Adventures in the Land of Modernism.
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for
the modernist print magazine
A 4-minute read
Friday afternoons are reserved for “Beer and Concrete” bike tours.
The tours are pretty simple. My friends and I just cycle around looking at Modernist buildings. That’s it. Most people would consider this boring, but if, like us, your mood is lifted by a couple of clean lines and some cast concrete, the weekend starts here.
Tours are always conducted on a push-bike and always end with Beer. (Don’t drink whilst riding, people). The bikers in the Swiss Beer and Concrete chapter are me (a Brit) and my Swiss friends, who are actual, real, bona fide architects. This makes for a much more informed tour than usual. But this is Basel; who isn’t an architect? It’s home to the Swiss Architecture Museum and the esteemed architect firm Herzog & De Meuron. You do know them; they’re responsible for the Beijing National Stadium and the new Tate Modern extension in London. Their office is on the bank of the Rhein, and any day of the week or night, there is always a light on with armies of architects slaving away over blueprints and coffee. The prestigious architecture Pritzker Prize has been given to 12 projects in and around Basel, acknowledging its Modernist status – surprising as most people think Switzerland is famous for its purple cows, cheese and those funny wood-stack alpine cottages that Heidi lived in.
But let’s not forget Le Corbusier was Swiss-French and Zurich ‘literary nightclub’ Cabaret Voltaire – about an hour away – was the home of the art movement Dada and where Modernist thinking gave itself a visual, multi-media identity. Without Dada, there would have been no Situationists, the thinking of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren would have been a bit flimsy, The Hacienda might never have been built, and there would for sure be no punk. So, all-in-all, you could say that Switzerland’s credentials as host to a visually modernist and avant-garde society have deep roots.
Switzerland also has the advantage of never having been bombed during WW2. (Apart from Schaffhausen, a small area that the Americans claimed to have bombed ‘accidentally’.) The architectural style of Basel’s districts remains intact and in the correct chronological order, radiating from the centre out to the suburbs in a nice-neat-Swiss timeline. Ducking out of the wars also afforded them the time to concentrate on things other than destruction (or liberty, depending on your point of view.) Basel was even commissioning civic art during WW2; artist Elgin was serenely working on his Basel University mosaic whilst the war raged away in the background.
Being based in Basel, the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-Roche has been commissioning and building corporate buildings there since 1935. Part of its seven-point architectural manifesto is the mandate that all Roche buildings have a bright appearance and are modelled on the concept of the white factory. White and light grey are preferred colour tones, communicating an image of cleanliness, most suitable for a healthcare company. It’s a colour palette to which other Basel buildings have perhaps given a subconscious nod over the years, as many of the buildings here also gleam with the cleanliness of a laboratory. Indeed, the whole of Basel is clean enough to eat your dinner off.
The climate of Basel makes a Beer and Concrete Bike Tour pretty easy at any time of the year, but in the Summer, the full bloom of the city's ample tree stock can obscure some of the architecture, so late Autumn / Early Winter is probably best. Basel can get a bit nippy, but being Switzerland, there is always Fondue, Raclette (another take on melted cheesy-doodle heaven) and, of course, schnapps shots to accompany your Beer and get the circulation going again.
A few notes about the tour:
Remember that Swiss folk use the wrong side of the road from UK dwellers, and it might take you a while to get used to roundabouts etc.
Basel is relatively small – you could cycle across town in approximately 30 minutes – so you don’t need much planning. Some of the buildings are next to each other, so best see them at the same time.
Nobody – apart from me – ever locks their bicycle to any fixed object in Basel. It's commonplace just to throw on your bike lock and walk away. I say this, but I bet the first person reading this who does that gets their bike nicked, so perhaps don’t tempt fate.
Don’t be a bike hooligan. Swiss people don’t like it when your bike wheel is so much as an inch over the pedestrian crossing they’re using. Traffic is super-polite in Basel. Act accordingly.
Basel is littered with drinking fountains, and yes, you can drink the water, and yes, it’s free! Take an empty bottle and top-up along the way. The water is thawed from the Swiss Alps and filtered through chocolate-centred Toblerone mountains, giving it a unique texture and flavour.
If Beer is not your thing, end your tour with the best ice cream anywhere, ever, by Eiscafé Acero by the Rhein. Or an Aperol Spritz, of course, one of Switzerland’s signature drinks, nicked from the Italians.
A few notes about the selected architecture:
I’m a total sucker for concrete or anything white. Therefore, if it’s not white or concrete, it’s not here.
Not saying that anything brick-built and with a coloured façade isn’t worthy; it’s just not for me. That will probably be someone else’s tour. Their tour will probably end with a cup of weak Tea.
That said, do sneak off to see the medieval part of town while you’re here. It’s not just one Sunday-tourist-drenched medieval street with a Starbucks at one end and an ice cream parlour at the other it's literally a living, breathing, working square-mile radius of medieval streets and architecture. Buildings have dates like 1313 written on them. Striking stuff and the closest you will ever get to actual time travel.
For some reason, Church architecture in Basel rules. Some of the best Modernist buildings are Churches. Their caretakers aren’t too keen on having them photographed, though, and some of them just don’t photograph well, so they’re not included here, but in addition to the examples below, I would say go visit Kornfeld Church (Kornfeldstrasse 51, 4125 Riehen). Also, keep your eyes peeled for other Modernist Church examples as you cycle around. Their handy taller-than-tall Modernist bell towers can be seen from far away, so don’t forget to look up.
I’ve sort of cheated a little with the inclusion of Goetheanum as it’s not strictly Basel; it’s just outside and probably too far to cycle to. But it’s such an extraordinarily unique building that it had to be included. But you could easily get a taxi there, and Basel does have Uber.
Spend a lot of time in the Gellert Area. The masterplan was designed by Basel-born Hermann Baur in the late 1950s, but for the sake of design diversity, he commissioned architects other than just himself. Buildings of varying social use were designed and built throughout the early 60s. For example, housing, shops, and a school are all built around a church at its centre. The whole area is serviced by underground parking. Keeping them pesky cars tucked away so that they don’t clutter up Hermann’s clean lines. I have only focused on the Church and the Family Apartment buildings, but it’s all terrific stuff.
One other mecca of architectural significance is missing from this tour; Vitra Campus and Vitrahaus. Not because I don’t know Vitra, but it is in Weil am Rhein, just over the border in neighbouring Germany, so doesn’t count. Also, Vitra is so well-known that it doesn’t really need pointing out. But please don’t come all the way to Basel and not go visit, as it's literally only 20 minutes away. The fully operational production site has been developed since 1981 with structures designed by the likes of Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank O. Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Álvaro Siza, Herzog & de Meuron, and SANAA. It’s also a local hang-out for anyone interested in design and architecture.
Basel keeps its skyline traditional. There are very few tower blocks and really only one ‘skyscraper’, just completed. Its design is so unpopular, though, I dare not give its name. But you’ll know it when you see it. Just look away….
Finally, Basel has excellent Beer with which to finish the tour. Anchor and Feldschlösschen are all Swiss beers local to the region, and the local independent Basel brew is Ueli. But I’m going with a Bavarian can of independently brewed “And Union Beer” as its Modernist no-frills packaging suits the theme of this tour. Clean. White. Modernist. Unfiltered.
As featured in the modernist magazine
Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney
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