Our research into Basel’s urban core began with historical depictions of its public squares. Drawings show a city that was activated by pedestrians and plazas that were the centers of public life. However, photographs taken in their current condition tell a much different story of these plazas. Fischmarkt has become the site of a major tram loop; Schifflände, once a gateway for the city across the Mittlere Rheinbrücke , is now a void; and Blumenplatz has completely ceased to exist. All the primary streets have become overly widened to accommodate the massive amounts of transit lines that flow through the area. Spiegelstrasse in particular has become one of the widest streets in Basel with two lanes of car traffic, two tram lines, tram parking and large modernist buildings on both sides. The entire area, once the heart of the city, has become a place for moving people through, instead of a place for people to be. These observations lead us to formulate a new vision for the site; one that would reverse the destructive trends of the last 150 years and recapture many of the defining qualities of the historical city. These qualities include: greater pedestrian usage of the public squares as can be seen during special events such as Fasnacht, when the city center is closed off to pedestrian traffic; narrower, more pedestrian-scaled streets as can be seen between the historical blocks surrounding our site; and layers of semi-private and private access for area residents that learn from the residential courtyards within the existing city blocks.
Clearly defining the historic public plazas was the first goal of the project and its primary urban scaled gesture. It became quickly apparent that the pedestrian quality we were seeking for these spaces was closely tied to transportation issues at a much large scale. We then took this as an opportunity to zoom out and look at the larger system of walls and networks that are at work in the city and directly affect the shaping of our site. The Medieval wall, built some 300 years later, helped create restricted access to the densest parts of the city. The three major train stations along with the railway lines and autobahns that connect the stations to each other and to the rest of Europe for a new virtual wall around the city. Though these major train lines and highways are kept out of the city center, another layer of major roadways and local tram lines connect this outer loop to all parts of the inner city. Unfortunately, most of these roadways and tram lines cut right through the heart of the city center creating the anti-pedestrian zone we have today at Schifflände, Blumenplatz and Fischmarkt. The Herzstück 2020 aims to create a new underground rail line connecting the three train stations, and will drastically reduce the need for surface tram lines. This effort will allow for the realization of our vision to create pedestrian only plazas in a 15 minute walking radius surrounding the city center. In effect, this strategy will reinstate a singular transit path, as was the case back in the 1800s, allowing for the existence of more clearly defined public spaces.
The second goal was to create pedestrian scale streets. The Loeffelplan of 1857 shows an uninterrupted, densely-scaled city – it shows a clearly defined Fischmarkt and Blumenplatz, open channels to the Birsig, and two narrow streets flanking a city block where the singular Spiegelgasse now exists. The first correction plan in 1905 begun to widen the roadways to allow for new tram lines. This map also shows the disappearance of an entire city block, the shaping of the new singular island block to the north of Fischmarkt, and the covering of the Birsig. By 1940, the new island block is almost fully formed, the Kantonalbank has moved to its new location on Spiegelstrasse, and massive regions of former individual houses have been removed to make way for a wider Blumenrain and the new Spiegelhof. Lastly, the current condition, shown on the 2000 map, shows the complete impact of the widened streets, single-building blocks and transit pattern looping through Fischmarkt and the former Blumenplatz.
The existence of private space, being essential to our third goal of recreating layers of publicity and privacy, was first analyzed and the scale of the block. It is easily apparent that the more historic blocks have a porosity of building mass and a tightness of individual parcel size that is slowly lost over the years. The next phase of analysis categorized the three different types of voids within the city block (private courtyards, semi-private courtyards and public recesses) and compared their formation across various examples in the medieval city. The final stage of analysis looked at the even finer grain of the individual house making up these city blocks. There, a consistent language of solid-void relationships, vertical circulation and party walls was observed and later emulated within the proposed housing blocks.
The new proposal attempts to reverse many of the trends seen at each of these three scales of analysis, creating a new interpretation of layered private spaces.
The main results of the analysis and research stage were the summarized goals for the site: new public space, new street scale and new private space definition. It become evident that adding new building mass and volume to an area stripped of much of its built form in a critically specific manner was necessary.