Basel: City on the Rhine

Münster and Terraces overlooking the Rhine, Basel

Basel has a strong relationship with the Rhine. The city is uniquely located, at a point between the tight, fast-flowing upper courses in Switzerland, and the broad meanders known to Northern Europe.

From its source in the canton of Graubünden, the Rhine passes through six countries and covers a distance of 1320 kilometres. On the edge of France, Germany and Switzerland, the river changes direction, turning from west to north, and forming the ‘Rhine Knee’. North of Basel, the river is a natural border between France and Germany. In the docklands at Kleinhüningen, the three countries formally meet. This so-called Dreiländereck is marked by a sculpture from Wilhem Münger.

Basel is Switzerland’s third largest city, with a population of 190000 inhabitants. The area was originally settled by the Romans and the Celts, who found defensive topography and trading opportunities where smaller tributaries flow into the Rhine. The old centre is characterised by ridged roofs, with many gables, balconies and overhanging eaves. Medieval buildings grew up around the Gothic Münster (1013-1500s), which is constructed on a small plateau.

Today, the city is known for being a centre of pharmaceuticals, banking, and publishing. The river is still important for trade, allowing container barges and tankers from Rotterdam access to Switzerland. Passenger craft also make the journey up-river. Against the current, this can take over five days. Near to the Jura Mountains, Bernese Oberland and Black Forest, Basel is an attractive place to work and study. Famous locals have included Erasmus, Nitezsche and Bernoulli, as well as architects Herzog and de Meuron, who set-up their main practice here. The city was also home to Switzerland’s first university, and now has a large teaching hospital. Grossbasel, on the Rhine’s south bank, is where most of the tourist sights are located. The Rathaus (townhall), has a colourful painted facade, with frescoes in the courtyard. Other attractions include a fountain with moving sculptures by Jean Tinguely, a work by Richard Serra, and a world-class arts museum. Across the river in Kleinbasel, the Messe exhibition centre includes a 31-storey glass skyscraper, which was once the tallest building in the country.

Kleinbasel,with Münster-Fähre ‘Leu’ in the foreground

Crossing from Grossbasel to Kleinbasel, has proved an issue of historical interest. Until the mid 19th Century, Mittlere Brücke (1225) was the single crossing point to the north-east. To provide more crossing places, reaction ferries were established. Serving as flying bridges, these boats used the Rhine current as their sole driving force.

Currently, there are four ferries in operation: Wild Maa, at St Alban; Leu, at the Münster; Vogel Gryff, the Klingental- Fähre, and Ueli, the St. Johann-Fähre. At each crossing point, steel cables are tensioned across the river. A tether line from each ferry is connected to a collar that can move freely along the cable. Positioning the boat at 45 degrees to the Rhine current forces water to strike one side of the craft. A reaction force then propels the boat in the opposite direction. The Basel Fähre is a flat-bottomed, wooden craft, with curved bows and long benches on either side. At the front, a large platform allows passengers to embark and disembark. The rear third is covered by a small hut, from where the Fäärimaa (ferryman) operates the ferry, and passengers can shelter in bad weather. To control the speed, the boat can be positioned at a range of angles, by using rudders. This means that it is possible to slow down when reaching the other bank. To change direction, the Fäärimaa (ferryman) passes a level from one side of the boat to the other, reversing the side of the craft the tether is connected to. Ingeniously, the boat only needs man-power to push off and come into land. After that, the speed is largely dependent on the flow of the Rhine. When the water is high, it is sometimes too dangerous to sail. If the water is low, speed can be increased by attaching different side boards or rowing. The journey on Ueli, the lowest craft on the river, takes the longest, since here the Rhine is wider. Karl Städeli has been a Fäärimaa for nearly 40 years. His fähre, Leu, has a crossing of 185m, connecting the Münster with Kleinbasel. In a full day, his boat travels 9.25 km back and forth across the river.

Münster-Fähre, showing tether cable and lever mechanism

Gradually, as the Wettsteinbrücke (1879), Johanniter- (1882) and the Dreirosenbrücke (1934) were built, the ferries became less profitable. A foundation, the Stiftung Basler Fähren, was created to maintain the boats, promote tourist use, and ensure they remain part of Basel’s urban character. Baslers are encouraged to become friends of the ferry, by joining the Fähre-Verein. Their members are 4000 strong, giving assistance through donations, fundraising and forming a social network.

Klingental-Fähre ‘Vogel Gryff’ at 45 degrees to the Rhine current

Today, the ferries are leased to private owners, and run without state donation. A crossing costs 1.60 Swiss Francs for adults. Each boat can carry a maximum of 34 people, and will usually operate from 9am – 8pm. During the annual Fasnacht festival, the ferries run longer services into the night. There is also the opportunity to try-out ferry sailing, or they can be hired for special events, with aperitifs or fondue as extras. Over the Summer, there will be a special nautical-themed charity concert to raise money for a new craft. This is expected to cost around 400000 Francs. When well-built, the boat can last 30 years in rain, wind and bad weather.

Basel’s Fähre are a small example of the life the city harnesses from the Rhine. Along the river, terraced banks provide a place for people to relax, view the Basel skyline, and watch the ferries crossing back and forth. Basel just wouldn’t be the same without the Rhine: it’s the driving force that keeps this dynamic city moving.

