Return to Europe
When Maillart returned to Switzerland in March 1919, he was a very different man from the one who had gone to Russia with high hopes. He was now a poverty-stricken widower with three children under 18. He had no work and was in debt to the various Swiss banks that had provided finance for the Russian projects. He needed to revive his engineering business as quickly as possible.
Switzerland too had changed, but for the better, economically. Before World War I (1914-18), its economy hadn't been developing as rapidly as those of other European countries, and in real terms its citizens' earnings were lower, while food prices were higher. However, wartime neutrality had boosted the national economy and allowed far more growth than was possible in the conflict areas. The famously high cost of living in Switzerland had begun to be matched by increasing prosperity.
Nevertheless, Maillart and his children had no home of their own. Their old house on Voltastrasse had been sold after Maria's death, along with the Zürich office of Maillart & Cie. The family now shared two apartments in Geneva with Maillart's mother, sister and nieces — Bertha (1842-1932), Rosa (1865-1950), Marguerite (d.1938) and Edith (d.1929). His brother Paul (1866-1936), sister-in-law Marie (1874-1957) and their children Albert (1897-1945) and Ella (1903-97) had an apartment in the same building, as did Maillart's former engineering partner Adolph Zarn and his family.
In April 1919, Maillart spent several fruitless weeks in Zürich trying to re-establish business contacts. He concluded that he might fare better in Geneva and, with a substantial loan from family and friends, he opened an office at 18 Rue du Marché, Geneva, south of the River Rhone.
He now worked under the name Ingenieurbureau Maillart, as an engineering design practice, since he had insufficient funds to tackle construction. The design and construction company Maillart & Cie did not appear again in Switzerland, although it continued to trade in Spain until 1925.
In October, Maillart travelled by train to Barcelona to meet Viktor Hässig, who had been working at the Maillart & Cie office there since 1914. Hässig was one of Maillart's best engineers, and had completed construction of a thermal power plant and a gas/electricity power station during the war. After two successful weeks in Barcelona, Maillart had won four contracts.
In November 1919, he travelled further into Spain, visiting Oviedo, Madrid, Cordoba and Seville, though without securing any more work. In early December, he returned to Geneva.
Though Maillart had yet to earn commissions in Switzerland, he realised that the rebuilding of northern France in the aftermath of wartime devastation offered another opportunity for winning contracts. He visited Paris in January 1920, and prepared a brochure to advertise his skills, as he had done seven years earlier for prospective Russian clients.
The brochure covered the 18 years of Maillart's independent working life, with descriptions of his most notable projects. It helped him win a contract in 1920 for the provision of detailed drawings and calculations for a public works design bridge (Arve Bridge, designed in 1911). It was a three-span hingeless arch bridge over the River Arve at Marignier, 35km south east of Geneva.
Maillart was also concerned about his children's education, which had been affected by war and the Russian adventure. He urged them to study hard, particularly his elder son Edmond, for whom he envisaged a technical career. Edmond was still grieving for his mother, having been away at boarding school when she died. He was rather highly strung and over time became somewhat estranged from his reserved father.
In July 1921, Maillart finally obtained work in Zürich. The contract was for multi-storey offices
on Reitergasse for the Rentch Company
, where he reprised his beamless slab
technique. Work in Geneva followed in February 1922 with the Swiss National Bank building
and four later projects, which enabled him to employ experienced engineer Albert Huber. Maillart was now 50 years old.
However, he was still deeply in debt, and in August 1922, to economise, he moved in with the Zarn family — Adolph, his wife Maria and their daughter Alice. By this time, Edmond was in Arosa (Graubünden canton, eastern Switzerland) and René was in Chesières (Vaud canton, western Switzerland), presumably pursuing their studies. Marie Claire was sent to live with Dr Hector Maillart (1866-1932), Maillart's cousin, elsewhere in Geneva.
During summer 1923, Maillart revisited Riga, now capital of an independent Latvia, in the hope of gaining some commissions and recovering his lost fortune. He prepared two preliminary designs but neither led to a contract. His hopes of reimbursement began to fade, and were dashed as Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) became more powerful in the Soviet Union.
