Swiss-born, Tuscan resident Katja Meier delights us with a modern take on Basel in this guest post… just in time for Art Basel (June 14-17, 2012)

In the early 90s I spent a year working at two of Basel’s theaters. These were my first jobs after graduating from Zurich University of the Arts, and whenever I had a free moment I hopped on a train to Zurich. Basel was nice, but far too provincial for a freshly graduated actress like me. Nearly 20 years later, on my yearly visit to Switzerland, I now normally go to Basel, not Zurich. It may have to do with the fact that I’ve outgrown my youth’s arrogant attitude. But mainly, Basel has changed.

Alexander Calder The Tree, 1966 Painted steel, Fondation Beyeler, Photo: T. Dix

Three prime art and design museums have been built in and around Basel in the last two decades. And every year for a few days in June the Swiss city turns into Europe’s main art hub with gallery owners, artists and art collectors flying in from every continent to visit Art Basel – the world’s biggest and most important fair of modern and contemporary art. However, unless you need a new piece for your living room, you may want to visit during one of the 51 weeks of the year that Basel’s splendid museums are a little less busy.

Fondation Beyeler by Renzo Piano – Pathway to bliss

Fondation Beyeler, built by the Italian architect Renzo Piano Photo: Mark Niedermann

Museums are to the art lover, what a church is to the religious. This may be the reason why Ernst and Hilda Beyeler worked closely with Italian star-architect Renzo Piano to create an appropriate home for their important collection of modern and contemporary art and African sculptures. The Beyeler’s didn’t come to riches with chocolate, banking or watch making. The Swiss couple ran one of the world’s most sought after art galleries. Not surprisingly Ernst Beyeler was also co-founder of the Art Basel.

Comfy couches, photo flickr @leonl

Whenever I visit the Fondation Beyeler, I start by taking a seat. Forget usually hard and minimalistic museum benches. In the beautiful room dedicated to Monet’s Water-lily Pond I lounge on a comfortable white sofa and feel like I’ve been invited over for a private viewing. The building, Monet’s masterpiece and the real water lily pond right in front of the glass wall don’t compete but form a perfect circle. Once you’ve sat down in this heavenly space, you’ll want to stay on for the rest of the day. But with Giacometti, Picasso, Warhol and co. just around the corner you better get up again.

Following the concept that a museum is the convergence of art, architecture and nature, a long and narrow winter garden forms part of the building. Generous sofas here too. I have seen people falling asleep on them. No, not because of those museum viruses called exhaustion and boredom. But because of a state called bliss. No need for Zen meditation if you can visit Fondation Beyeler: take in art and architecture, observe the landscape and let yourself be transported to a better world.

Tinguely Museum by Mario Botta – Bring the kids!

During the time that Renzo Piano doodled for the Beyeler’s, world-famous Swiss architect Mario Botta started to lay down the first bricks for a museum dedicated to artist Jean Tinguely (there must have been something in the air in Basel in the mid 90s).

Again art and architecture are equal players. And the surroundings – Basel’s city center – are a main ingredient here too. Interestingly water and museums seem to have a strong link. Recently Alexandra wrote on this blog about the Chagall fountain at the Fondation Maeght, and I just mentioned Fondation Beyeler’s stunning lily pond. At the Tinguely museum the element is at its most natural. Botta’s building is built on the shore of the river Rhine, which divides the city of Basel in two halves. No sofas here to take in the view, but two beautiful chairs by Tinguely’s second wife Niki de Saint-Phalle.

tinguely museum
Chairs by Niki de Saint Phalle in the Tinguely museum

Museums in general and art museums in particular work great with kids (as long as you know how to approach museums with kids). However it’s true that some of them are more welcoming to lively youngsters than others. If you worry about Fondation Beyeler’s spotless white sofas in connection with your kids’ shoes –  skip it and head right to the Tinguely museum. The Swiss artist didn’t build his eccentric machine sculptures for children. But they work heaven on them. In fact you may have a hard time getting their foot off the prominent red on and off button.

The red button.

Vitra Campus – World-class architects

A dozen buildings by some of the world’s most admired architects can be visited in a nondescript German town 15 minutes from Basel. No need to book flights to New York, Berlin and London. Take a bus to Weil am Rhein to visit Vitra Campus, a sort of upper class Disneyland for architecture aficionados. Frank Gehry designed Vitra’s Design Museum, Zaha Hadid the factory’s fire station, Tadao Ando the conference center, and on it goes. Even small secondary structures like the bus stop are designed by no lesser than Jasper Morrison and ah yes, the petrol station is by Jean Prouvé.

But what is it all about? If you’re a furniture design lover you already know. In fact you’re probably reading me whilst sitting on a Panton chair. Vitra is the name of a Swiss furniture company, which has superb design written in its genes. In 1981 its production space in Southern Germany burnt down. Watching what came of it, one is tempted to call it a stroke of luck.

The latest add-on to Vitra Campus is Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus, a fabulously ironic take on suburbia’s architecture which serves as generous showroom for the label’s furniture. After years of risking my relationship by forcing my partner to spend entire Sundays at IKEA, we’ve finally found common ground. Shopping at Vitra feels like spending the day at a design hotel. Compared to the Swedes, prices are steep, but once you’ve observed the making of the famous Eames Lounge Chair live at Vitra Campus, you’ll understand why.

Kunstmuseum Basel – a step back in time

If you need a break from modern art and contemporary design, head back into town to visit Basel’s Kunstmuseum. The city’s official fine art museum sports the world’s largest collection of works by the Holbein family (Holbein the Older and Holbein the Younger). I was obviously mistaken in my youth. Basel has had a cosmopolitan approach to the arts long before I, or any of the archistars came to town.

Travel Resources

ART BASEL  every year in June. This year’s dates are June 14-17 2012.

FONDATION BEYLER  Open every day, 10am– 6pm, Wednesdays 10 am – 8pm. The museum is open on all public holidays. Special opening times during Art Basel.

MUSEUM TINGUELY Tuesday to Sunday 11am – 6pm, special opening times on public holidays.

VITRA CAMPUS daily from 10am – 6pm; closed: Dec 24/25/31 and Jan 1st.

KUNSTMUSEUM BASEL Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 6pm.

How to get there: Closest airport is Euroairport, which is great for economic flights from European destinations. For intercontinental flights check out Zurich Airport just over an hour from Basel.

Basel Tourism offers a special deal, combining hotel room booking, public transport ticket and entrance fee to the Fondation Beyeler: see the Fondation Beyeler Package.

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