When visiting Basel for the first time, I fully expected to enjoy the many fine art galleries that this Swiss city has to offer but what I found unexpectedly even more intriguing was the architecture. I shouldn’t be surprised as this is the home of Herzog & de Meuron but I didn’t expect the breadth of contemporary design to be so evident across the city. In fact the Basel region numbers examples by no less than nine Pritzker Prize Winners – the Pritzker being the equivalent in architecture terms to the Oscars. It’s quite unique in my humble experience to find such an abundance of top-level architecture in such a relatively small area.
Take the Fondation Beyeler for example just on the outskirts of the city and easily reached by the free (with a hotel reservation) public transport system. The architect is Renzo Piano (local reference: The Shard London) and this has to be one of his masterpieces as the design is so fit for purpose – the essence is unfussy simplicity and symetry – a philosophy that took the hopes of the Foundation and made it a reality with the art inside the building enhancing the design of its surroundings and vice versa – a unique connection.
Nearer the centre of the city, the Novartis compound is a must visit too (they apparently have public tours every second Saturday – booking essential) – but my architectural guide and I just viewed some great buildings through the wire! There are two I enjoyed – the Frank Gehry (naturally) and the brilliance of colour and distortion offered by Diener & Diener’s multi-coloured, multi-facetted building. Sanaa, Tadao Ando, David Chipperfield, Herzog & de Meuron are just some of the names of the architects commissioned by Novartis to enrich their surroundings.
Well this is Basel so I guess a Herzog & de Meuron building has to make the cut and this example is my particular favourite – particularly with the distorted reflection of the 1930’s Goenner & Ryner’s Markthalle opposite. As this building is so close to the railway station, there is a nice touch here which is often overlooked by the public – the greenery surrounding the building is encircled by railway track, disguised as edging. Normally, you only see the bicycles locked up in every spare piece of space! There are numerous examples of Herzog & de Meuron’s work throughout the city – all easily accessible – and lending a historical aspect to their work and its evolution.
The Children’s Hospital by Stump & Schibli is an interesting one – the building slowly changes colour as you walk around it it and is especially effective in bright sunshine. The glass panels are covered in foil which refracts light in differing ways. The panels seem to change appearance depending on one’s perspective.
Finally, a bus* trip across the German border to nearby Weil am Rhein and I am at Vitra, the home of design and once a Basel-based company. There are many wonderful buildings here as they have a similar philosophy to Novartis in the commissioning of fine design but choosing just one building of note – it has to be Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station – the first physical creation of this now globally renowned architectural firm. As you might expect with Zaha, it’s not an easy building to assimilate but it is extraordinary in its simplicity and innovation. As Zaha herself found out when she recently visited for the 30th anniversary of its construction, it stands the test of time well – it was opened in 1996. Vitra run daily tours in both German and English – booking recommended.
* I am reliably informed that by the end of the year, Basel’s tram route will be extended cross-border to Vitra.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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