The clock is more than a hackneyed symbol of Swiss innovation or the nation’s obsession with time. In Zurich it figures as an element in the landscape of design, joining other notable contributions—from Le Corbusier and the Helvetica typeface to the famed Swiss Army Knife—that this small country has offered to the world of aesthetics. It appears as finely crafted timepieces displayed like trophies along Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s renowned banking and shopping thoroughfare where millions are discreetly deposited and indiscreetly spent. Clocks preside over train and tram stations and from the facades of office buildings and church steeples rising like sentinels above the old quarter. Time may rule Zurich’s residents, but it also symbolizes the intriguing dynamic between the city’s history and modernity.
Each year, Zurich tops surveys ranking the world’s most livable cities, owing to its small size and population of fewer than 400,000 living and drinking off glacier-fed Lake Zurich. It’s a place where gray-suited bankers might dance barefoot on summer evenings inone of several waterfront bathhouses and where wealth attracts contemporary art, positioning Zurich as a major hub in its global trade.
The Argentina-born Alfredo Häberli, a 44-year-old industrial designer, represents the city’s high creative output as well as its growing cosmopolitanism. His interiors and products appear the world over, and in June, Zurich’s Museum of Design honored him with a retrospective, a rarity for a living designer. He takes us through his adopted hometown proudly showing off the Swiss one ought not miss.
Zurich is known for having a high quality of living, but maybe not the most exciting kind of life. Would you say Zurich is misunderstood?
Yes, totally. I can say this because I am not from here. Zurich is very exciting, attracting more young people and more foreigners. You have more galleries per capita here than any other city in the world, after New York; you have very nice museums, restaurants, and boutiques; and Zurich offers nature at your doorstep. We are also really strong on creativity. Of course we have our architects like Le Corbusier, Mario Botta, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, based in Basel, but we also have a very nice art movement, which is why Art Basel is so strong. We have musicians, as well, but nobody knows it! You will never hear from a Swiss "We are great." Never. That’s why if an Italian wants to compare his muscles, he does it with the German or the French.
Is there any area in the city that represents this excitement and change?
Zurich West [also called Kreis 4]. The industry is there and so is art. Everything is there. The highest building in Zurich, and in Switzerland, from Gigon/Guyer, will be built there. There are new apartments, lofts, and cinemas in old factories. Schiffbau is a theater known in all of Europe, with a good restaurant inside called LaSalle. It’s in a glass box. Nice aesthetic. Another is Rosso, in an old factory. The pizza is good. It’s next to the Freitag Tower, where Freitag sells its bags made from recycled signage.
You alluded to Zurich’s emerging multiculturalism. Where is that happening?
Langstrasse. This area was contaminated, and still is, with prostitutes and drugs, but it’s a very interesting mix of different people. My employees all live there. There’s a good restaurant at the end of Langstrasse, called J.O.S.E.F. There is also a Swiss restaurant named Seidenspinner. The owner produces the most exclusive silk fabric—Gaultier and Yves St. Laurent, they all buy from him—and he opened a restaurant for, like, his friends.
What are your favorite architectural landmarks here?
I love the Heidi Weber House, the last house that Le Corbusier built. But nobody knows about it! It’s owned by an eccentric woman who made a lot of money as an interior architect, became a fan of his, and wanted to build a pavilion for him to promote his philosophy. She has one of the biggest calligraphy and painting collections of his in the world. She produced all of his furniture—the lounge furniture, the LC2, LC7, the cube. The house reminds me a little bit of a ship. The size is very human. Rainwater collects on the roof and comes down into the pond, and the ceiling plays with the reflection from the pond. He separated the roof from the house. There is a terrace in between—fantastic! The handles and tables inside have very organic shapes. I brought [British industrial designer] Jasper Morrison here and he sat outside sketching it. The house is Le Corbusier’s first and only house in steel—he was working a lot in concrete. It’s the only one in Zurich. Le Corbusier came from the French part of Switzerland and built a lot here, but then he got fed up with the way of thinking so he went to Paris, where he opened his studio.
Do you find there to be a particularly Swiss way of thinking?
It’s the precision. We like the mechanical, punctuality. Of course, coming from Argentina it was a shock. The Swiss, in general, plan the future too much sometimes, so they are not really alive. They know exactly what they will do at 60. And this is not sexy. But Zurich is not like that. Here you can have the sexiness. I think as designers or architects, the Swiss are more in the direction of invention, of engineering, than shape. Sometimes you see in the city they just want to do the best and play it straight. You see this sometimes in the benches, or the design of the bins—it’s too much. It’s not sexy. It’s too mental. It’s not stomach. Le Corbusier was able to do both.
Are there any museums or artistic exhibitions that visitors should be sure to see?
Kunsthaus, of course. Also the Museum of Design Zurich. This is one of the most beautiful and typical buildings from the 1930s. It was renovated about ten years ago and has a terrace with a nice view over the city. The Zurich University of the Arts for design, graphics, and jewelry, which is where I studied, is also there. The foyer is also a good place to stop and have a sandwich. The whole place has a really nice atmosphere. Löwenbräu-Areal, in a building that was formerly a brewery in the Kreis 5 neighborhood, is a good place for contemporary art. It has a few museums and several galleries. The best bookstore for art books, Kunstgriff, is also there. One of my favorite restaurants, Kronenhalle, was started by Mrs. Zumsteg of one of Zurich’s oldest silk families. They own the whole house, and during the Second World War, Picasso, Cézanne, Braque—all the artists and writers—were here, in neutral Switzerland. She gave them food and a room to sleep, and they paid in paintings. So all the paintings are around the restaurant. The menu is still the same—they’ve never changed it! Next door is the Kronenhalle Bar. All the tables and lamps are done by the brother of Alberto Giacometti. You should also go see the Chagall windows at Fraumünster Church.
Can you recommend any bathhouses?
I think the best would be Seebad Enge. It was done in the 1960s. On a nice day you can see, at the end of the lake, the most beautiful mountains you can imagine. When you are there you have the city to your back. It looks like a postcard. Frauenbad is another bath but only for women. The bath feeling in Zurich is very nice in summer. In one you have a sauna, in another a restaurant, and in another they show movies.
I’ll spare you a question about the cuckoo clocks, but where is the best place to find chocolate?
I love Confiserie Sprüngli, at Paradeplatz. And the coffee on the first floor is fantastic.
Touring Zurich with the charismatic Argentina-born designer Alfredo Häberli was, reports Berkeley-based writer Andy Isaacson, like witnessing the city through the eye of a Latin aesthete: "Häberli described many things in terms of sexiness. The design of Zurich's benches, he'd say, wasn't that sexy. The Swiss tendency for overplanning also wasn't sexy. A long commute to work? Not sexy. I've never heard someone qualify a commute by it's sex appeal."