The Rise of the Cultural Mile in the 19th Century and its Urban Demolition in the 20th Century
In the course of the 19th century, the town fortifications and the adjoining buildings of the former Barfüsser and St. Magdalen Convents were demolished, making room for what we would now call a cultural mile along the southern fringe of Basel’s Old Town. This development was strongly influenced by the urban and architectural vision of those times.
The casino (1826) and the Blömlein Theater (1831), built according to plans by Melchior Berri, were followed in the second half of the 19th century by several important buildings. Designed in the neobaroque style by Johann Jakob Stehlin, they were situated between Barfüsserplatz and St. Alban-Graben and included the Kunsthalle (1872), the Stadttheater (1875), the Musiksaal (1876), the Steinenschulhaus (1877) and the Skulpturenhalle (1887).
In 1938 the old casino was torn down to make way for a new one, designed by the architects Kehlstadt & Brodtbeck. When the old Stadttheater was demolished in 1969, the resulting gap created a plaza for the new Stadttheater, thus definitively heralding the end of the former cultural mile. Of the original buildings, only the Kunsthalle, the Skulpturenhalle and the Musiksaal have survived.
A new building project designed to replace the casino built in 1938 was defeated in a plebiscite of 2007. The project by Zaha Hadid had won first prize in an architectural competition but was rejected by the people, primarily because of its heavy massing. A few years later, in 2012, we were commissioned to do an urban study to determine how the limited space available could be reorganized to accommodate ancillary facilities for the historical Musiksaal of 1876 (lobby, building, cloakroom). The first phase of these efforts focused on the Musiksaal as one of the oldest and most important concert halls in Europe. It is the resident concert hall of the Basel Symphony Orchestra and also hosts symphony concerts by the renowned Basel Chamber Orchestra and Sinfonietta. With seating for 1500 people, it is internationally acclaimed for its exceptional acoustics. However, when the hall was built in 1876, service facilities were severely curtailed due to budget constraints. This issue was partially resolved in 1938 by tacking extensions onto the structure. Today it has become quite a challenge for the cramped facilities with their petty bourgeois atmosphere to meet the needs of a contemporary concert hall. To ensure the future of this invaluable venue for music, urgent structural renovation and repairs are necessary as well as indispensable expansion to include a spacious lobby and backstage facilities for performers and other technical services.
The Musiksaal by Stehlin
We explored a number of possibilities and variations for generating more space to house the additional facilities required for the Musiksaal. We focused on the area between the Musiksaal and the Barfüsser Church. Having been overbuilt with a cloister in the Middle Ages, it was cleared for architectural modifications by the Department of Historic Preservation. Initially we proposed extensions to the building between Barfüsser Church and the Musiksaal in analogy to the former cloisters but soon jettisoned the idea on urban, architectural and operational grounds. The Stehlin Musiksaal was brilliantly conceived as a palazzo and any attempt to add on to the building invariably looked like ridiculous patchwork. Similar to the annex from 1938, the extension facing the church would have been perceived as being behind the building – inferior to the façade facing Steinenberg.
The only solution that persuaded us involved treating the Musiksaal as an autonomous building, uncoupled from the 1938 casino. This autonomous structure obviously had to be bigger than the existing core building of 1876. It would have to grow out of the old building as if it had always been there. That is why it was so important to design the addition, accommodating foyer, service facilities and dressing rooms, so that it would appear, at least at first sight, to be in the same neobaroque architectural tradition. Our design is based on the rear façade of Stehlin’s building, which is currently still largely hidden behind the old extensions. We would render the façade digitally and reconstruct it to original scale.
The enlargement of the building, directly adjoining the concert hall, generates space on several levels for foyers and bars as well as dressing rooms and service facilities. The Hans-Huber-Saal for chamber concerts will be preserved and in future also accessed directly from the new foyers. By separating the operations of the concert hall and the casino, which also means removing the current staircase and entrance, there will once again be a direct connection between Steinenberg and Barfüsserplatz in the form of a lane, where carriages once pulled up prior to the demolition of the Berri building and the erection of the new Stadtcasino in 1938. In this way, the Musiksaal will be oriented both toward the former Steinenberg cultural mile and the Barfüsserplatz. The Musiksaal will then be firmly located on Barfüsserplatz, sharing the space as an equal with the mighty Barfüsser Church. A new public space will be generated in the area between the Church and Musiksaal, which is now a rear courtyard and at best used as a pissoir. However, this volumetric recovery of urban space draws attention to other weaknesses that must be addressed, such as the 1938 casino and the design of Barfüsserplatz with its tram stop. In this context we have made some initial thoughts.
Today’s Barfüsserplatz bears the result of numerous urban changes and interventions. Since the Middle Ages, the slight topographic gradient of the Birsig River has been repeatedly adapted to meet changing needs: with its the small bridges, overpasses, retaining walls, stairs and tram shelters, the square has become a favourite spot for the people of Basel. In connection with the expansion of the Musiksaal, we suggest refashioning the site to emphasize both the original topography (the elevated situation above the Birsig River) and the city lying below. In 1936 part of the square was lowered and outdoor steps were added in 1979. The difference in level toward Streitgasse could absorb the function and volume of today’s tram shelter. The latter could then be torn down, at long last affording a view of the lower level of the Barfüsserplatz with its medieval buildings, like the Bodega zum Strauss or the Braune Mutz, which are so characteristic of Basel. What’s more, by restoring part of the Birsig River, covered over in the Middle Ages, a fountain could be erected in the middle of the square.
A Music Centre of the 21st Century
The expansion of the Stehlin Musiksaal of the 19th century will create a site of symphony concerts and chamber music for the city of today. In a second phase, the casino of 1938 could be remodelled or rebuilt into a venue for New Music, while the Barfüsser Church would be ideal for sacred music. Barfüsserplatz would in future become a centre of music in the heart of the city, flanked by the music academy, theatre and playhouse.
Herzog & de Meuron, 2014