Straddling the Rhine, Basel is a transmutation of
Images of Basel:
An Alchemical Crossroads
Story and Photographs by Gary Singh
n the Swiss city of Basel, I am between everything. The city is not
"at" the intersection of three countries; rather, it "is"
the intersection of three countries. Positioned in Switzerland,
but with suburbs in both in France
and Germany, Basel exudes a distinctive between-ness. From all sides,
from every which direction, Franco-Germanic influence permeates and
seeps. Basel is a place where disparate realms crossover, creating a
whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Technically, there are two train station complexes,
but they exist in three countries. The main station, Basel SBB, sits
in the old town area and is one of the most trafficked railway hubs
in all of Switzerland, but French Railways (SNCF) maintain an annex
station directly connected to it, so one can actually go through a border-crossing
and officially enter French territory, without leaving the complex.
The French station sits on Swiss land, but the tracks and the trains
are French territory.
The station is in Switzerland, but the tracks belong
The other main station, Basel Badischer Bahnhof, sits
on the other side of the city, across the Rhine and still technically
in Switzerland, although operated by Deutsche Bahn, the German railway
company. Once you leave the lobby and go through the tunnel to the trains,
you are technically in Germany. The land is still Switzerland, but the
trains and the platforms are German territory.
In Basel Badischer Bahnhof, I already seem to occupy
three countries at once. In one of the original historic halls, I investigate
"crossover cuisine" at a restaurant named Les Gareçons.
Its a play on words. Normally spelled garçons, meaning
boys or waiters, the word contains an e because gare
means station. I opt for pasta, just so I can claim I ate Italian food
in a French restaurant, in a German train station, in Switzerland.
Art Crosses Over with Nature
From there, every sphere of influence crosses over into
everything else. When it comes to art merging with nature, the interior
of a building merging with its exterior landscape, Fondation Beyeler
fuses the macrocosm with the microscosm. From Badischer Bahnhof, its
only a short tram ride, to the town of Riehen, half a mile from the
The illustrious art collector Ernst Beyeler chose this
site in his home town. Renzo Piano designed the building and its architecture
blends in with the environment before one even enters. Except for the
open-air tiled glass roof, which seemingly floats, the exterior of the
building is constructed of Red Porphyr stone from Argentina, which complements
the green grass outside.
Outside Fondation Beyeler
And from outside, I look down from the top of a terraced
lawn, gaze across a pond, through a giant window and directly into the
front gallery space. Once inside that space, looking back out, it becomes
obvious that the building was designed to merge with the natural surroundings.
Looking through the glass window, floor to ceiling, one views a tranquil
pond outside. Lilies float on top of the water as if waiting for something
to happen. Since the entire complex is sunk into the ground, the French
oak floor is level with the pond outside in a seamless transition.
Beyond the pond, the proportionately terraced lawn rises
up from the water and into the surrounding trees. Looking out the window,
it feels like Im viewing a painting. Inside the gallery, Monets
The Water-lily Pond spans nine meters along the wall, complimenting
the scenery outside. From anyones perspective, it is clear that
the structure was designed to accommodate the art and the landscape,
rather than just function as a grandiose building.
Fondation Beyeler, The Rousseau room, Photo:
In another part of the museum, a long hallway, also
with floor-to-ceiling windows, faces west onto a parcel of land next
door, mostly green and golden farmland, as it stretches to the Wiese
River. Beyond the waterway, Tüllinger Hill creeps up in the background.
As a project, the building, in every respect, seems to crossover into
the natural world. Every component of the experience is part of the
Alchemy of the Everyday
According to one biographer, the mystic Rudolf Steiner
often felt like he was functioning between two different realms. Maybe
that meant the spiritual and the material, I dont know, but the
Vitra Design Museum and Campus put together the worlds first ever
Alchemy of the Everyday at the Vitra Design Museum
Steiner had his hands in quite a few disciplines. He
started the Waldorf Schools. He innovated organic architecture and designed
new breeds of furniture. He corresponded with everyone from Kafka to
Kandinsky and he founded the philosophy of Anthroposophy. He was an
original crossover hero, blurring the boundaries between design, architecture,
spirituality, natural science, farming, biocosmetics, experimental dance
and inner transformation.
