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Art and Architecture Along the Rhine

25 May 2016

The art world descends on Basel this month, but you don’t have to be a gallerist to get the most out of this city.

On the extreme northern perimeter of the city of Basel, away from the crowds and removed from the touristic centre, a solitary rocket-shaped monument points skywards, signifying the meeting point of Germany, France and Switzerland.

In contrast, yet not in contradiction to the charming historic cityscape found a little further upstream, this 18-metre high trination landmark on a small island dissecting the Rhine River, stands symbolic and modern at an ancient crossroads. The river, whose primeval name means to flow and run, streams agelessly and energetically on its long downhill trajectory from the Alps to the North Sea. The spirit of Basel, both current and constant, effortlessly merges a vibrant past with a future vision.

This unique confluence of cultures has flowed through the region since ancient times, bringing new people, new ideas and a blueprint for the charming and modern Swiss metropolis it has become. The city was sanctioned by the Holy Roman Emperor in the late Middle Ages to hold a yearly fair, considered one of the oldest in Europe, testament to it’s geographic, cultural and economic importance. During the same era the city also established the first university north of the Alps. This tradition of exchange and expertise continues today and the name Basel has become equally synonymous with industries as diverse as jewellery and pharmaceuticals. It is within the world of art, however, that Basel has become a certified brand name.

Art Basel, the world’s most prominent fair for modern and contemporary art, held in the city since 1970, now presents fairs in destinations as far flung as Hong Kong and Miami. Every year just before the summer solstice in June, when days are long and warm and the vivid light brings an almost Mediterranean atmosphere to the banks of the Rhine, well-heeled doyens of the art world arrive in the city in droves. Gallerists and exhibitors, curators and collectors, artists and art lovers all together in the impressive exhibition centre, Messe Basel, to view thousands of works presented by over 280 international galleries.

The fair is divided into several considered sectors. Blue chip, globally recognised galleries such as Gagosian, Pace and Lisson are positioned within the Galleries sector, exhibiting the work of current stars, from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and British artist Damien Hirst, to the historical work of Picasso and Rothko. The Statements section allows for newer art discoveries and shows work representing the future generation of the market.

The wow factor comes to a climax in the dedicated 17,000-square-metre hall for the Unlimited sector. This pioneering component of the fair is dedicated to presenting gigantic large-scale installations and sculptures that invite audience interaction. The large, museum-like environment is dedicated to pushing the limits of the traditional art fair format.

The relatively new hall and extension of the centre, designed by acclaimed architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, is an emblematic passage of the city’s narrative. The local firm, renowned internationally for many projects – including the adaptive reuse of the Tate Modern in London – has been actively engaged in many projects within its own city that have reimagined existing spaces.

The Volkshaus Basel, also designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and just a short walk from the fair in the direction of the river, is another practical and appealing example of adapting an existing space. The history of the site, at one time a brewery and concert hall, dates back to the 14th century and has always been utilised in various ways. The current incarnation combines a permanent bar and brasserie with cultural events and banquets, and is a popular destination for both locals and tourists.

Just a two-minute stroll from the Volkshaus, the area of Kleinbasel or “Little Basel”, is joined to the old city by the Mittlere Brücke, still spanning what was one of the earliest crossings of the Rhine. Directly to the left, overlooking the river, stands the hotel Krafft Basel, initially built in 1872 and named after the original owner. The clean, contemporary aesthetic inside merges seamlessly with the original architecture and maximises the available space.

The restaurant, serving what they themselves term as “fresh, local and surprising”, is both spacious and comfortable with superb views across the bridge and out over the river. Many offerings from the menu source regional produce, translating the entire affair into a casual, sophisticated dining experience with a Swiss touch. During these warmer months, dinner is also offered outside on the terrace.

Located a few steps closer to the bridge is an outlet specialising in the famous local sweet treat, the Basler Läckerli, or quite literally “the little tasty one”. The Läckerli Huus offers the specialty biscuit flavoured with candied peel, nuts and honey, alongside a ubiquitous assortment of housemade Swiss chocolates.

Across the river in the Altstadt “old city” and Grossbasel “Greater Basel”, a hotel, theatre and restaurant adorned with a Michelin star have a direct history and links to the arts community. Der Teufelhof, established in 1989, was a dream realised by the former owners who initially conceived to simultaneously run a cafe and restaurant in order to subsidise their passion for sustaining a theatre.

