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Destinations · Europe · switzerland · Zürich · Essence ·

Essence

Author: Una Meistere1 COMMENT

Essence

The Wild Wild West, or another side of Zurich  

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Before heading to Zurich, I read an article on CNN about new discoveries regarding the holes in the famous Emmental Swiss cheese, namely, that the holes have become noticeably smaller in recent years as cheese-making facilities have become increasingly sterile and eliminate the possibility of tiny pieces of hay entering the milk, which are responsible for the hole-producing carbon dioxide in the cheeses. This seemed to me a fairly precise portrait of Switzerland as the epicentre of prosperity. For years, the country’s largest city, Zurich, has been at the top of all the global quality-of-life indices, and the city’s postcard-like panorama (with the mountains on one side and the lake on the other) seems so perfect that surely not a single blade of grass is crooked or out of place.

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But stereotypes are made to be broken, and that’s also one of the beauties of travelling I am reminded of every time I climb off a train, this time not in Zurich’s centre but instead in its so-called Wild West. On one side of the road is Zurich’s tallest skyscraper, the 125-metre glass Prime Tower, while on the other side are graffiti-covered hulks of old factories. In other words, there’s no glamour to be found here. But it’s here, Kreis 5 (one of Zurich’s 12 districts), that everyone’s talking about right now as the hotbed of the city’s creative life; some even compare it to London’s Shoreditch. But one surely cannot call this former industrial area between the Limmat River and the railway very picturesque. It was established in the early 19th century along with the construction of the railway line, the nearby water turbine, motor plants and even shipyards. But, since the construction of a highway in the second half of the 20th century and the decline of manufacturing in the late 1980s, Kreis 5 became Zurich’s “uncomfortable” district where, among other things, illegal drugs replaced the former industries. This is also the location of the infamous Needle Park, which police managed to subdue only in the early 1990s. The district’s renaissance began soon afterwards as abandoned factories were turned into artists’ studios, cafés, bars, shops and apartments. At first, the area had a distinct alternative aura, but after the opening of the movie theatre in 1993 it slowly began to attract a broader and more mainstream audience as well.

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Switzerland’s first hotel in the 25hours Hotels chain of boutique hotels opened in Kreis 5 in 2012. With a ping-pong table in the entry hall, a style that cleverly reflects the district’s industrial past and design details displaying a humorous irony regarding stereotypes of Switzerland (rooms are classified in three categories: silver, gold and platinum), 25hours Hotel Zurich West is the ideal place to begin a tour of the city’s Wild West. The interior of the hotel was designed by local architect Alfredo Häberli, who has also designed for Volvo, Camper and Vitra. “Almost home” is embroidered in red on white pillows, “No surveillance cameras” announces a sign in the light-blue elevator, the small gym has wooden fitness equipment, each Platinum room has its own terrace resembling a miniature meadow in the middle of the industrial jungle, and – best of all – 25hours Hotel Zurich West also has its own bicycle depot. Hotel guests may use the bicycles for free, but they cannot be reserved ahead of time and are available only on a first-come-first-served basis. If you’d like to take a longer tour of the area, the hotel even offers its guests a few hours’ use of two Mini Coopers, completely free of charge (in Switzerland, no less!). Hop in a Cooper and drive 55 kilometres to Lucerne to visit the Swiss Museum of Transport, one of the most impressive museums of its kind in the world. You won’t even have to pay for gas, which is included in the car rental service.

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But the most appropriate form of transportation to get to know Zurich’s Wild West is a bicycle. Begin by driving to the Im Viadukt, one of Europe’s most unique shopping streets. Stretching for several hundred metres, at least 30 stylish shops have been installed under the concrete arches of the former 19th-century railway viaduct, thereby offering a trendy alternative to glamorous Bahnhofstrasse in the Old Town. Zurich’s first covered market hall is located at one end of the Im Viadukt; its Markthalle restaurant is popular among tourists and locals alike. The restaurant’s prices are friendly, the servings are large, and almost everything on the menu is made of seasonal, organic produce. Five minutes away is the 26-metre tall “tower” built by famous Swiss recycled brand Freitag, which houses a bag and accessory store in a construction made of 19 rusty freight containers. Freitag was established by two brothers who realised that waste from the automobile industry contains much usable material, starting with tyre inner tubes and ending with the tarps used to cover trucks. Today, Freitag stores have spread all over the world, and special samples of the brand’s design can even be found in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Zurich’s Museum of Design.

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Another interesting address lies just around the corner – Frau Gerolds Garten, cleverly described as “an urban Garden of Eden”. The place feels like a cross between a beer garden and a beach bar, except that instead of a beach nearby...there are railway tracks. It’s the absolute quintessence of surrealism, especially if you choose to sit at one of the tables on the upper terrace. With the sun beating overhead, chill out to the unceasing rhythm of train wheels chugging by. After a while, the soundscape starts to sound like industrial waves upon a concrete beach. Between Frau Gerolds Garten’s planters and its industrial trappings you’ll also find several concept stores and other stylish shops.

