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from our archive
Study trip to Basel


6-7 September 2015 | Gwyneth Isbister (text)

Stephen Games (photos)


On the first weekend in September a small but enthusiastic group was guided through Basel by resident author and architectural historian Jacques Gubler. The main focus of the trip was to explore some early low-rise high-density social housing schemes, and to determine whether they could provide any useful lessons for us today.


Day 1: Saturday, September 6

Our tour began on the sunny south bank of the Rhine, where we made our way on foot to the Universitäts Spital (photos 1 and 2) by Hermann Bauer with Bräuning, Leu, Dürig and E+P Vischer Architekten (1945) with its light and airy entrance lobby and convalescing roof terrace, offering spectacular panoramic views of Basel.


The University Hospital was refurbished and extended in 2003 by Silvia Gmür–Livio Vacchini Architekten, to include a Women's clinic with its glass façade and distinctive light wells.


We eventually managed to drag ourselves away from the roof terrace and continued to St Antonius Church (photos 3,4 and 5) via the colour changing façade of the children's hospital  and the Basel University Library, with its dramatic concrete stair and spacious reading room complete with sculptural reinforced concrete shell roof.

St Antonius Church, Karl Moser and Gustav Doppler's 1927 brutal modernist masterpiece of raw concrete is, with its 70m tower, a Basel landmark. Its stark interior, for the most part unadorned, provides a calm atmosphere and the perfect backdrop to the breathtaking stained glass windows.


We stopped for lunch at a co-operative market restaurant then took a tram to Muttenz where the co-operative's Freidorf Estate was the first in a series of housing estates that was to inform the main purpose of our visit.


The Freidorf Estate, Muttenz by Hannes Meyer (1919-24), is an important housing project (photos 6 and 7). It was the first co-operative village in Switzerland, and the symbol of a new social order. As housing for the worker the estate was, and still is, only available to co-op employees and their families. It is made up of 150 houses, laid out along a series of roads with the central one passing through the main square, which contains the community hall. The intention was to provide a variety of house types and sizes with a limited pallet of materials and details, each with its own garden where families could grow fruit and vegetables. Hannes Meyer lived on the estate, until 1930, as both architect and as a member of the co-operative. (Our group photograph, appropriately, was taken in front of his house).


We arrived in the square on the day of the annual flea market, where we shared wine, barbequed sausages and chocolate brownies, experiencing first hand the square as the heart of the village. We chatted with some local residents who enjoyed living in the estate despite the restrictions imposed by being part of a co-operative community, and they kindly invited us to see inside their home.

In the same neighbourhood, Muttenz, we visited the Pestalozzi Estate, (Michael Alder, 1999-204) 'independent housing for the third age of life', then made our way to the Wasserhaus Estate in the suburb of Münchenstein, where Wilhelm Brodtbeck & Hans Bernoulli, 1919, produced a series of parallel terraces with a double row of gardens between, a private sector alternative to the simultaneously constructed cooperative funded Freidorf.


It was early evening by this time so we followed the rhythmic sounds of a salsa band playing nearby and made our way back to central Basel.


Day 2: Sunday, September 7

Our small group met at Herzog & de Meuron's 2013 extension to the Messe Basel Exhibition Centre (photo 9). Below its 'woven' metal canopy we caught a tram to the Hirzbrunnen district where Hans Bernoulli, Hans Von der Mühll and Paul Oberrauch (1920-34) built a community of 257 housing units for private sale, in contrast to the co-operative developments visited the day before. They consisted of one to four storey single-family houses with individual gardens, schools, a community hall and what was initially conceived as a public park, replaced by a hospital due to lack of funds.


We continued our walk through the surrounding neighbourhoods until we reached the Eglisee estate, a development of 115 units by various architects, for the Swiss housing exhibition WOBA in 1929. Here architects were free to design their own house plans while respecting a certain degree of uniformity in terms of construction elements. Another tram took us to the Rhine Harbour docks (photo 10) where we saw Bernoulli's listed silo tower, 1923, that overlooks the symbolic triangle, the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France.


After a traditional rösti lunch, enjoyed in the afternoon sunshine, we said 'auf wiedersehn' to some of our party who had planes to catch, whilst the rest of us ended our visit walking through the old town.


In the years between the wars there was a movement to improve the lives and living conditions of working people in the crowded tenements of Basel city and to explore the development of garden cities or new villages, where single family dwellings, providing a high quality of living and a private garden, should not be a privilege of the rich. In all of the housing schemes we visited it was clear the residents took pride in their homes and their individuality, and it was obvious that these low-rise high density housing estates continue to be a success almost a century after their realisation. Many thanks to our guide, Jacques Gubler, for an enjoyable and thought-provoking trip.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 30

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