A quick gimpse of the Rathaus One of Basel's most iconic buildings

Issue: spring 2013
The Rathaus is one of Basel's most iconic buildings. As well as being a major tourist attraction in Basel, it continues to have an influential role on life in the city.

Around 1503 a decision was made that would alter Basel's skyline and give the city one of its most recognisable landmarks. As part of the efforts to mark the occasion of Basel joining the Swiss Confederation the old Town Hall was replaced with a new structure – the Rathaus. 

The new town hall's location was important as it was distinct from the Münster area, which was the base of the former ruler of the city, the Prince-Bishop. The red coloured, lavishly decorated Rathaus we see today represents several stages of building that took place over centuries. Initial construction took place between 1504 and 1514 according to designs by the architect Ruman Faesch. The three arched entrances are from this era. Extensions were added over the next seven years, which included an Assembly Hall.

In 1521, the artist Hans Holbein the Younger was commissioned to decorate the Assembly Hall (fifteen years later he was making his mark in England as King's painter at the Court of Henry VIII).

In the 1600s additional extensions in a Gothic style were added in order to house the Front Chambers.

In the 1800s Basel's growing prosperity and power necessitated additional administrative buildings to be developed. This led to the building of the tower, which proved to be controversial because of its height. It took a public vote to resolve the issue before construction could commence.

By 1904 the building was mostly in its present form with a new Assembly Hall having been built. Some people consider the Rathaus to have an austere look but it is richly decorated inside. When entering the building one of the most visible features is the Roman statue in the courtyard. This figure represents Lucius Munatius Plancus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, and the founder of the Roman city of Augusta Raurica not far from Basel and also the city of Lyon in France. Not everyone remembers him with such affection, with one Roman historian allegedly describing him guilty, among other things, of "cowardice, military incompetence, immorality and treachery".

Basel's patrons, the Emperor Heinrich II and his wife Kunigunde of Luxembourg, feature prominently on the building with this being most apparent near the clock. The theme of law and order dominates many of the paintings on the interior and exterior facade of the town hall, with Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice, appearing in one scene over the Front Chambers.

The exterior facade also features heraldry of confederation members and associate cantons and various historic and legendary figures. In case there was any doubt, the inscription on the balcony Hie Schweiz Grund und Boden (here begins Swiss land) served as a reminder to Deputies due to take up their oath.

While the Rathaus is a major tourist attraction in Basel, it is important to remember that it continues to play an influential role in Basel's political scene. Over time various parts of Basel's administration have been moved elsewhere, but the Chancellery, the Parliamentary Services and parts of the Department of Presidential Affairs continue to be located and functional within the Rathaus.

The Cantonal Parliament, which is the legislative body, meets twice a month for debates in the assembly Hall and the seven-person Cantonal Government also meets here every Tuesday.

A guided tour of the Rathaus is available every Thursday at 18:00. Details are posted on the gates outside the Rathaus or visit www.basel.ch for more details.

Photo:Faiz Kermani

Author: Faiz Kermani

Originally from the UK, I live in Alsace but work in Basel in the pharmaceutical sector. I'm also on the Basel committee of the British-Swiss Chamber of Commerce. Outside the day job I have many interests. I'm part of the PR team for Centrepoint (www.centrepoint.ch) and am President of the Global Health Education Foundation (www.globalhef.org), a US-based not-for-profit healthcare charity which aims to improve healthcare in developing countries. For fun I also write children's books and have won a few awards (www.faizkermani.com)

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