The World’s First Diplomatic Representation Entirely Over Water: Switzerland Arrived At Pier 17

Early mornings: the fog drifts in off San Francisco Bay, an ever-expanding chorus of seagulls picks up its daily racket, and the Nespresso machines kick into overdrive. A host of professionals — diplomats, scientists, artists, trade commissioners, and administrative experts — get to work. Their shared mission? Deepening ties between Switzerland and the western US. This is Switzerland @ Pier 17: a chic, converted waterfront warehouse that represents, among other things, a continuation of Switzerland’s century-and-a-half old official presence in San Francisco, the world’s first diplomatic representation entirely over water, and a major investment in the future of Swiss-US relations.

A Swiss railway clock greets guests with a taste of Swiss punctuality at Switzerland @ Pier 17 in San Francisco.

Switzerland first established its consulate in San Francisco in 1850 in the person of a single consular representative, Théophile de Rutté (né Gottlieb von Rütte), the son of a Protestant pastor in the Canton of Bern. Near the apex of the California Gold Rush, the exchange between Switzerland and the region proceeded overwhelmingly in one direction: waves of Swiss immigrants were leaving the old country behind in pursuit of dreams of the golden west. While the state’s first gold was discovered near Sacramento on the property of a scrappy Swiss entrepreneur, John Sutter (a.k.a. Johann August Sutter), for most Swiss making the crossing to California, the gold on their minds wasn’t the kind being dredged up from rivers or blasted out of mountains, but the kind ripening in the farmhouse. Dairy farmers from the Italian-speaking region of Ticino, setting up operations around the coastal Bay Area, supplied much of the cheese and milk for the hopeful miners streaming into the state, and the booming city of San Francisco.

One hundred sixty seven years later, while the Swiss diplomatic presence in San Francisco has remained a constant, the terms of the dialogue have changed. In place of cheese and immigration, the main items of exchange between Switzerland and the Bay Area are know-how, technology, arts, and finance. The conversation definitely flows both ways.

From the pharma giant Roche, which owns South San Francisco’s Genentech, to Logitech, which has its second HQ in Fremont, California, to the brand-new Swiss fintech startups that decamp to San Francisco seemingly every week, Swiss companies have engaged deeply in the local “innovation economy.”

At the same time, Bay Area tech has made Switzerland its home away from home. Google, for instance, has established its largest R&D center outside of the US in Zürich. Google Europe, as the outpost is called (or “Zoogle” for insiders), will ultimately employ up to five thousand workers from around the world.

Swiss talent fills executive offices in Silicon Valley firms and the faculty clubs at the area’s world-famous universities, University of California at Berkeley and Stanford. Swiss architects like Mario Botta and Herzog & de Meuron have created some of the city’s most indelible structures. Swiss films are a staple at the San Francisco International and Mill Valley film festivals. And the area’s top museums hum with exhibitions by artists from Paul Klee to Pippilotti Rist to Ugo Rondinone.

B2B and citizen-to-citizen dialogue are of course indispensable to sustainable cultural, economic, exchange. But in today’s increasingly urbanized political environment, where municipal governments push the leading edge of policy innovation, city-to-city relations can afford unique possibilities for interurban collaboration. In that spirit, San Francisco and Zürich have formalized and reaffirmed a Sister City relationship that’s been operational since 2003. Cities of comparable size, each enjoying a high quality of life, vibrant arts scenes, access to top universities, and a notably diverse and educated workforce, San Francisco and Zürich city governments and citizen-led committees work together to advance the Sister City relationship through mutual mayoral visits, artist residencies, and knowledge sharing in areas ranging from tech incubation to sewage treatment. A major festival celebrating these ties, Zürich Meets San Francisco, is in the preliminary stages of planning for Fall, 2018.

In order to accompany and support this rich, organic interchange (and as a recognition of San Francisco’s ever-increasing prominence in today’s economy and culture) a number of official Swiss institutions have taken up residence in the Bay Area. The Consulate General of Switzerland, the institutional descendent of the lone consular officer accredited to San Francisco in 1850, is responsible for consular affairs (e.g. issuing visas and passports and tending to the needs of Swiss citizens), official and political relations with the local authorities, and artistic exchanges in film, literature, and the performing and plastic arts. Also housed in San Francisco, the Swiss Business Hub promotes direct investment, mutual trade, and commerce between the Western US and Switzerland. Similarly, the West Coast office of Switzerland Tourism USA, recently relocated to San Francisco from Los Angeles, cultivates relations with the media, tourism professionals, and the public to raise awareness of Switzerland as a “natural” choice for Americans planning a trip abroad, and as a top destination for leisure as well as business.

2003 saw the beginning of a wildly successful institutional experiment. With the mission of “connecting the dots” among science, technology, culture, and business, and with an unprecedented dual mandate between the Swiss Federal Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Interior, swissnex promotes creativity and knowledge exchange beyond traditional definitions and specializations. Founded and still led by Executive Director and CEO Christian Simm, himself a PhD in physics, swissnex prides itself on an interdisciplinary approach, hosting hackathons, scientific conferences, multimedia arts events, and a tech incubator alike. With its dynamic partnerships — including official relations with a number of Swiss institutions of higher learning, with the Swiss Arts Council (Pro Helvetia), and a revolving cast of startups, swissnex San Francisco is an innovative institution for the innovation ecosystem.