Basel: On The Rhine, City Plan

Wallpaper City Guide (2012) Basel, Phaidon.
Basel Tourism
Basel Fähre-Verein


Architecture Is… A Long Journey

Rob has started writing for a new student architecture magazine, Architecture Is, based in Edinburgh. Here’s an introduction to his regular feature, with the broad title of  ‘A Long Journey’. The first article, Basel: City on the Rhine, has been re-posted above.

The saying ‘the journey is the destination’ seems to be particularly relevant when applied to Architecture. However, choosing architectural studies is a fantastic opportunity (and excuse) to travel, take detours and find out about all sorts of unusual things a normal career would never let you do. Last semester, my design studio turned me into an expert on prawn-fishing! Now I’m working for a local firm in Basel, Switzerland. This kind of experience allows you to find out lots about the urban environment, local culture and surrounding country.

‘Der Weg ist das Ziel’ is a similar German proverb. When I first heard it, the saying sounded like it translated as ‘the way is the style’. I thought it meant that it was a lifestyle you could adopt or mentality – an enjoyment of travelling and seeing where you end up. (It actually means ‘the way is the goal’.) Students in our year have travelled all around the world for their placement. It will be great to hear everyone’s tales when they return next year.

So, to celebrate going on a journey, every two weeks my post will be about something that has interested me as a foreigner living abroad.

Unternehmen Mitte, Basel’s Living Room

Unternehmen Mitte, Basel

Located between Marktplatz and Barfüsserplatz, Unternehmen Mitte is a stylish coffee-house and gathering place. In 1998-99, the former Schweizeriche Volksbank (Swiss Co-operative Bank) headquarters were renovated, creating ‘a living room in an urban space’.

Cafes, restaurants, performing venues and offices are all combined in the one refurbishment, aiming to secure long-term future use. The present owners are strongly committed to generating a sense of place, reflected by chosing the name, Mitte (‘house at the centre’). At the entrance, the Italianità cafe is split into Fumare and Non Fumare sections, elegantly solving the problem of smoking in public. Sliding doors and an enlarged pavement allow patrons to engage with the street. A spacious coffee-house occupies the former banking hall in the building’s centre. Furniture from the Vitra design company, comfy sofas and mood lighting make for an attractive meeting place. In Situ, the project architects, stripped away later additions, taking the building back to its basic structure. In the process, this revealed gems like the original flooring. At night, the hall transforms into a bar and can be used for live music, drama or dance. A long black bookcase carrying works by Rudolf Steiner, an architect and social reformist, crosses the hall and is hung on steel chains. Light is reflected from the glazed ceiling above, giving the impression of a much larger space.

Coffee House in Former Banking Hall, Unternehmen Mitte

Mitte’s mission statement aims to focus on what is really useful or important in life. In the upper stories, there is room for dance, yoga, and personal ateliers. In this way, architects, journalists and media professions get to rub shoulders with the visiting public. A community bank, committed to ethical and ecological trading principles, provides capital for social, cultural and environmentally sound investments. Tageswoche, a local newspaper have also decided to locate their offices at Mitte. Below street level, the original bank safe is intact, and forms a unique venue for small theatre performances.

Occupied day and night by Baselers, Unternehmen Mitte is truly a living room for Basel. The project shows how mixed-use conversion can offer a gathering place of real importance for the local community. (German) (English)

Architecture Is… Magazine

Students at the University of Edinburgh have started producing a magazine, Architecture Is. Aiming to ‘bring a bright and diverse view of Architecture and related arts’, the first blog posts cover the High Line, Invisible Cities, Kirkaldy Maggie Centre and employment at Dezeen.

Blinde Kuh, Basel

In her second post, placement reporter Zena Moore features my experience at Baubüro In Situ. She describes Blinde Kuh, a restaurant where you eat in total darkness. Blinde Kuh is a large employer for blind and partially sighted individuals. ‘The architectural idea cleverly turns disability on its head, so that it is you who requires the assistance whilst inside the restaurant’.

Sicht-Bar, Blinde Kuh

An Update…From Switzerland

Mittlere Brucke

Mittlere Brücke, Basel

Two months ago, I left the UK to start a placement in Basel, at Baüburo In Situ AG. The company is recognised for their renovation projects in the city and surrounding area. Switzerland has been fantastic so far. Both the family I’m living with and the office are really friendly.

Basel is a beautiful place to live and work. Positioned at the Drei Ländereck, the meeting point of France, Germany and Switzerland, a range of cultures can be sampled. So far, I’ve visited many local attractions, including the Munster, Vitra Design Factory, and Tinguely Museum, with weekends away to Bern and Lucern. Expect posts on Switzerland’s best architecture shortly (yodeling and fondue not included).

Rob Switzerland

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Architectural Theory Diary

Critical analysis of philosophical and psycological topics relevant to Architecture. An essay references the Foucaudian term ‘apparatus’, examining the ‘hot-desk’ as ‘part of a network of related elements…that produce subjectivity’.

Barcelona Videos

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Short videos documenting a second year field trip to Barcelona. The first shows examples of culture along La Rambla, while the latter takes a video ‘section’ through the modern art (MACBA) district in Ciutat Vella.