The Swiss have an impressive legacy of innovation in many industries, ranging from transportation and timekeeping to finance and fonts. But you wouldn’t know it based on Switzerland’s architecture. The Swiss pretty much slept through the explosion of high-tech design in the late 20th century, sticking with its Romanesque vernacular, 19th century rowhouses, a bit of post-mod 1980s, and the trusty Swiss chalet.
Today is a different story. A slew of edgy hotels and conference centers are opening in Zurich, Basel, Davos, Lausanne and Lucerne. It’s all part of an aggressive attempt among locals to transcend the country’s conservative reputation as the world’s bank, cheesemaker and chocolate factory.
Everything changed in September 2006 when the Freitag brothers bolted together 19 shipping containers to build their FREITAG shop in the burgeoning ex-industrial neighborhood of Zurich West. They needed a place to sell their messenger bags constructed out of heavy duty truck tarps, and Zurich’s tony Bahnhofstrasse avenue didn’t exactly suit their streetwise style.
The international travel and design press went crazy over the container tower. In a country where medieval churches are restored to a point where they look new, someone was finally breaking with tradition. The old warehouses in Zurich West were converted one by one into hip clubs, cafes and galleries, beginning with the conversion of the Schiffbau shipbuilding factory and Schauspielhaus theater in 2002. The Freitags made the story global.
“Zurich West changed everything,” says Maria-Lucia Gudenus, business travel manager at Zurich Tourism. “The problem is people who haven’t been to Zurich in the last 10 years. They don’t know about the whole nightlife vibe and the galleries opening everywhere. So there’s this reputation that Zurich is still about banks and watches, but that’s not the case at all.”
When questioned as to what caused this new energy and attitude at the time, Gudenus says it was the university students who felt yoked to the fusty finance scene.
“Over 10 years ago there were no cafe terraces or rooftop bars in Zurich, no modern music outdoors,” she explains. “Now everyone has a terrace or outdoor bar. It’s strange because the Swiss are such outdoors people, but not in the city, not back then.”
For example, the Rimini Bar located on top of the Limmat River is a women’s-only swim club during the day. At night they have DJs and fashion shows with models walking over thin bridges spanning the river. Dozens of crunchy creative types sell handmade jewelry and organic fashions, and it’s usually wall to wall with Zurich’s creative class.
“I love Rimini Bar, it’s one of my favorites,” says Gudenus. “That’s the side of Zurich we want to show people.”
After FREITAG made such a splash, places like Frau Gerolds Garten restaurant and bar opened inside a mashup of shipping containers. There’s also an old viaduct with 50+ boho boutiques located under the stone arches, named IM Viadukt. Last November, the uber hip 25Hours group launched its latest hotel here, making Zurich West an official international Gen Y hotbed.
Gudenus adds, “There’s the Renaissance Zurich Tower too. A lot of visiting DJs stay there and they’ll play in the hotel’s lobby before heading out to the clubs later at night.” She also mentions the confident new 60-room B2 Boutique Hotel that opened last March inside the former Hürlimann Brewery.
Zurich Tourism’s end goal is to position Zurich as a leisure and incentive travel destination for all age demos. They’re doing that by promoting the city’s youthful grooviness, contemporary art boom and central location with quick access to the best of Switzerland.
“People often fly into Zurich and immediately head for the mountains or lakes but you can base yourself in Zurich and take day trips everywhere,” says Gudenus. “Lucerne and Basel are one hour away, Davos is 90 minutes, and Lausanne and Lake Geneva are only two hours by train.”
And for a city with only 400,000 people, she explains, “It’s really amazing there are 85 direct flights to America per week.”
Beyond the Swiss Chalet
Caroline Pidroni is the New York-based director of sales/marketing with the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau. She says even she’s surprised by all of the new developments in Zurich and the rest of the country.
“Switzerland is often seen as a very traditional place with things like the cuckoo clock, which isn’t even from Switzerland, and chocolate, cheese and all that,” she explains. “But at the same time, Switzerland is one of the most innovative countries in the world. I mean, we invented the Internet in Geneva.”
Pidroni points to the Monte Rosa Hut high up in the Alps near the Matterhorn in Zermatt as a turning point in modern Swiss architecture. Opened in 2009, the asymmetrical, aluminum-clad research lab and hiker’s lodge was built by the Swiss Federal Institute of Tech in Zurich. It’s 90% solar self-sustaining and represents the zenith of clean tech bravado, accessible by helicopter or a 2.5-hour trek up the glacier from Rotenboden station.
She’s also proud of the new CabriO open-air cable car at Stanserhorn Mountain near Lucerne.
“It’s the first of its kind, it’s really crazy,” says Pidroni.
Here’s a look at some more recent and future developments:
Open since April, the Messe Basel New Hall is a shiny new conference space designed by the legendary local firm, Herzog & de Meuron. If there has been one bright spot of modern architecture in Switzerland during the last two decades, it’s been in Basel mainly due to the local boys, who broke out on the world scene in 2000 with the Tate Modern in London. The Event Hall features a facade resembling metal fish scales and an enormous sun roof that looks like a portal into another dimension.
The 216-room InterContinental Davos Resort & Spa opens at the end of the year, designed like a giant reimagined Faberge egg. Strikingly modern inside and out, the hotel is covered with gold honeycomb lace, surrounded by the thick forests of the Graubünden Alps and Lake Davos. The top story is designed entirely for F&B with great views of the valley. On the lower levels, large outdoor spaces will cater to both the apres-ski crowd and business travelers.
The $225 million Swiss Tech Convention Center is scheduled to open in April 2014 on Lake Geneva, anticipated as one of Europe’s most edgy facilities for conferences. Located in Lausanne’s “Innovation Square,” the auditorium seats 3,000 delegates. Within 15 minutes the seats can rotate under the floor, which is angled upwards toward the rear, before hydraulically leveling to a flat plane for gala functions.
The new $485 million Burgenstock Resort overlooking Lake Lucerne opens in 2015. There will be three hotels in one, perched atop a mountain plateau accessed via funicular or car. The 160-room Waldhotel will be themed around advanced wellness. The 110-room Park Hotel is the 5-star luxury product, and the 108-room Palace Hotel is a 4-star business hotel. There’s also the gargantuan 110,000-square-foot Burgenstock Alpine spa and 12 restaurants with killer views of the lake.
We’re still a few years away but The Circle at Zurich Airport is going to be a landmark mixed-use hotel, shopping, dining and conference facility when it opens in 2018. It will include a new Hyatt Regency and Hyatt Place, multiple event venues, extensive retail and plenty of open space to align with Swiss sensibilities.
Japanese architect team Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop designed the sloping glass facade as a contiguous screen for towering visual displays, and named it “divers(c)ity.” Culturally, Switzerland has always been one of the most diverse countries in Europe with so much German, French and Italian influence. Architects like Yamamoto and friends are now bringing that spirit to the built environment.
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.