Johannes Grützke: A. Böcklin, J.J. Bachofen, J. Burckhardt and F. Nietzsche on the Central Rhine Bridge in Basel, Basel 1970
(Progressives Museum Basel)
Editor’s note:
The scholar on matriarchy rights Johann Jakob Bachofen cannot deny a certain likeness with the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

“We shall call them historical humans – looking to the past they are compelled towards the future…” (Wir wollen sie die historischen Menschen nennen, der Blick in die Vergangenheit drängt sie zur Zukunft hin...). Friedrich Nietzsche 1874

„Architecture is always the spirit of an age made tangible“ (Baukunst ist raumgefasster Zeitwille”) . Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1923

WCT Philosophy: The journeys to urban architecture offered by WCT’s travel itinerary will take you through a region geographically and politically placed at the heart of Europe. Here, the Rhine elegantly changes its course by a consequential 90 degrees, now heading north towards Strasburg, Mainz, Cologne, Utrecht and the North Sea.

The first peoples to settle in the Upper- and High Rhine region were Celtic tribes, followed by the Romans, the Alemanni and Christian rulers. The three nations that divide up the territory today, are comparatively young considering the regions’ long-standing cultural history.
The triangular area between the south-eastern mountain range of the French Vosges, the German Black Forest to the south-west and the north-eastern Jura mountains in Switzerland, constitute a climatologic anomaly in all three countries: while the area south of Freiburg im Breisgau boasts the highest mean annual temperature in Germany, north-western Switzerland has experienced winter temperatures akin to those in the Ticino or Milan.

As a free “communitas”, the City Republic of Basel was always reluctant to be drawn into territorial conflicts and was therefore generally spared from war and destruction, on occasion even constituting a safe territory for peace negociatians (1499, 1795). The second longest Church Council in history convened in Basel (1431-1448). The modern city features one of the world’s largest chemical industry complexes and its contemporary architecture increasingly attracts the attention of the architecturally interested world-wide.

The large European metropolises of Paris, Munich and Milan – another geographical triangle - provide a wider cultural context for the Upper Rhine region. The symbolic triangle crops up time and again. The cathedrals of Strasburg, Freiburg i.Br. and Basel as well as developments in modern architectural history illustrate the concept. Three major 20th century structures representing the architecture of expressive movement can be found near Basel: The Goetheanum, a mighty reinforced concrete construction built 1925-28 to Rudolf Steiner’s specifications, Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du-Haut in Ronchamp (consecrated in 1954), and American architect Frank Gehry’s first European project, a museum in Weil am Rhein (1989).

Both Dornach and Weil am Rhein are nowadays part of the tri-national urban agglomeration of Basel. The fledgling 21st century’s political realities make the Vale of the Rhine’s southernmost town a bi-political point of intersection between the European Union and Switzerland.
The elegance with which the river Rhine changes its course has inspired geographers to speak of the “Rhine’s knee”, an erotic connotation which has little to do with Sophia Loren, Coco Chanel or Liz Taylor. But similarly stylish, the modern city of Basel swarms with Italianità: the links between the Upper Rhine and modern Italy, especially Rome, Milano, Naples, the Piedmont and the Toscana, have permeated many aspects of daily life, from architecture to cuisine, football culture to car worship. With 30’000 Italian citizens living in Basel alone, the American term “Little Italy” is quite appropriate.

Basel’s connection with Italy is a venerable tradition – it started about 2000 years ago with the foundation of the Roman colony of Augusta Raurica in 44 BC and continues throughout history: The Council of Basel occasioned Pope Pius II to found Basel University (1460) and at the start of the Reformation in 1529 the community boasted 16 monasteries. For Jacob Burckhardt, a native of Basel and one of the founders of the modern disciplines of Art and Cultural History (along with the Florentine Giorgio Vasari and the Rome-based German Johann Joachim Winckelmann), Italy was an overwhelming cultural experience. His 1855 travel guide “Der Cicerone” though often copied, remains unsurpassed. More recently, the Genoese architect Renzo Piano created the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Riehen (1992-2000), one of the foremost examples of its typology world-wide. More recently, Vittorio Magnano Lampugnani's Studio di Architettura in Milan designed the masterplan for a new campus commissioned by the pharaceutical company Novartis, which has been under construction in Basel since 2003.

Can a visit to a city weighed down by so much European history really be enjoyable? It can - but the discerning visitor to Basel should bring along the same enthusiasm for active leisure needed to explore Venice, Porto or Prague, for as the German comedian and actor Karl Valentin used to say: “Art is nice but work intensive”.

Recommended literature: Lionel Gossman: Basel in the Age of Burckhardt. A Study in Unseasonable Ideas, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London 2000, ISBN:
0-226-30498-1 (hc), 0-226-30500-7 (pb)