The theatre, which still supports regional groups and artists, remains an essential attribute to the business ethos. Housed within two interconnected historical buildings, Der Teufelhof is now operated by two former employees, Nathalie Reinhardt and Raphael Wyniger, who continue to uphold the performance with both a passion for gastronomy and the arts. There are actually two restaurants, but it is Bel Etage that takes centre stage with its starry accolade and unpretentious fine dining. A self-professed commitment to culture is visibly evident, specifically in their Art Hotel accommodation. Across nine guest rooms local artists from Basel and the surrounding area have transformed the interiors to create living art environments and encouraging intimate art interactions. From recreations of artist atelier spaces, to wall murals that glow in the dark and come to life at night, each room reveals its own character and artistic vision.

Make no mistake: this is a walking city, making refuelling a necessity. The no-fuss retro vibe of Brötli Bar – with its great open sandwiches – recalls an era in recent memory where gluten-free was an unknown term in the gastronomic vernacular. Nothing quite compares, though, to pulling up a chair on a summer afternoon just over the river at one of the several open air Buvette [small bistro], an indispensable part of the Basel streetscape and lifestyle. Dotted along the Kleinbasel side of the Rhine, from the Mittlere Brücke towards the trination point, these casual and relaxed establishments serve up simple, tasty fare, a selection of refreshments and offer a voyeuristic vantage point. The Buvette Kaserne, operating from a converted shipping container, is just a short walk downstream from the bridge.

Heading back in the direction of the fair are the small neighbourhoods of Matthäus and Clara, where several streetside cafes are the target for those involved in the global obsession with great coffee. Cafe Frühling, on Klybeckstrasse, is both a popular meeting point and offers the more traditional espresso alongside various filter and Aero Press coffees. They also serve breakfast all day on the weekend.

Art Basel is also somewhat engaged with the city on a physical level. Weaving an exploratory path through Basel’s streets, courtyards and public squares, the fair’s Parcours programme engages the public and fairgoers by placing site-specific sculptures and interventions throughout the city – and a combination of renowned and emerging talents are invited each year.

Coinciding with Art Basel in June, and known as the young art fair, LISTE engages the industry at a more grassroots level. Celebrating its 21st year in 2016, the fair invites a select 79 international high-calibre galleries to present works by artists under the age of 40. Also open to the public, it is just a 10-minute walk upstream in a converted semi-industrial multi-level space. Many galleries and artists have used LISTE as a platform to debut and kickstart their careers. Collectors and gallerists alike often use the fair to scout new talent.

Basel is also a city of museums, with significant permanent collections and an engaging roster of exhibitions. As the city has become the centre of Swiss cultural and architectural discourse, the Schweizerisches Architekturmuseum (SAM) holds an important place within the city. As one of the most important European architectural centres, Basel has an abundance of outstanding classic modernist structures.

Housed in the Kunsthalle Basel, SAM specialises in temporary exhibitions that centre around Swiss and international architecture, acting as a counterpoint to the Kunsthalle’s avant-garde contemporary art programme. Nearby, the newly completed additional exhibition space of the Kunstmuseum Basel flashes moving image and text from its external wall via a massive frieze. The museum has one of the largest and oldest collections in Europe and the new space, designed by Christ and Gantenbein, extends its available floor space while again adding to the city’s unique architectural story.

Public transport, not surprisingly, runs like clockwork and it is well worth venturing beyond the inner city – even day trips to experience the natural beauty of the Swiss Jura or the culinary delights from the French region of Alsace are all possible. Those on the cultural trail are equally rewarded. Positioned over the border and just beyond the city limits in the German town of Weil am Rhein, the iconic white and stark Deconstructivist Frank Gehry designed Vitra Design Museum is a treasure trove of form and function. Dedicated to the presentation and research of design that includes a focus on architecture and furniture, the museum presents temporary exhibitions spotlighting renowned designers and innovative technologies.

The Beyeler Foundation is built from the collection of Hildy and Ernst Beyeler – Ernst being a co-founder of Art Basel. Situated just back over the border, the foundation is set within the stunning natural surrounds of the Villa Berower estate with its rolling pastures and natural surrounds. Designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, the Foundation’s permanent collection includes celebrated modern masters such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh exhibited alongside contemporary masters and rare tribal art pieces from Africa and Oceania.

Mirroring the river that flows through its heart, Basel has remained a constant conduit of exchange from pre-history to the modern era. It is still a city flowing with ideas, a fountainhead of contemporary design, architecture and, every June, a global destination for culture vultures. Art and architecture are as much a part of the vernacular as the locally spoken variant of German or neighbouring French. With one foot of daily life firmly planted in its rich history and the other testing the waters of innovation, you’re left with the sense of a conscientious city. A beautifully polished Swiss jewel astride the Rhine.

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