But if you’re looking for a place to have a truly authentic dinner, head to Josef, a small restaurant on Josefstrasse that is known for two things: innovative cuisine and very friendly prices. The menu changes every day and, depending on your level of hunger, you can choose between two and five dishes, which correspondingly cost from CHF 38 to CHF 75. The restaurant’s interior does not lack humour; its dark, wood-panelled walls are covered with black-and-white photographs of iconic faces in the fashion and rock-music worlds, including a modern stylisation of Yves Saint Laurent.

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Kreis 5 is also the home of several significant cultural institutions. For example, the former shipyard now known as Schiffbau has become a theatre, restaurant and jazz club. And the former Löwenbräu Areal brewery, built in 1897, now contains almost all of Zurich’s most prestigious art galleries and a number of other cultural institutions under one roof, including Hauser & Wirth, LUMA Foundation, Galerie Bob van Orsouw, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Migros Museum and the Kunsthalle Zürich. Exhibitions at the many galleries change almost all at the same time, so Löwenbräu Areal is a great place to get a concise idea of what’s current in the art scene.

Cradle of Dadaism and art in the police station

Switzerland has always been a significant hub of European culture. After all, Richard Wagner spent nine years here and wrote most of the libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen in Zurich. James Joyce also sought refuge in Zurich, and many of his admirers head to the city on pilgrimages to his gravesite in the Fluntern Cemetery. Zurich also prides itself as the epicentre of the European art market. The city has at least 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries, and Basel, the site of Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious art show, is only an hour’s drive away. In addition, thanks to its political neutrality, Switzerland is also home to many prominent collections of art from around the world. In other words, this is not only a place where some of the world’s wealthiest people go to manage their money; it’s also a place whose storerooms hold no less impressive private collections of spiritual “gold”.

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Zurich is also the cradle of Dadaism. The first true international art movement, Dadaism began right here, in the small café/bar Cabaret Voltaire located in the Old Town. The café was founded in 1916 by Hugo Ball, a German poet and playwright living in exile in Switzerland, together with a group of like-minded artists and writers. Later, artists and other exiles from across Europe gathered at the café, and Cabaret Voltaire served as the centre of a new art movement that arose as a protest against the First World War and expressed itself by renouncing all previous ideas about art. At the Cabaret Voltaire’s height, it hosted nightly poetry readings, dances, plays and the like. In 2004, following a longer period of decline, the café opened following a major reconstruction – this time as a stage for contemporary art. The upper floor still features a Dada-style bar where, if they wish, guests can enjoy a glass of absinthe. A small exhibition hall is on the lower floor.

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It must be said, art is found in the most extraordinary places in Zurich. In the central train station, which is always full of people rushing here and there (it’s one of the busiest train stations in the world), a guardian angel – one of Swiss-French artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s gigantic colourful Nanas – looks down from the ceiling upon the crowds of people. De Saint Phalle gave the sculpture to the station on its 150th anniversary. The huge doll holds a blinking red wand in her hands as if warning passengers of approaching trains.

But the most unusual site for art in Zurich is...the police headquarters. The monumental building (Bahnhofquai 3) on the banks of the Limmat River was built as an orphanage, but in the early 20th century city architect Gustav Gull allocated it to the police. The basement – now used as the police station’s waiting room – was fairly dark, so in 1923 the Swiss painter Augusto Giacometti (the nephew of legendary sculptor Alberto Giacometti) was commissioned to paint its walls and vaulted ceiling. Now named Giacometti Hall, it is a point of national pride and a destination for cultural tourists, making this the most unusual police headquarters in the world. Moreover, the hall has retained an aura of being a “secret address” precisely because it is a police headquarters and most people would rather stay further away from such an institution. It is also open to the public for a relatively limited time – daily from only 9:00 to 11:00 and again from 14:00 to 16:00 – and all visitors are required to show an ID. They are only allowed to spend ten minutes in the hall, and photography is strictly forbidden. In other words, you must follow the police’s rigid rules. But that’s possibly the greatest wonder of Giacometti Hall, that the massive and seemingly anonymous wooden outer door gives no hint of what lies beyond, namely, stern uniformed policemen and Giacometti’s fiery red-yellow-orange explosion of colour. And the fact that visitors are not allowed to immortalise the experience (which may be a blessing in this age of the selfie) actually lets them soak up the energy of the colours without other distractions. Giacometti used blossoms as his main motif, and he sometimes called the space a “hall of tiny flowers”.

