Basel is among the oldest cities of Europe, and architecturally speaking, among the most beautiful. Its founding antedates the beginning of the common era (CE), and its history from the Roman through the medieval to the modern period is as chequered as any city’s could be. It is a relatively small city, with just over 200 000 inhabitants, not counting the thousands of tourists that fill its hotels and guesthouses at just about any time of the year. Take now, for instance. It is very cold in Basel at present — ranging between -5 and 3 degrees Centigrade — and yet the streets are teeming with visitors to this city straddling three countries, namely Switzerland, Germany and France
One of the attractions this time of year is undoubtedly the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas Market, with colourful stalls popping up in designated areas all over town, and offering anything from Gluhwein and traditional foods to the most intricate little figurines, jewellery and locally manufactured clothes. This is not the reason for our visit to Basel, though. I will be presenting a paper at a conference in Freiburg, Germany, which is about half an hour from here, next week, but we decided to spend a week in Basel studying the architecture in and around the city before travelling to Freiburg. In passing I should note that South Africans are at a distinct disadvantage here — not only is Switzerland (where the old city is situated) the most expensive European city at present, but our unrealistically weak rand makes it impossible to enjoy everything the city offers. A Cappucino costs the equivalent, in Swiss Franks, of R72 or so, and a decent meal will set you back at least R300 per person, which is why we chose to stay in an apartment, and buy food at a supermarket to prepare ourselves.
Just to give one an idea of the importance attached to architecture here, consider the fact that virtually every building on the campus belonging to the pharmaceutical company Novartis was designed by a different architect among the leading ones in the world. Our favourite is the highly abstract, yet intriguingly sculptural, multi-dimensional architectural creation by Frank Gehry. Speaking of whom — we took the bus just across the border to the German campus of the world-renowned design company Vitra, whose campus is even more beautiful than that of Novartis, boasting Frank Gehry’s first building outside the United States, Zaha Hadid’s first-ever commissioned building, and an early architectural marvel by that Japanese master of space and silence, Tadao Ando. It was difficult deciding which of these was the most entrancing modulation of space, but if I were really pressed, I would probably go for the one by Tadao Ando, that is, if I did not choose an altogether different design, to wit, Vitra House.
The Vitra website is worth a visit, to see what I mean by extolling the architectural virtues of these astonishing buildings. To enter Tadao Ando’s conference centre, one has to walk along a narrow path, which forces you to go in single file, entering the narrow door one after the other — a spatial strategy that already creates the circumstances for a meditative state of mind, even before you enter the interior spaces that are peculiarly suited for meditation. The most striking of these is “the room of silence”, which faces the road, and yet allows no sound of motor cars to intrude, owing to double glazing of the tall windows. Outside, too, Ando has insulated the room from all possible distractions by using a curtain wall to limit one’s view to lawn and trees, in this way creating a dialogue between the peaceful interior, with its wood panelling, and the exterior, which might as well be in a serene countryside.
Zaha Hadid’s fire station — which is no longer used as such, but serves as an exhibition space instead — is a stunning example of deconstructive architecture. Instead of extolling the traditional Vitruvian architectural virtues, it plays mischievously with the viewer’s expectations of symmetry, straight lines, horizontality and verticality. Instead, what may appear to be a passage of the usual kind, turns out to be curved, what may seem to be diagonal, turns out to be horizontal or vertical, and even the toilet doors give the impression of leaning back. Viennese artist-architect Hundertwasser, who wrote the famous manifesto against straight lines, would love this building.
But the piece de resistance of the Vitra campus, despite the stunning complexity of Gehry’s design museum and the tranquillity of Ando’s meditation centre, is Herzog and de Meuron’s Vitra House — an impossible-seeming accumulation of “houses”, mimicking the local domestic architectural style, piled on top of one another in ostensibly random fashion, until one enters this five-level marvel of design. With entire facades consisting of glass, and overlooking a different part of the town, or the forested hill, in each case, and every floor displaying the wide variety of Vitra furniture designs, walking up the stairs and exploring each large, beautifully furnished level becomes an adventure yielding surprises around every turn.
Basel is not only known for straddling three countries across the Rhine, or for its architecture (and for the Tinguely Fountain and Museum, or the fact that Nietzsche was appointed Professor of Philology at the University of Basel at the youthful age of 23), however; it is perhaps primarily linked to the 14th century artistic creation of the Totentanz, or Dance of Death, which was recently resurrected by film director Peter Greenaway (of Prospero’s Books and The Belly of an Architect fame), in the form of a multimedia film that is shown at various locations in the city night and day. By “shown” I don’t mean in theatres; everywhere there are constructions resembling miniature stages, with a screen protected from rain and snow by a little roof, where the 21st-century counterpart of the famous wall-paintings from the 15th century plays itself out to spellbound spectators throughout the day and evening.
The origin and meaning of the series of paintings are attributed to an intense awareness of human mortality in the wake of the Black Death, which reduced Europe’s population by a third. Each painting represented a person from a different station in society — from a nun and a cardinal through a duchess and farmer to a cook and a youth — and everywhere the theme (reiterated in the accompanying verse) is the same: no matter how important, or wealthy, or young, or strong you are, death comes to everyone in the end. In 1805, incomprehensibly, the wall bearing the moralistic paintings was torn down, but fortunately some prescient members of the Basel community managed to rescue some, though not all, of the paintings for posterity. They can be seen in the Basel Historical Museum, and comparing them with Greenaway’s contemporary (and timely) interpretation is understandably fascinating.
With the added benefit of cinema technology, and augmenting this with other visual and graphic media, Greenaway has managed to confront present-day viewers anew with the universal truth of the inescapability of death, even at a time when the likes of Ray Kurzweil believe that it is a matter of mere decades before the advent of the “Singularity” — something anticipated with quasi-rligious zeal — when computers, robots and humans will supposedly merge to form something (a being of some sort, but at any rate one no longer human) that would approximate, if not actualise, immortality. I, for one, am sceptical of any such hubristic dreams — as we all know, even machines can be destroyed, or become obsolete.