Zurich is known as the ‘capital’ of chocolate, clock making, banking, and gold and diamond markets, but what caught our attention first were the benches, the swans on the River Limmat, which flows through the city and into Lake Zurich, and the hundreds of bicycles arrayed alongside the Opera House. Zurich is a city with a youthful yet serene atmosphere, where old and young, past and present, co-exist in harmony. From the Zoo comes the sound of children’s voices exclaiming in excitement, contrasting with the mournful silence of the adjoining cemetery where two significant literary figures, James Joyce and Elias Canetti, lie side by side. Zurich is often capped by cloud-filled skies, but whenever the sun comes out and the weather is warm enough, people flock to the parks to sunbathe and to the lake for a swim. While the sun gently tans their skin it also lights up Chagall’s stained glass window in Fraumunster Cathedral with rays of glowing color; the greens reminiscent of spring and summer, and the bright reds, yellows, and browns recalling autumn as brilliant as a spangled evening gown.
Zurich smiles upon the world amidst trees, meadows and flowers, and no one casts a shadow over anyone else, even though four languages are spoken here. The people of Zurich adore colour, both natural and created. When you stop in the centre of the bustling railway station and look up, you will see one of Niki de Saint Phalle’s colourful statues of plump women, wafted on golden angel’s wings. In the streets, musicians play accordions, flutes, and violins, and passers-by toss money into small boxes on the pavement in front of them. Artistic street entertainment also attracts attention in other ways. Three years ago statues of cows filled the streets, painted and designed in bewildering diversity, but this year the latest project to transform Zurich is rainbow-coloured benches, which unlike the cows are functional as well as decorative. The amazing benches are to be found not only in the streets, but besides the lake, in railway stations, at museum entrances, on pedestrian walks, and in front of shops.
It is planned to install 1075 such benches by the end of the year. They have been constructed from the thousands of trees that were uprooted by the Lothar hurricane which struck Switzerland on 26 December 1999. Sponsors and local authorities have commissioned artists to design the benches, and it is hard to choose which to describe. Some have holes in the back and poking your head through, you become a fierce pirate or a geisha girl! A man sits reading on a bench covered with pictures of chocolate, and another sits on what looks like a blue suitcase covered with travel labels from different cities. You can sit next to a sandcastle on a bench whose edges are carved in the form of waves. Should you sit on a bench adorned with hearts and roses, on one showing an underwater scene, another with teary eyes, or one like a cigar case? While passers-by look in astonishment at a dragon on one bench, a pair of lovers gaze around them from another shaped like a king’s throne. Tourists queue up to sit on a bench beside the statue of a mermaid with a blue tail, and many go from bench to bench taking snaps of one another. Where else would they get the chance to be photographed between flying clouds, on a giant shoe, or perched in front of the large breasts of a woman with a necklace? Some of the benches reflect the business of the shops and offices behind them. In front of telecommunications, company building is the statue of a spaceman talking into a phone. On a red bench in front of a bookshop sits a statue of a man in a white suit reading a book, and on it are painted the names of Hugo, Aytmatov, Eco, Dickens, and other famous writers. In front of the hotel named The Stork is a bench in the shape of a stork’s nest containing an egg, with a pair of storks standing beside it, and painted with a map showing the migration routes of storks, including that stretching across Turkey from the Canakkale Strait to Iskenderun.
When you visit Zurich the post-modern mood of these benches will captivate you, and whenever you feel tired you will look around for another startling bench to rest on and let your imagination soar.