An easy bus ride from Basel takes me across the border
of Germany to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, location of
the Steiner exhibit, Alchemy of the Everyday. The Vitra building
itself is a dynamic deconstructivist tour de force by Frank Gehry, the
structure that essentially vaulted him to the international stage over
twenty years ago. One can say it organically detonates from the grassy
landscape of the property.
The world-famous Frank Gehry building
Looking down the side of the old firehouse
Through May of 2012, Alchemy takes place inside.
Steiners biography covers one wall, a complete chronology including
letters, pamphlets and other correspondence. Furniture he designed sits
on display. Architectural models, performance documentation, sketches
and pedagogical material highlight much of the exhibit. There are films,
diagrams of organic farming techniques and countless examples of individuals
that Steiner inspired.
Outside, across the rest of the Vitra campus, continuous
tours in German, French, English and Italian are offered. Several other
notable architects designed other buildings here--the factories, the
research facilities, an old fire station-turned-exhibition space and
even a geodesic dome from Buckminster Fuller himself. Leading Swiss
architectural legends, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, designed
the Vitra House and Lounge Chair Atelier Shop, across the way from the
Gehry building, where one can look at decades of avant-garde furniture.
Even the bus stop, designed by Jasper Morrison, is part of the overall
The bus stop outside the Vitra Design Museum
A Glorious Racket
The kinetic machine sculptures of Jean Tinguely create
a sonic racket, a symphony of cacophonous delight. Constructed from
artifact discarded by society, his machines glorify public spaces across
Europe, but a museum dedicated to his lifes work sits along the
Rhine, in Basel. From the Old Town area, one simply crosses the bridge
and meanders down a promenade beside the Rhine, eventually arriving
at Solitude Park. Next door sits Museum Tinguely, a Mario Botta-designed
structure of Alsatian limestone, commanding a serious presence. Bounded
by the river, the park and a freeway, the building relates with all
of those entities. One can suggest it sits between solitude, noise and
Northern façade of the Tinguely Museum
Each side of the building mingles with the already-existing
environment. The west side of the structure features a wide porch that
opens out onto the park. The side facing the Rhine extends out from
the main building and functions more like a natural extension of the
riverbank. Everyone who enters the museum has to pass through this area,
beckoning them to stop and view the softly flowing waters of the Rhine.
The façade facing the highway is large, multistory and somewhat
monolithic, acting as a sound barrier that prevents the traffic noise
from reaching the other side facing the park. The fourth side, facing
north, overlooks another street and features a covered alcove, directing
visitors to either the entrance or the park.
Inside, there is plenty of room for Tinguelys
gargantuan machines. Each machine is controllable, that is, you stomp
on a floor-button and then wait ten seconds for the machine to kick
in. The children enjoy it even more than the adults.
The cacophonous machines of Jean Tinguely
Crossing From New To Old
In Basel, opposites fuse. I have explored the young
architecture, but I end with the ageless. In Basels old town,
one discovers five ubiquitous heads directing you on five different
city walks. Each one is named after a leading figure from Basels
past. Theres the Erasmus Walk, the Hans Holbein Walk, the Paracelsus
Walk, the Thomas Platter Walk and the Jacob Burckhardt Walk. I slither
in the footsteps of giants. These hidden guides are always there, beneath
the surface, in a strange, arcane way.
The Erasmus and Paracelsus Walks of Old Town Basel
Each walk shows the city and its evolution from a different
perspective. The medieval alchemist Paracelsus, for instance, guides
you up steep alleys, down obscure side streets, through both commercial
and residential areas, concluding, appropriately, at the Pharmaceutical
Museum, where you can see ancient medical instruments used by folks
from the era of Paracelsus himself. Burckhardt was a nineteenth century
art scholar and historian, so his walk is titled, Past and Present in
Harmony. Contrasting many different styles of architecture, from gothic
to the current era, the walk includes the Tinguely Fountain and the
In Basel, even the alleys are multilingual. I can hear
voices in many languages. The stories they tell are infinite. In Basel,
there is no end and no beginning.
Basel boasts a labyrinth of narrow sidestreets and
Rosengart Collection, Lucerne, Switzerland
and Artists, Switzerland
Dada and Business Class, Bernina
Express, Switzerland, Swiss
rail trips, Eichhorn
Schwyzerorgelfabrik and Musikhaus