By this time, it had been 10 years since Maillart had built a bridge of his own design. However, he hadn't lost any of his ability to break new ground in this field and had appled for a patent in around 1920 for a new idea — bridges with stiffened arches.
His chance to use the idea came with the design of a small bridge over the Flienglibach in Wägital
(August 1923, now demolished), south of Lake Zürich. This was the world's first deck-stiffened arch concrete bridge and it represents one of the 20th century's biggest advances in bridge engineering. Its concrete parapets were structural members, not just a safety features.
Maillart would design 16 more deck-stiffened arch bridges, 14 of which were constructed. They had spans of 58m or less. The bridge at Lancy (Geneva canton) was redesigned after Maillart's death and completed in 1954. The unbuilt proposals for Sitter Bridge (1934, St Gallen canton) and Tara Bridge (1937, Yugoslavia, now Montenegro) would have spanned 200m and 115m respectively.
He also used his enthusiasm for paring structures down to their essential elements in the design of an aqueduct over the Trebsenbach in Wägital, carrying water from the Schräh Dam. He designed the pipeline to be both conduit and bridge, increasing the external pipe diameter at the support piers.
While Maillart was developing new ideas, his 17 year old daughter Marie Claire may have felt a certain lack of attention. At the start of 1924, she was romantically linked with an older man. Stung by criticism of her actions by friends and family, she left Geneva to stay with her uncle Alfred Maillart (1869-1941) and his Italian wife, in Berne. She later attended a domestic science school in nearby Worb, followed by a term at the Moravian Girls' School at Montmirail in France.
At this time, Maillart was embarking on the design of one of his most iconic structures — the Magazzini Generali
railway customs building at Chiasso on the southern Swiss/Italian border. The open-sided section of this building was unlike anything seen in concrete previously, with its curving columns and extraordinary truss-like concrete roof structure.
Maillart's reputation was boosted by the deck-stiffened arch concept for bridges and the completion of the customs house at Chiasso railway station. With more Swiss contracts on the drawing board, he decided to concentrate his practice in Switzerland. In 1925, he closed the Barcelona office and opened new offices in Zürich and Berne.
Three bridge projects dominate this period. Two are in western Switzerland: the continuous hollow-box beam of the Châtelard Aqueduct (constructed 1924-5) and the six-span Grand Fey railway viaduct (1924-7). The third is the thin deck-stiffened arch of Valtschielbach Bridge
(1925) in eastern Switzerland. These were followed by three building projects in Geneva.
In December 1926, Marie Claire left Switzerland to work in England, living in Wiltshire and Hertfordshire. Maillart's sons were already working abroad — Edmond for a British steel welding company and René at a French hotel. Maillart himself was spending more time in the Geneva office and, by the end of 1927, he had moved out of Zarn's apartment and was living at the office to save money.
This rather lonely existence was interrupted by a natural disaster. Heavy rains on 24th September 1927, triggered a landslip at Tavanasa in Breil/Brigels the following day. Maillart's 1905 Tavanasa Bridge
over the River Rhine was swept away. Although he tendered for its replacement, it was rebuilt to another engineer's design.
However, 1928 brought good news. Maillart's relentless frugality had paid off and he had managed to repay most of his debts. Even better, Marie Claire came back from England and began working for a landscape architect in Zürich.
In summer 1928, she met civil engineer Eduard Henri Blumer (1901-80) at a lunch party in Zürich hosted by her father. In 1924, Blumer had graduated from Maillart's alma mater, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Federal Institute of Technology). He had completed his Swiss military service and was working with Professor Mirko Ros (1879-1962). Blumer and Marie Claire were instantly attracted, and they began a whirlwind courtship that was to take them to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Revisiting his hollow box section design for the unsuccessful bid to rebuild the Tavanasa Bridge had given Maillart fresh impetus for another tender, one that would culminate in a world-famous structure.
main reference RM
1910 portrait of Robert Maillart
copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv