Visit Basel: a dream travel destination for modern architecture fans

by Apr 11, 2023Switzerland

Basel Stadt Casino Architecture Stair Curves

Whoever thought an oft-overlooked city like Basel Switzerland could be jammed with so much jaw-dropping modern architecture? Angles, curves, crazy lines, modernist, and art nouveau, the styles are all-encompassing and will not leave architecture fans visiting Basel wanting.

I am a huge fan of great architecture. Sure, I love gargoyled Gothic churches, ornate Victorian rooflines, and grand Baroque curves, but a city like Basel Switzerland with world-class modern architecture around every corner makes an architecture fan like me drool.

We only had a couple of days in this surprisingly delightful city on the three-country border with Germany and France. Still, I made a point of getting in and past some key Basel architectural sights – a bike helped maneuver the streets and tour more sights in this highly bike-friendly city.

As a modernist architecture enthusiast, I left satisfied but not sated – with hundreds of inspiring buildings in and around the Basel Switzerland area, there’s always more to hunt down and enjoy. Plus, you need to see each one in different light and weather, if you can, to catch varied shadows and reflections. For example, on our first pass on our Basel bike tour past the must-see Basel Exhibition Center (Messe Basel) in so-called “Kleinbasel” (Lesser Basel), it was cloudy and gray, but after the sun came out later with a remarkable blue sky it was time to get back past the Basel Exhibition Center for an even better photograph.

Basel Exhibition Center Modernist Architecture

Why is Basel an architectural hotbed?

So why is Basel such a hotbed for spectacular architecture – with some buildings actually dating back a few decades? The only apparent reason is that several internationally acclaimed architects — Mario Botta, Herzog & de Meuron, Christ & Gantenbein, and Diener & Diener, among others, have their headquarters in either Basel or Switzerland. That makes this city in Switzerland — sadly so overlooked by travelers intent on soaring Alpine landscapes and grand train tours — a dense package of modern architecture, shouldering along the streets and skylines.

And of course, Basel has embraced this architectural acclaim with information for tourists and special days for locals and travelers alike to help architecture fans find what they want – and perhaps stumble across what they may not have expected.

For those itching to see Basel architecture, here are several insider tips:

  • Tap into Basel Tourism’s own information, maps and brochures.
  • Plan to visit Basel Switzerland for an immersive weekend of architecture during so-called “Open House Basel” in May that includes tours and special architectural programs for enthusiasts.
  • Consider renting a bike to get more efficiently to some architectural highlights that aren’t’ right in the center of town.
  • Hire your own guide for a small group or private walking tour of top modernist architecture. In fact, being with a guide for a short afternoon tour allowed us to get into the theater called the Stadtcasino (“City Casino”)in the Old Town where the exterior belies its glorious, colorful, varied interior.

Basel Stadt Casino Architecture Red Stairs

Get a look at Basel architecture gems in photos

Here is a look in photos at a few of Basel architecture highlights for modernist architecture fans, including a couple that you may not find on many lists of design:

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Greater Basel (“Grossbasel”)

Greater Basel is where many tourists will spend most of their time. This is the side of the river where you find the Old Town, the Cathedral, and many restaurants, plus delightful, narrow winding streets begging to be explored.

Bank for International Settlements, a.k.a Botta Building

This branch of the Bank for International Settlements was designed by Basel-based Mario Botta and became BIS offices in 1999. It is easy to find at Aeschenplatz 1, just a seven-minute walk up from the central Basel train station (Basel SBB).

Mario Botta BIS Building Basel

This building is without corners on the sides facing the square so as not to dominant. The rounded gray façade has angular insets out of which peep windows. The Botta Building is subtle yet so very eye-catching.

Bank for International Settlements, headquarters

This rather sexy curved tower – narrower in the middle — was designed by Martin Burckhardt who was also based in Basel. Adding contrasting interest are the stepped-up floors with green roofs on the lower levels.

Basel Architecture Bank For International Settlements HQ

Dating back to the ‘70s, this BIS building set a standard at the time for centrally located Basel office buildings. It remains an easy treasure to hunt down for Basel architecture fans – set directly across from the Basel SBB central train station.

Stadtcasino

This site in Basel’s central city near the Barfüsser Square where the Stadtcasino (“City Casino”) stands has seen buildings for the last 100+ years intended for community entertainment, from shows to simple gatherings. Its history however has been blemished by construction starts-and-stops, debt, and disagreements. And, no, it is not a casino as in gambling palace, but a casino in the sense of a place for gatherings and entertainment.

Basel Stadt Casino Architecture Chandelier

Finally, in 2016, extension and renovation work began based on studies by Basel-based architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. Re-opened with its new styling in 2020, today’s Stadtcasino is a theater, concert hall, and special event venue. There are tours offered, but the best way for most people to see this beauty is to attend an event. Or have a guide who can get you in for a private look.

Basel Architecture Design Stadt Casino

The sweeping curves of the partly red interior will entice you to follow the stairs up and around. The central core that merges old with new has curves, chandeliers, and shows off some of the formerly exterior walls now on the inside. Don’t miss a visit to the glowing red bathrooms, either!

Basel Modernism Stadt Casino Bathroom

Kunstmuseum Basel (Basel Art Museum)

The city’s art museum has two primary sections – the so-called main building (“Hauptbau”) with an arcade walkway and arches built in 1936, and a new building opened in 2016. The older main section has charm as well as an inner courtyard that hosts special events and an open-air bistro. But it’s the new building, or “Neubau,” across the street that will grab architecture fans.

Basel Architecture Art Museum Old

The open-air bistro and sculptures in the old main section, or Hauptbau, of the Kunstmuseum Basel.

But don’t just look at the rather boxy outside of the new building, albeit glamorous in its own style of modernist architecture. Instead, get yourself inside to the grand lobby area. Yes, you can visit that without a ticket, and yes you can take photos as long as you don’t use a tripod, selfie stick, or flash.

Basel Architecture Kunstmuseum New

The new section was designed by architects Christ & Gantenbein – yes, also based in Basel. Inside, you see stairs and angles that let light in to illuminate the main hall. The square exterior is meant to be reminiscent of ancient ruins, but with narrow elongated bricks to increase the illusion of height and add patterns of shadow and light. A frieze decorating the top seems traditional enough with a modernistic form, but once darkness descends, you see the difference: Embedded LEDs add patterns of light and announce various shows. These buildings are located on Sankt Alban-Graben 16 and 20.

Tinguely Fountain

OK, OK, this isn’t architecture per se, but it is still a built creation – one that allows kids and adults alike to be delighted by its playfulness. Swiss artist Jean Tinguely created this kinetic fountain in 1977. It stands in front of the Swiss Architecture Museum (SAM), which is yet another attraction for architecture fans in Basel and is just a quarter mile from the Art Museum Basel.

Tinguely Fountain Night Play Basel Design

The Tinguely Fountain at Klostergasse 7 is a series of the artist’s kinetic works in a shallow fountain, each moving and splashing, spinning, and turning. All the sculptures appear to be playing in the water.

Basel Tinguely Fountain Sculptures

If you have time, also head to the Tinguely Museum, a building created by Basel architect Mario Botta to showcase the works of Tinguely, and it is an architectural gem in its own right. It is across the river in Lesser Basel. Sadly, we did not have time to get there – nothing like starting the to-do list for next time now!

Lesser Basel (“Kleinbasel“)

This area is across the river and has been transformed in recent years from an industrial center into a lively area with entertainment venues and converted former industrial sites.

Werkraum Warteck

The former Warteck Brewery has been reinvented as a space for cultural projects, entrepreneurs, artists, designers, and eateries. The former brewery opened in 1856 and closed in 1991 soon after it was acquired by a larger brewery (which has since been absorbed by an even larger brewery).

Saving the brewery building to create workspaces and artists’ lofts took a few years, but what really marks this building are the seemingly crazy modern stairs that explode at an angular juxtaposition from the side of the 1900s traditional brick building. They were added in 2014.

