17.03.2020 – The first thing Guido Doppler does each morning is head to the stables to muck out and feed the horses. Outdoor yoga is also part of his daily routine – and probably one reason he looks younger than his 86 years.
The retired architect lives with his wife on a farm near Hütten in the canton of Zurich. Doppler replaced the original farmhouse with a new one, a combination of a home and stables that blends unobtrusively into the landscape. Light floods the house, revealing a meticulous eye for detail. Paintings by contemporary artists adorn the walls, and each object pays tribute to its owner’s aesthetic taste. His dogs have their beds next to the fireplace in the open-plan kitchen and living room. “I love animals,” says Doppler, whose wife Daniela works as a vet. When Doppler retired, the couple moved to the countryside to keep horses.
Doppler has architecture in his blood: in the late 19th century, his grandfather moved from France to Basel and set up his own architecture firm. Doppler’s father and uncle both eventually joined the firm. The war made its presence felt during Doppler’s school years in the border city of Basel. “I still remember how hungry I felt but also how tightly our family held together,” he recalls.
The hardships lessened considerably when he moved to Zurich to study at the Polytechnikum, as ETH Zurich was called at the time. It was the 1950s, when the degree programme in Architecture was still run from the ETH main building on Rämistrasse. “The first time I walked into the hall, I was absolutely blown away,” says Doppler. He was immediately drawn into the university atmosphere. “We built up a fantastic sense of camaraderie,” says Doppler. “But there was also a great relationship between the lecturers and the students.”
A full life
He and a friend moved into a rather run-down house in Niederdorf, renting a maisonette with a roof terrace for just 40 Swiss francs a month. Their home became a hub of social activity, attracting both fellow students and professors to informal debates and parties. One professor even took to dropping by every Sunday evening for a drink.
But when it came to the course itself, the aspiring architect was far from satisfied. “I learnt a lot at university but not necessarily about architecture,” he says. One reason was the dearth of professorships in architecture: there were only three at the time. On behalf of his fellow students, Doppler sent a letter to the president of the School Council asking them to employ more professors and expand the course content. Both demands were met, and Doppler finished his degree in 1957.
He started work at his father’s architecture firm in Basel but recalls that things soon became tense: “We had totally different ideas about architecture, and staying at my father’s firm would have been taking the easy option anyway!” So when one of his friends suggested moving to Paris, Doppler jumped at the chance. He soon found a job at an architecture firm run by Andre Gomis. “That’s where I learned what it means to put your heart and soul into getting a challenging project over the line,” he says. One of his designs won a competition to build a residential district of 2,500 flats in Gonesse, a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris.
Major career step
Four years later, his boss suggested that he move to the overseas department of Guadeloupe to work on a project. This idea was met with resistance by Doppler’s wife, whom he had married during his time in Paris. So they decided to return to Switzerland, where Doppler joined an architecture firm in Basel. “It was such a huge contrast to Paris,” he says. Unlike his previous job, which had given him so much freedom and flexibility, this new position was saddled with strict rules and fixed working hours that he found overwhelming. “I was very unhappy,” he recalls. Eventually, however, he got the chance to work on several major projects for the chemical producer Sandoz, which would turn out to have far-reaching consequences. In 1969, on the back of his work for Sandoz, Doppler was offered a partnership at Burkhardt & Partner in Basel, now one of Switzerland’s biggest architecture firms. Doppler agreed, and Martin Burkhardt, one of the firm’s founders, ended up becoming a close friend, even though they didn’t always see eye to eye at work. “Sometimes he threw his weight around – but then so did I,” Doppler says with a smile. His main focus was on managing the company and helping to plan major projects. The firm’s biggest customers came from the chemical industry and banking sector, with projects including Sandoz’s head offices in Brazil and France and a computer centre for UBS in Bussigny near Lausanne.
Fresh start in Zurich
When the 1970s energy crisis hit and the economy slumped, the firm’s dependence on the chemical industry came to haunt them. The company was forced to let some staff go and borrow money from banks. “It was a bad time,” says Doppler. “I felt responsible and did everything I could to get the firm back on its feet and prevent anything similar happening in the future.” The partners decided to diversify the business and expand their reach to customers from other industries. Doppler took on the challenge of setting up a branch office in Zurich, and his persistence soon paid off. He landed a major project for the University of Zurich’s Irchel Campus, and more contracts soon followed.
It was in Zurich that Doppler, now separated from his first wife, met Daniela. She lived next door but moved in with him in 1983. An active couple, they were each devoted to their own separate hobbies. His love of flying, which he describes as “an indescribable sense of freedom”, was matched by her passion for riding. They decided to take up each other’s passions. “And that’s how I learned riding when I was 55 years old,” says Doppler. Years of lessons with a horse trainer taught him to treat the animals as equals. Doppler was particularly intrigued by “difficult” horses that buck or even throw off their riders but that ultimately end up cooperating. “For me it’s about building up a relationship with the animal,” he explains.
Plenty to do
Doppler took early retirement from Burkhardt & Partner when he was 58 – but he’s not one to sit still for long. He continues to volunteer on various projects that allow him to combine his passion for animals with his love of architecture. As president of Zurich zoo’s building commission, he helped plan and construct the Masoala Rainforest Hall, which opened in 2003. He also designed a national park building for a nature reserve set up to resettle wild horses in Mongolia. In recent years, Doppler’s attention has once again turned to his old university. He supports the Excellence Scholarship & Opportunity Programme through the ETH Foundation, which enables outstanding students from all over the world to pursue a Master’s degree at ETH Zurich. “I admire ETH’s emphasis on quality and its determination to attract the best students from around the world,” says Doppler. He regularly attends scientific talks and other events at ETH, and although he never shies away from asking difficult questions, his affection for the place is clear: “I’ve always loved this university.”
This portrait was published in the Globe Magazine of ETH Zurich in March 2020.