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The Relief Model of 1850 Geneva, First reconstruction in 3D of an historical city

The Relief Model of 1850 Geneva

Imagined in 1878 and completed in 1896, the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva is a vast (30m2: 7.25m x 5.25m) elliptical model in metal, wood and glass. It shows the city of Geneva still protected by three rows of fortifications, just before the dismantling of its walls and the filling in of its moats would begin. The Relief Model of 1850 Geneva is the first reconstruction of an historical city in three dimensions.

A cultural asset and a masterpiece of fine metal work

The plans of the 1850 Geneva Relief Model were designed by Geneva architect Auguste Magnin (1841-1903) with the help of a draftsman, Charles Reuter. The model was made by a goldsmith and several precision mechanics (a certain Mr. Eichenberger and, most likely, Jacob Maurer), as well the help of a carpenter (a Mr. Cornaz of the Larrivaz company). Due to its large size, geometric precision and fine detail, this model is a cultural asset of national importance and a metal-worker’s masterpiece: its 2,000 buildings, with 40,000 windows and 8000 skylights, have zinc walls and copper roofs; its 1,500 trees are made of zinc or tin cast iron; textural effects for tiles, stones and pavers were achieved by electroplating.

The Relief Model of 1850 Geneva
The Relief Model of 1850 Geneva weighs 630kg not counting the wooden framework that supports it. The model can be dismantled into 118 independent blocks – many of which correspond to residential quarters - that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.

Detail of the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva

Great reconstitution work

To design the 1850 Geneva Relief Model and draw up its plans, Auguste Magnin researched the city cadastre, archives and public and private collections. To reconstruct lost buildings, artworks and fortifications, he consulted maps, plans, engravings, paintings and the very first photographs taken in Geneva in 1848. To ensure the accuracy of his plans, he himself noted the positions of still existing buildings. And he made remarkable ink drawings of the principal buildings of the city, creating a magnificent album (Album des monuments de Geneva en 1850). This unique document is now owned by the City of Geneva.

A section of the Relief Model taken apart for restauration in 1981-1984

Inventing the three scales

Using elements of a cardboard model, Auguste Magnin spent many months studying how to draw the fortified city to scale. He wanted to offer a realistic view of the city as if seen from above by a giant. After many tests, the architect decided on a system using three different scales: 1/250th for the plan, 1/200th for the heights of the buildings and 1/100th for the slope of the terrain. By exaggerating the slope twice and the height of the buildings by a quarter, the architect could offer spectators a realistic view of the organization of the city walls and quarters, while allowing them to easily identify important buildings, such as the cathedral.

This technique of the three scales would be taken up a few decades later by Paul Bigot (1870-1942) and Italo Gismondi (1887-1974), who devoted a good part of their lives to realizing the famous great models of ancient Rome that can be seen today at the Museo della Civiltà Romana.

Instructions by Auguste Magnin for making a section of houses (facades and roofs)

Completed in extremis

Due to financing difficulties, the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva was completed just in time to be installed in the Pleasure Park of the Swiss National Exhibition, held on Geneva’s Plainpalais between 1 May-18#nbsp;October 1896. Subsequently, the model was dismantled and it was not until 1901 that it was shown again to the public in Geneva’s new Business School.

In 1910, the imposing model was transferred to the new Museum of Art and History, where it would be admired by generations of Geneva students. In 1981, it underwent four years of meticulous restoration. In 1984, it returned to public view in its current location, the attic of Tavel House, the oldest private house in the city, now a museum.

Detail of the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva
During these moves, a few elements of the model were lost: the blue glass symbolizing Lake Geneva, the Rhone and the Arve; the floating-laundries near the island (visible in photographs of the model of 1892); and the lateen-sail boats on the lake (visible in photographs of 1896).

Testimony for future generations

If Auguste Magnin put so much energy, money and talent into the construction of the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva, it was because he wanted to offer future generations a testimony to the history of their city. With its imposing walls and tightly constructed buildings, fortified Geneva was not only picturesque; its fortifications reflected the Protestant republic’s centuries of resistance to Catholic enemies. Its vast defenses, occupying half of its territory, had demanded immense human and financial investments. The political decision to destroy them, to enlarge the city and open it to the world, was not an easy one to take.

James Fazy supervising the dismantling of the city walls in 1850

Portrait of a city at a turning point in its history

Thus, the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva is the portrait of a city at an important turning point in its history. In 1846, the city had lived through a revolution that resulted in a new cantonal constitution and the coming to power of a majority determined to make social progress. In 1849, after long discussions, the new Grand Council voted to dismantle the fortifications and fill in the moats. The aim was, on the one hand, to remove barriers between the upper (bourgeois) and lower (working class) parts of town and, on the other, to allow the construction of new neighborhoods. At the time, like many European cities, Geneva faced a large increase in its population due to the rising birth rate and immigration.

The year 1850, then, was a true turning point in the history of Geneva, which would rapidly transform into a cosmopolitan city open to the world. Indeed, the population of the city would double in just 30 years.

Price of the Relief Model: 60,000 francs of the time (CHF 2.5mn today)

Auguste Magnin worked on the Relief Model of 1850 Geneva at his own expense from 1880-1890, devoting 30,000 francs of his personal fortune. (By comparison, the annual salary of a postman at the time was about 1,600 francs). To complete the work, half of which remained to be done, and to reimburse himself for the half already finished, Magnin sold the Relief Model to the City of Geneva. In all, the model cost 60,000 francs: 30,000 francs repaid by the Canton of Geneva and the City of Geneva; 28,000 francs raised by public subscription; and the remaining 2,000 francs contributed by Auguste Magnin himself through the sale of his Album des Monuments de Genève en 1850 to the Auxiliary Society of Art and Letters. This large, unique album contains descriptions, plans and drawings in elevation of the city’s main buildings and public art. It can be consulted at the Iconography Center of the Geneva Library (CIG).

See the Relief Model
Maison Tavel
Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre 6
CH-1204 Geneva
11h-18h, closed Monday
Tel. +41 22 418 37 00 • mah@ville-ge.ch