Located about a ten-minute walk from the police headquarters is another Giacometti's masterpiece, the stained-glass choir windows in the Grossmünster. Translated as “the great cathedral”, the Grossmünsterwas built in the 13th and early 14th centuries and is one of Zurich’s most grand Romanesque-style churches. Its three towers can be seen from everywhere in the Old Town, and the northern tower provides a magnificent view of the city (200 steps to the top). Since 2009 the cathedral has also served as a unique home to a contemporary art project – twelve of its windows feature stained-glass windows by German artist Sigmar Polke. Interestingly, the church even organised a competition for the windows in 2005, and several other well-known artists besides Polke were invited to take part, including Olafur Eliasson and Katharina Grosse. Having won the competition, Polke worked for three years to create the windows. Seven windows on the west side of the church contain mosaics made of thin slices of agate; the sunlight shining through the semi-precious stones gives some bright colour to the otherwise ascetic interior of the sanctuary. According to the Bible, it is assumed that semi-precious stones were created in the very first days of the world. They were used as decoration in churches as far back as Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period. On the east side of the Grossmünster are five images from the Old Testament – the Scapegoat, Isaac, the Son of Man, Elijah and David – which can be interpreted as precursors of Christ and thereby correlateto Giacometti’s stained-glass windows, which depict the Three Magi bearing gifts for the Virgin and Child.

Dinner with Chagall

On the opposite side of the river, another genius of his era – Russian-born Jewish artist Marc Chagall – created five stained-glass windows for the Fraumünster church (Church of Our Lady). According to legend, the church searched for over seven years before it found an appropriate artist to make the windows. Chagall was chosen because of a fateful coincidence – an ambitious retrospective of the artist’s work took place in Zurich in 1967. Chagall was already over 80 years old at the time, and before he accepted the invitation to make the windows, he is said to have sat in the church in silence for a long time, studying and admiring its architecture. “Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It has to live through the perception of light,” he later said.

Fraumünster, however, was not the artist’s first experience with stained glass. In 1964 he had created the legendary Peace Window at the United Nations building in New York City. But he worked on the sketches for the Fraumünster’s windows for a whole year and then spent another three years actually making and installing the windows in the church. Even though the Fraumünster’s slender green tower serves as a sort of navigational symbol in Zurich’s Old Town, the church itself is relatively small compared to other churches in the city. It is located in Münsterhof square, which was a pig market in the past. Chagall’s windows can be found in the so-called wooden wing of the church. They are ten metres high and each features a different palette of colour. The blue and green windows symbolise the earth, while the red and yellow symbolise heaven. The central window is titled Christ and depicts His family tree, with the Virgin and Child at the top. A meditative stillness reigns inside the church, interrupted only by the footsteps of visitors, who often ceremoniously take a seat on the benches opposite Chagall’s masterpieces. The best time to visit the church is in the morning, when the sun shines directly through the windows and floods the interior with a mirage of Chagall’s otherworldly colours.

Legend has it that Chagall made the Kronenhalle restaurant next door his “second home” while working on the windows. Now it’s another of Zurich’s legendary institutions. To be honest, though, there are few other places in the world where one can enjoy a meal while sitting next to, or even under, original pieces of artwork by Chagall, Miró, Braque, Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky, Rauschenberg and Bonnard, all valued in the millions. In addition, there are so many paintings at Kronenhalle that one could even mistake it for a museum that has for a moment been transformed into a restaurant. No wonder some of the guests, having finished their first glass of wine, cannot refrain from pushing the lamp on the table a bit closer to the wall in order to better inspect a genius’ signature.

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The site of Kronenhalle was originally a beer hall. In the early 1920s a married couple named Gottlieb and Hulda Zumsteg bought the hall and turned it into a restaurant, which quickly became a favourite meeting place for writers, philosophers and artists. As so often happens with such places, a number of legends relating to the restaurant evolved over the years. One may doubt its accuracy, but according to one of those legends, Hulda (who had risen from being a simple shoemaker’s daughter to the grande dame of Zurich’s restaurant scene) often helped financially strapped artists by feeding them for free but then never refusing “gifts of thanks” from them in the form of artwork. The Kronenhalle’s heyday was in the mid-1930s, on the eve of the Second World War. Sigmund Freud, Coco Chanel and Albert Einstein all dropped in, and James Joyce is said to have written a fair chunk of his Ulysses there, at table #17 in the corner of the large hall, above which his portrait now hangs. Thanks to Switzerland’s neutrality, many an international spy narrative was also played out during the war at the restaurant’s tables, under the watchful eye of the artwork.