Taking advantage of the growing footprint both of the San Francisco Bay Area and of Switzerland in San Francisco, the Swiss government saw the opportunity to harvest synergies from the efforts of these diverse institutional players. If all the official Swiss organizations in the Bay Area could be gathered “under one roof,” as the thinking went, with their working spaces and operational processes integrated where practical, the visibility and impact of all these players’ activity would concentrate and multiply. Moreover, other Swiss organizations, from the public or private sectors, who wished to establish research or innovation outposts in the Bay Area, would be invited to participate and to share the working space — further increasing the possibilities for cross-pollination among disciplines and ideas.

The open floor plan office space of the Consulate General of Switzerland at Pier 17 @ Pier 17

The search for a suitable facility to house roughly seventy workers, a gallery, and an event space would not be an easy one under the best conditions: in the end, it proved a challenge that required a creative solution. In the midst of its biggest economic boom since the Gold Rush, San Francisco real estate is currently, by some measures, the most expensive in the world, and the city’s small physical size and local regulations keep the commercial inventory low. Ultimately, working together with realtors and the City and the Port of San Francisco, an exciting option came up: what about a long, high-ceilinged, century-old warehouse literally on San Francisco Bay? The Confederation set about contracting designers, artisans, and architects to convert the spacious industrial building into Switzerland @ Pier 17: a representational multi-use facility with clean lines, an open floor plan, and the trademark Swiss design touch. As the Consulate keeps a good deal of personal documentation, the Consulate required a separate entrance and enhanced security measures, but the architectural aesthetic is unmistakably unified throughout the project. Something that required no alteration is the view: the Bay Bridge, Angel Island, and the Oakland Hills greet all the building’s denizens as they settle into work.

The “View Lab” on the Bay side of swissnex San Francisco at Pier 17. In the background is the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island.

The residents of Switzerland @ Pier 17 began moving into the new building in June, 2016, but a bold new working space required a bold new kind of celebration to inaugurate it. The Grand Opening Festival of Switzerland @ Pier 17, which took place 23–25 September, 2016, was organized around the theme of “the future of…” As a token of the kind of radical collaboration at the heart of the Pier project, the Festival was a collaboration among all involved organizations, each of which brought content, resources, and excitement to the energy. Several tracks were created to showcase Switzerland’s involvement in modern society, business, tech, science, and culture, and defined hashtags for Saturday’s conferences, workshops and talks.

Programming began with the official opening on September 23, 2016. This event included all institutional partners of Pier 17 and government officials, including the mayor of San Francisco, Edwin M. Lee. As a sign of the excellent relationship between the City of San Francisco and the Swiss representation, Mayor Lee officially declared September 23 “Switzerland @ Pier 17 Day,” and San Francisco’s iconic City Hall was lit up in white and red.

(L-R) Ambassador Martin Dahinden, World Affairs Council President Jane Wales, Mayor of San Francisco Edwin M. Lee, and Consul General Hans-Ulrich Tanner at the Grand Opening Festival of Switzerland @ Pier 17, September 23, 2017.

Opening remarks were followed by a panel on “The Future of Diplomacy”, led by the World Affairs Council’s President Jane Wales, and featuring Tim O’Reilly, postindustrial thought leader and internet expert; JD Beltran, a well-known San Francisco art personality and president of the San Francisco Arts Council; Jacques de Werra, vice rector of the University of Geneva; and Swiss Ambassador to the USA Martin Dahinden. The discussion on the panel underlined that diplomatic activity is no longer the sole preserve of governments and NGOs: a range of public and private partners are now involved and must now be considered in international relations. To match this new reality, a new interdisciplinary approach is necessary in diplomacy. True to form, the initiative set forth by Switzerland at Pier 17 is an example of this interdisciplinary and multipolar approach.

On Day 2 of the festival, experts and thought leaders from numerous fields were invited to discuss from radically different perspectives. Prominent participants included Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn; Google’s Blaise Agüera y Arcas; and Martin Jinek, Co-Inventor of CRISPR-Cas9. Workshops in the afternoon allowed participants to experience innovation and science hands-on, by getting their own genes tested, hacking a healthy pizza, participating in experiments and touching a human brain, to name just a few. In the evening, contemporary Swiss music acts animated the crowd to dance into the late hours.

A western landmark turned Swiss: San Francisco’s City Hall lit red and white in honor of Switzerland @ Pier 17.

Now that Switzerland @ Pier has been launched in style, it remained only to maintain the initial excitement and to continually activate the space. Any given week will see events ranging from a panel discussion on humanitarian diplomacy to a VR demonstration to a late-night dance party: and at the time of this writing, swissnex San Francisco is managing the sizeable Swiss presence at SXSW, and the Swiss Consulate is working to finalize Swiss participation at a number of local film festivals.

The spirit of exploration and the spirit of John Sutter live on in San Francisco. “We are only at the beginning of this experiment,” said Consul General Tanner in his remarks at the Grand Opening, speaking of the new kind of diplomatic representation that is Pier 17. “But we have begun well.” We at Pier 17 like to think that Théophile de Rutté would be proud.

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