but specific statements are expressed as well: we produce watches, wine is cultivated here, welcome to the capital city of music, or: we have given free rein to an artist of our choice. The centres of roundabouts provide spaces in which to pursue a purpose with artistic means. A roundabout is a town’s calling card, like clean restrooms in a restaurant. The ETH also confirms the usefulness of sculptures. Visual barriers sit in the centre of roundabouts with intent: they force drivers to slow down, underscoring a vital aspect of how traffic circles work.

Roundabouts existed long before cars did, figuring as urban spaces with monuments or imposing fountains in their centre. Carts were pushed around them in all directions, elegant ladies tripped about at will and carriages intersected every which way. The age of the roundabout began almost exactly 100 years ago. “The idea of uni-directional traffic”, the SKH tells us, “was first implemented at the beginning of the 20th century at the Rond-point de l’Etoile in Paris.” For the first time all traffic had to move counter-clockwise in the same direction. But since traffic still had to yield to vehicles coming from the right, the dramatic increase in road traffic as early as the 1920s caused a complete breakdown in excessively frequented roundabouts, with vehicles trying to enter from all sides. Even so, it took years to relinquish the hallowed rule of yielding to traffic coming from the right. After the French had laid the groundwork for a uniform flow of traffic, the British contributed to consolidating the system by finally introducing the decisive new ruling that gave vehicles in the traffic circle the right of way. “This led”, the SKH writes, “to a spectacular spread of roundabouts in France and other European countries including Switzerland.” Article 24, paragraph 4 of the rulebook that regulates traffic in Switzerland states that traffic in the circle has the right of way.

Andreas Züst’s thorough study of Switzerland in combination with a number of examples from other countries may also be interpreted as the preliminary material for an artistic installation. To wit:

According to the Department of Traffic of the Zürich police, there is no rule that governs how to exit a traffic circle. In the Swiss manual, “Le” is the ability to enter a circle and “Qk” is the traffic volume within the circle. The following formula, as defined by the SKH, applies to standard roundabouts (25 40 m): Le = 1300 – 0.75 Qk (A/h). The unit of measure, A/h, stands for automobiles per hour. Logically, the ability to enter decreases in direct proportion to the volume of traffic in the circle. If the ability to enter equals 0, then Qk amounts to 1733 A/h. This volume is a given when 1733 vehicles per hour pass a particular point in the circle. If we assume 28 m as the average outside diameter of a circle (a reasonable assumption in Switzerland where 90% of roundabouts measure 25–35 m) and a diameter of 25 m for the actual distance covered by the automobile, then the distance for a complete circle comes to 78.5 m by multiplying the diameter times ?. A single car would therefore have to drive 136 km/h in the circle in order to reach the Qk limit at which no other car can enter the roundabout. To generate the same volume, five cars would have to drive around the circle at about 30 km/h, in other words at the appropriate speed for roundabouts. The SKH concludes that the resulting gaps between cars would be so small that no other vehicles could enter the circle. Enjoying their right-of-way, the five vehicles already there could prevent anyone else from entering. With five volunteers for one roundabout and slightly more than 10,000 for all of Switzerland, one could cause a perfectly legal, nation-wide traffic breakdown by blocking these neuralgic points. Such an installation could easily have been realised, given the extent of Andreas Züst’s network of friends and acquaintances.

Andreas Züst started out with his friend, taxi driver Ize Hollinger, to systematically track down Switzerland’s roundabouts. After a year he expanded his field of research into other countries. The “roundabout finding team”, as Hollinger calls it, went on two-week exploratory excursions: from Orange on the Côte d’Azur down to Marseille and back again via Clermont-Ferrand; another time through the middle of France up to Normandy and back via Belgium and Luxembourg. The last of these excursions took the team to Brittany and via the Channel Island of Guernsey to England, the homeland of circles moving in reverse. Andreas Züst pursued his collecting in Spain with Caroline Kesser, and in India in the spring of 2000 with Heinz Keller. A few days before he died, he commissioned the last step in his documentation. His daughter was on holiday with her family and was to take a picture of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on her way home: of the Rond-point de l’Etoile, where the entire story had begun 100 years ago. It seems as if fate decreed that these ends would also come together again, full circle.

text by Plinio Bachmann
translation by Catherine Schelbert