Although the Kronenhalle’s art collection was quite eclectic at first, it gained a completely new scope after Hulda and Gottlieb’s son, Gustav, took over management of the restaurant. Gustav Zumsteg, who was also the director of the legendary Swiss textile legend Abraham Silk, was known as the “silk magnate” in the social circles of the day. Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and others from the highest rungs of the fashion world were among Abraham’s clients in the 1950s and 1960s, and thus Zumsteg turned the traditional silk business into a cult fashion brand. Art was his passion and also his instrument; it served as his inspiration, which he later transformed into fabulous printed silks. French art dealers and collectors Marguerite and Aimé Maeght introduced Zumsteg to Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti and Miró. Zumsteg built his art collection with passion and the sense of a true aesthete, and he found a home for many of his pieces at his family’s restaurant. He also lived on the third floor of the same building until the day he died – in 2005 at the age of 85. Zumsteg had no children, so most of his private collection was sold at Christie’s auction a year after his death for approximately ten million dollars. Quite some time before his death, though, he established a foundation to safeguard his artwork from unpredictable fates; today the foundation manages both the restaurant and its art collection.

Today, the Kronenhalle has lost none of its status and remains a popular address on Zurich’s social scene, both among locals and visitors to the city. Don’t be surprised if you see Monocle editor Tyler Brule (who has often named Kronenhalle among his personal favourites) or even opera star Placido Domingo at the restaurant. People still dress up to go to Kronenhalle, and guests are sized up and judged as they enter, just like the artwork on the walls. It belongs to Kronenhalle etiquette...just like the flawlessly starched white tablecloths and the waitresses in black attire with white aprons. Age-old rituals are maintained here. Even the Jack Russell terrier sitting on a separate chair next to his owner at the neighbouring table watches my plate with a cool, aristocratic air, as if he’s been a regular here since birth. Kronenhalle serves classic German-Swiss cuisine. Don’t expect innovative tastes, but everything is wonderfully prepared, substantial and authentic. The restaurant does know its worth, and a meal here is not cheap. But the menu has plenty of variety and, if you don’t order wine (glasses begin at CHF 17), you can stay within a reasonable budget. The only thing the Kronenhalle categorically prohibits is taking photographs. It thereby avoids throngs of tourists just wishing to tick the I-was-here box and also maintains a certain timeless, discrete and trustworthy reputation. The use of cell phones and other gadgets simply does not fit this institution, and evidence that the 21st century exists just outside its doors is provided by the digital guest book. Page through it as you put on your coat and get ready to leave, and you can read the messages Coco Chanel and Anselm Kiefer wrote long before your arrival.

Life is grand!

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Kronenhalle also serves as the informational epicentre of Zurich’s cultural life, with posters in its entryway advertising the newest exhibitions. On one of these I notice the gallery of Swiss art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger, which just opened in early June. In terms of scope, the impressive gallery can almost be deemed a museum. Located in the eastern part of the city, the road to the gallery leads along the lakeshore and lets visitors fully enjoy Zurich’s famous landscape. The gallery is on a hill, in a former automobile factory, and its wavy concrete façade resembles futuristic lace. Bischofberger is a legend in the art world. In the 1960s, he was the first to introduce Europe to American pop art. He was not only a close friend of Andy Warhol but also his dealer. He was also one of the founders of Interview magazine. The new gallery has separate spaces devoted to Warhol and Basquiat as well as spaces for Bischofberger’s own private collection. The manner in which art (including Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel and others) is exhibited here reminds one not so much of a gallery or museum as a sanctuary. Incidentally, if you ever happen to watch Basquiat (1996), Schnabel’s legendary film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, you’ll see Bischofberger playing the role of Dennis Hopper.

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Another vivid reminder that today’s Zurich is no grand dame encapsulated in conservative comfort is provided by the Kameha Grand Zürich hotel, which recently opened in the western-most part of the city, now the home to many prestigious companies. Dutch design showman Marcel Wanders designed the hotel’s interior. It is Wanders’ second hotel project, following the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht Hotel that opened in 2013 in Amsterdam, where he let loose his hooligan nature to create an interior that could just as well be a 21st-century reincarnation of Surrealism’s granddaddy Salvador Dalí or Alice in Wonderland. Wanders continued his virtuoso juggling act at Kameha Grand, humorously playing around with all of Switzerland’s iconic symbols: money, milk and watches. The inscription above the bar reads “If you drink to forget, please pay in advance”, a gigantic upside-down dinner plate hangs from the ceiling of the Italian restaurant on the first floor, the daily menu is printed on milk-bottle-shaped columns, and the dark wood pepper mill is the size of a ten-year-old child. I cannot resist temptation and discover that the pepper mill also weighs as much as child. By using the pepper mill on a daily basis (combined with morning runs around Lake Zurich), the waiters and waitresses surely need not waste time going to a gym. “Life is grand” is Kameha’s motto, and it seems hard to find a better suited slogan for what Zurich currently has to offer.

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