What the Swiss miss – and gain

Image of Tyler Brûlé

In the absence of summer in the UK, I decided instead to work from our company’s Zürich office this week. After the heat and humidity of Bangkok and Tokyo, the fresh air and crisp breeze in Zürich on Sunday was most welcome. When I departed Tokyo it was 29C at 7am. When I touched down in Zürich, a rain shower had just passed, the sun was out and it was a perfect 21C. Agreeable weather aside, it’s always a jolt arriving in Zürich on a Sunday.

Switzerland’s stubborn refusal to embrace more liberal shopping laws (having shops open at train stations and being able to buy milk at petrol stations ranks neither as progressive nor particularly convenient) makes Sundays feel like they used to feel in most of the world – lifeless, limited and a bit stifling. While there was a bit of extra buzz because of an iron-man competition, the funfair spinning around in front of the Opera didn’t seem like much of a diversion for locals and visitors who were wandering the streets looking for something to do. So for a moment I started to question why we awarded Zürich the number one spot in Monocle’s recent quality of life survey, as this ongoing curb on consumerism is not only an inconvenience, it’s wholly outdated. Or is it?

As the church bells started to ring from the old town, I considered the joys of a day of rest for (almost) all. As I wandered about town I flip-flopped back and forth on the topic and went to bed still questioning the merits of convenience versus a Sunday shutdown.

On Monday I stepped out of the hotel to go for an early run along the lake. The weather was a welcome contrast to the suffocating heat of running around Tokyo’s Hiroo district. As I wandered back to the hotel through the neighbourhood of Seefeld, I studied the sturdy architecture, the clean streets and the commuters pedalling to work. Most of the buildings along Dufourstrasse are a mix of residential and office blocks, with shops and showrooms along the bottom. The offices seem to have a disproportionately high number of doctors and mini-advertising agencies while the retail spaces have an equally high number of hair salons.

At a little before 8am, most of the buildings had yet to come to life. Through the waist-high windows, two men were busy working on what looked like a solid piece of walnut. They were standing in the middle of a neat, well-stocked workshop full of timber, saws, sanding machines, vices and plenty of other tools. I noticed that the Schreinerei (joiner’s workshop) stretched well into the next block and that there were liveried vehicles parked side by side, and men in neat overalls running around prepping for the day ahead. In isolation, there was nothing particularly unique about this little enterprise. In the context of one of the city’s more expensive neighbourhoods, it was both refreshing and slightly surprising to see a bit of light industry sharing space with plastic surgeons (also light industry, perhaps), lawyers and film production studios.

As I made my way to the office that morning, I noticed more workshops and ateliers scattered throughout the city – all sharing space with more conventional businesses that one associates with the urban core.

A couple of hours later, I had the good fortune to meet the city of Zürich’s chief of planning and development while co-hosting a radio show. My colleague asked her about the city’s planning regulations and whether there was a danger that the ateliers and studios were in danger of being forced out of the centre by rising prices and a severe housing squeeze. I half-expected her to say that housing was more important and that God created suburbs for light industry but, instead, she said it was absolutely essential to maintain this mix of businesses, with the jobs they create, as part of the urban fabric. “We need to have interesting pockets and businesses scattered throughout Zürich to make it work,” she said.

The next morning I followed the same running route, my eyes darting around looking for these pockets. Aside from spying more businesses that focused on bending metal, shaping glass and polishing wood, I also noted a new children’s park designed for parents as much as children, gleaming public toilets that didn’t demand an upfront payment and small kiosks rented out to private operators to dispense coffee and refreshments. At midday, under cloudless skies, I visited one of Zürich’s latest displays of inspired urban planning: the freshly renovated swimming pavilion at Unterer Letten. Along the fast-flowing canal, hundreds of people were stretched out on perfectly angled wooden loungers. Close by, a kiosk was serving Mexican dishes for lunch, and free books were on offer nearby. The changing rooms featured perfectly crafted wooden lockers and the off-cuts had been used to create a little box for storing ashtrays. The best bit? It was all completely free for residents and visitors. Better still, no one had to lock up their bike.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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