Towards an Ecological History of Large Infrastructures: The First Satellite Ground Station in Switzerland

Switzerland’s first satellite ground station is inaugurated by the PTT in Spring 1974, in the municipality of Leuk, in the canton of Valais. The antenna measures approximately 30 meters in diameter and weighs 1,750 tons. Nicknamed the ‹Big Ear›, it is linked to the global telecommunications network Intelsat, then in full expansion under the aegis of the United States. It contributes to the internationalization of Swiss communications and confirms the nation’s pro-Western position during the Cold War.

When we look at the history of this infrastructure, the question of its relationship with nature and landscape emerges as being central. First, its location is the result of a study that took into consideration climatic, geological and geographical conditions as well as the land price. Secondly, the photos, drawings and films featuring the installations show them in their alpine environment, echoing David E. Nye's notion of «technological sublime». The alliance between tradition - embodied by the Alps, a symbol of Swiss identity - and modernity turns the satellite station into a privileged platform for discourses fueling national and regional pride. Thirdly, the architecture of the operating building also raises the question of the landscape. While the architects Heidi and Peter Wenger are known for their structures inspired by nature, they are asked to design a building in harmony with the landscape. Finally, the 1970s are a turning point in environmental awareness in Switzerland. The Valais Ligue and the Federal Commission for the Protection of Nature were involved in the process of setting up the satellite station: their participation proves that ecological issues must henceforth be taken into account in major construction projects.

The question of nature is thus expressed at different levels in the history of the Leuk station, highlighting the multiplicity of approaches, which the historical study of large technical infrastructures enables.