Travel: Brand Basel
Is this Switzerland’s coolest city? Art and architecture take urban Basel to the next level.
A huge river and industrial wealth – but who would have predicted that Basel would create a cityscape of art and culture? But Switzerland’s third-biggest city invested wisely; and low-profile Basel is now high-end cool.
With the headquarters of pharma-giants Novartis and Roche tucked in close to the Rhine, and the Gothic Münster Cathedral dominating the Medieval Old Town, Basel is not an obvious location for wave-making creativity. But with Switzerland, France and Germany meeting at this bend in the river, the city has embraced change and forged a reputation for innovation. Aldstadt Grossbasel looks across to the narrow, winding streets of Kleinbasel, and people cross back and forth by one of six bridges. Or they take a traditional wooden ferry. For a mini-Basel adventure head to one of the old-fashioned jetties and hop on. The ferries cross the Rhine using the current as power, a single oar for steering and an overhead cable to stay on course! Wandering the city sights? Descend the steep steps and depart from the Aldstadt quayside below the Münster.
Drawing tens of thousands of artists, collectors and dealers from around the world, Art Basel is Europe’s No. 1 International Art Fair. Set up in 1970, the brand has grown to include prestigious events in both Miami and Hong Kong. The result is a Swiss city that punches well above its weight.
Basel is no metropolis. While the population of 200,000 is increased by thousands of frontaliers every day, Basel at weekends is a haven of calm. So why the big-name architectural heritage? Local Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron have made their mark, plus Mario Botta and Diener & Diener, Richard Meier and Shard-maker Renzo Piano. Industrial Basel had the finance, space and vision to develop its property-capital. Today, bricks and beton brut mark out an incredible skyline. Pick up the Architecture Guide from Basel Tourism at Barfüsserplatz.
For more head-turning commissions hop on Tram 8 to the Vitra Design Museum, in nearby Weil am Rhein. This huge campus is still a fully-functioning factory, producing exclusive designs in furniture, lighting and interiors from the archives of Ray and Charles Eames, Verner Panton, Alexander Girard, Anton Lorenz and George Nelson. But it also curates and exhibits – presenting some 7,000-plus “key objects of design history”.
Originally commissioned to house the collection of Vitra founders Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, the main gallery/museum is by acclaimed US architect Frank Gehry. It was his first building in Europe and Gehry took some persuading to accept the brief. But following this success the company invited Tate Modern-designers Herzog & de Meuron to build the eye-catching VitraHaus - a house-in-the-clouds display/shop/café space – before going on to commission warehouses and factory units by Nicholas Grimshaw, SAANA and Tadao Ando. An original Jean Prouvé petrol station from the 1950s sits not far from Vitra’s modernist fire station by Zaha Hadid!
The Schaulager is a fascinating monolithic structure housing the research institute and collection of the Emanual Hoffmann Foundation, set up by Maja Sacher-Stehlin. Although her husband died in a road accident in 1932, Maja continued collecting prodigiously. Today the aim is to preserve, study and share the collection, principally through viewings and special exhibitions. Again, designed by Herzog & de Meuron in 2003, the Schaulager is open by appointment, while special exhibitions and open events attract a savvy art crowd. Not keen on rats? Overcome your inner fears with a close-up of Rat-King, a disturbingly large Katharina Fritsch installation. Another must-see is an Andy Warhol triptych of Maja herself.
Renzo Piano created the famous Fondation Beyeler, an elegant, low profile building in a glorious Zen-like garden on the edge of Basel. With an exceptional line-up of Picassos, Cézannes, Rothkos and Légers, this is the collection of billionaire Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler. The story goes that Beyeler asked Piano to create the perfect setting for Monet’s water lilies – and he did.
Museum Tinguely will be a hit with the kids, as who can resist the clanking, turning, whizzing and whirring of these loud and colourful machine sculptures? Again a designer building by Swiss architect Mario Botta, there’s wit, high art and clever gearing at work here – with buttons to press that set a playful movement into life.
Jean Tinguely grew up in Basel and studied at the city’s Arts and Crafts School. Helping to found the 1960s Nouveaux Réalistes movement in Paris, he was back in Switzerland by 1964 to create the monumental Heureka sculpture for the Lausanne Expo. In 1970 Tinguely hit the headlines. Setting ablaze a giant golden phallus in front of Milan Cathedral... Less controversially he’s also known for amusing creations at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Night and Day
Party like a Swiss at Basel’s Fasnacht celebration. This famous three-day winter extravaganza is a non-stop carnival that blows away the cobwebs with music, masks and marching. Starting at 4am Basel beats the drums and parties for 72 hours in late February/early March. It’s crazy and it’s noisy – but the atmosphere’s unique.
Home to the largest public art collection in Switzerland, Basel’s Kunstmuseum has recently added a dynamic new riverside wing by local architects Christ & Gantenbein.
If you go down to the woods today... you could meet a Teddy from Basel’s Spielzeug Welten – the record-breaking ToyWorlds Museum. Indeed, 6,000-plus Teds, dolls, toys and miniatures here are strapped into racing cars, playing in the park and relaxing in dolls houses. There are ancient toys, rare items and the largest collection of bears worldwide – including a Ted from 1904! Don’t miss the show-stopping display windows either – even the busiest shoppers stop and stare!
WHERE TO STAY
Leonhardsgraben 49 - Each room by a different Swiss designer - with seriously cool results.
Steinentorstrasse 25 - Great location close to station and Supmarket Freie Strasse shopping, plus Spa.
St. Alban-Kirchrain 10 - A hidden gem close to the contemporary art scene. Originally a rustic water mill; now with smart designer rooms and a bustling café/bistro.
WHERE TO EAT / DRINK
Barfüsserplatz - Beer barrels line the walls of this Basel classic; enjoy Swiss home baking and expect cooked cheese.
Kornhausgasse 10 - Authentic Basel dishes brought up to speed by a creative young team. Close to all the Aldstadt sights.
Messeplatz 10 - Amazing cityscape views day and night from this 31st floor bar/club next to the Ramada Plaza.