Basel bike tour Warteck building

The Warteck stairs at Burgweg 7 were designed by Basel artists Fabian Nichele and Gerhard Paul Rössler (the building was repurposed in design by Diener & Diener).

Basel Exhibition Center

A bit farther away from Old Town on the other side of the river is the awe-inspiring transportation hub at the expo center (Messe Basel) – something architecture fans visiting Basel should not miss. This transit center and shopping area in the center of the exhibition halls is easily accessed and worth spending a little time to watch traffic, lights, and shadows.

Basel Expo Architecture Herzog & De Meuron

The exhibition center was designed (once again) by Basel architects Herzog & De Meuron and opened in 2013. Although a walk around and perhaps also into the Basel Exhibition Center is worth the time, even just taking in the key architectural element of the round portal above the streetcar tracks will satisfy architecture fans. Access that from Messeplatz on Riehenring.

Around Basel

Although Basel is of course in Switzerland, the city doesn’t hesitate to proudly tell travelers and architecture fans to visit areas that are in the suburbs or in neighboring Germany – in part due to Swiss ties and Swiss architects involved in projects there.

Fondation Beyeler

The Beyeler Foundation sits in a suburb of Basel called Riehen, nearly at the border to Germany at Baselstrasse 101. Housing the art collection of the Beyeler Family, the modernist building was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who also did for example the Price Waterhouse Cooper Towers on Potsdamer Square in Berlin during reconstruction after the wall fell.

Beyeler Park Basel bike tour

The single-level building is actually sunken slightly into the ground to merge architecture with the landscape and allows a pond to flow from outside to under roof elements. The museum opened in 1997.

Vitra Design Campus

If you love architecture and like to visit buildings designed by internationally acclaimed architects, then the Vitra Design Campus should be on your list – even though technically it is in Germany at Charles-Eames-Strasse 2 in Weil am Rhein.

This campus was founded in 1981 and covers more than 60 acres. It is a sprawling homage to great architects from around the world, all allowed to indulge in projects scattered across the grounds in Germany.

Basel Architecture Vitra Design Frank Gehry

Vitra Design Museum at the Vitra Campus

Find works from some of the world’s greatest, including Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, and Herzog & de Meuron. Forget the concept of a museum; this is truly a campus with exhibit halls, winding paths, production workshops, cafes under the trees, outdoor sculptures, and so much more.

Basel Architecture Vitra Haus Herzo & De Meuron

VitraHaus at the Vitra Design Campus

You really do need most of a day to take in what this campus has to offer, including a visit to the VitraHaus, pictured above, which is a combination museum and Vitra furniture showroom, designed by Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron and completed in 2010. Also, take a look at or in the Vitra Design Museum, completed in 1989 by Frank Gehry, and the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid, done in 1991. Even the so-called Vitra Schaudepot across from the bistro at Place Jean Prouve catches the eye with its modern minimalism.

Vitra Design Campus SchauDepot Minimalism

Minimalist architecture at the Vitra Schaudepot on the Vitra Campus

We also particularly enjoyed the outdoor sculptures, offering playful surprises along a path that was added more recently and winds through the campus.

Three countries bridge

Not a building but still a sleek, superlative design: Get yourself down the Rhine River to the Three Countries Bridge, in itself a great walk, run, or bike along riverside paths. This bridge, opened in 2007, has an overall length of 814 feet and is the longest single-span pedestrian bridge in the world.

Three Countries Bridge Basel Architecture

Within a couple of minutes, you can go from Basel’s outskirts to Germany (Weil am Rhein) to France (Huningue). Think of the gastronomic possibilities: From fondue and cheese, to beer and pretzels, to croissants and wine!

Seems like a lot for a short visit to Basel? Ah, but I have just scratched the surface of what can be found this city. I have included just nine architectural sites for modernist fans (with some sites including several structures each).

So much architecture, so little time. Looks like I need to get back to Basel soon on another architectural treasure hunt.

 

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