If you play the word association game with Zurich, descriptions like young, dynamic and creative aren’t going to come up. You’re more likely going to get money. Or watches. Or chocolate. Or some reference to those ‘most livable’ lists where the Swiss city always vies with Melbourne and Vancouver for top spot.
The lists are correct; Zurich is a lovely place to grow old in – it’s got the lake, the Alps, the airport and trains – but it’s not the exciting, creative destination that Paris, London or Berlin is. Never has been. Right?
Not exactly. In the early 20th century, the Swiss city wasn’t just a home for hedge funds. In 1916, while war was raging across Europe, Zurich became a haven for pacifists, sculptors and painters who congregated in studios and bars around Spiegelgasse to create art that stood in direct opposition to the violence, turmoil and nationalism that was enveloping the continent. This movement was Dadaism, a hugely influential style of art that would later spread to Paris and New York and lead to surrealism, beat poetry and even pop music.
That energy of a century ago is now back, with the rise of Zurich-West. This thriving former industrial district is helping the city throw off its fussy reputation and return to its culturally dynamic roots. Away from the chocolate shops and picture-perfect medieval beauty of the city centre, Zurich now supports a thriving population of artists, fashion designers and chefs in the once-rundown western districts. Under railway arches and in disused factories or converted shipping containers, there is a cluster of cutting-edge art galleries, sleek boutiques and packed restaurants and bars, all of which cater to the kind of ultra-cool clientele you would traditionally associate with cities such as Berlin.
Like so many revivals, it all began with the artists. When Zurich’s industrial area was virtually abandoned in the 1980s, a number of warehouses sat disused for decades – a crime in a city famous for its astronomical rents. But with time, enterprising artists, sculptors and curators, tired of being forced out of their own city by unrealistic studio prices, worked out that Zurich offered them all the space they needed.
It started with Löwenbräu-Kunst – a historic brewery dating back to 1897 that had been taken over by squatters in the 1980s. Over time the squatters were replaced with young creatives and it soon became one of the premier artistic havens of Switzerland. Then five years ago it was renovated and became home to some of the city’s most prestigious galleries, including Hauser & Wirth and Kunsthalle Zurich.
To ensure artists themselves continued to profit from this shift, the local council started creating ‘alternative off-spaces’. Supported by the Swiss government, these art spaces are often rent-free and serve as studios, galleries and meeting points for local and international artists. They have proliferated at such an astounding rate that Zurich is now home to one of the most dynamic non-commercial gallery scenes in Europe.
‘These spaces give us the chance to create, exhibit and discuss our art in a city that has often incorrectly been seen as little more than a financial centre,’ says Andreas Marty, the director of Dienstgebäude, a non-commercial gallery housed in a former printing factory near Zurich-West.
And where art leads, fashion and food soon follow. A quick walk around the western districts reveal a host of inventive bars, independent fashion labels and the kind of trend-driven restaurant pop-ups you’d be more likely to see in London, Hong Kong and New York than in continental Europe.
Many of them are located in Im Viadukt, a 19th-century viaduct that has been restored and turned into a buzzing food hall and restaurant hub on one side and a fashion quarter on the other. Here, there are market stalls specialising in Japanese cuisine, Swiss fondue and American cocktails, and boutiques selling beautifully cut clothes, handmade wooden furniture or stand-out jewellery. Nearby is Frau Gerolds Garten, a series of bars and food stalls housed in converted shipping containers around a green lawn that has become particularly popular with the creative set.
A short walk over the railway tracks takes you to Soeder, perhaps the shop that best captures the zeitgeist of the city. Run by handsome Swiss hipsters – beards and plaid shirts, of course – this wood-panelled lifestyle store does a Swiss version of the Danish hygge (the concept that a cosy home is a happy one), with unisexgrooming products, thick Swiss knitted jumpers and homemade shoe wax.
‘We decided to take on the challenge to design everyday basics made in Switzerland,’ says Soeder director Johan Olzon. ‘We wanted to incorporate clothing, interiors, cosmetics and furniture into one store. And I think one reason why it is so popular is that it’s very local – the mix of quality, creativity and comfort is Swiss down the core. And it’s been great to launch in Zurich because the city is really flourishing. People visit Berlin and London for their art scenes, but I say come to Switzerland.’
While Berlin and Zurich couldn’t have more diverse reputations, life for artists and art-lovers in these European hubs is becoming increasingly similar. And although Zurich is finding it difficult to shake off the stereotype that pushing the boundaries means taking a frowned-upon late-night shower, a quick stroll around the western districts illustrates just how radically its atmosphere has changed in the past five years. Which means Berlin might have some pretty stiff competition on its hands.
Painstakingly restored by Swiss architect Tilla Theus, this maze of historic townhouses offers a sumptuous blend of eras ranging from whitewashed modern steel basins in the bathrooms to medieval beams in the bedrooms.
Built around one of Zurich’s oldest inns, the newly opened Marktgasse Hotel incorporates ancient layouts into the breezy modern design. The exceptional restaurant Baltho does Swiss classics with a contemporary twist.
Buzzing, hip and specialising in French-Mediterranean cuisine, Les Halles couldn’t be more different from the white-tableclothed restaurants of the old town.
In the achingly cool Tribeka district, you will find a handful of fashionable haunts crammed next to each other, including Italian favourite Cento Passi; Zanzibar, which makes East African stews and offers giant mugs of prawns; and Palestine Grill, which brings you excellent cuisine from the Middle East.
Swiss designer Ida Gut combines Japanese fabrics with Swiss cuts to create the kind of elegant yet eccentric designs you would associate with Comme des Garçons.
Galerie Francesca Pia
Curator Francesca Pia is famous for uncovering unknown talent from around the country, and her gallery is the ideal spot to pick up your next art work or kick off an afternoon of browsing.