BY Max Glauner in Profiles | 06 AUG 12
Featured in
Issue 6

Something Brewing in Zurich

The future of Zurich’s Löwenbrau Complex – with its mix of public institutions and commercial galleries – is finally secure after two years of redevelopment at the site

BY Max Glauner in Profiles | 06 AUG 12

Entrance to Löwenbräu area with new increase (Photograph: Thomas Zwyssig)

The Löwenbräu Complex – Switzerland’s most important international location for contemporary art – has been saved. The Kunsthalle Zürich, the Migros Museum für Gegenwarts­kunst, Hauser & Wirth and Gallery Bob van Orsouw – which had originally settled in the 19th-century brewery complex in 1996 – have all returned to the site after spending two years in temporary premises while restoration and construction work was being carried out. Although Eva Presenhuber still has an exhibition space at the Löwenbräu, her main gallery has moved to the nearby Maag Complex, as has Peter Kilchmann’s; the Daros Collection will also not be returning. Their absence leaves space inside the old walls for new players, including Freymond-Guth Fine Arts and Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation.

The Löwenbräu Complex owed part of its success to the openness which resulted from the provisional nature of the site. From the outset, tenants were not expected to stay indefinitely. In 2010, the success story seemed to be over as rapidly rising real estate prices in the industrial quarter threatened this unique mix of museums and galleries. A solution came at the eleventh hour: In March 2011, the City of Zurich agreed to participate in the creation of Löwenbräu-Kunst AG, a joint-stock company owned equally by the city, Kunsthalle Zürich and the Migros Museum. Without this solution, Zurich’s fifth district would have become commercial, except for the Schauspielhaus Zürich in the former shipbuilding factory Schiffbau.

The new balance of power between art location and property investment is clear in the redevelopment, with a 70-metre luxury apartment tower currently rising over the site. In the courtyard, where there used to be workshops and a theatre hall, the future probably belongs to residents driving their Maseratis into the underground garage. Zurich architects Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer took a more modest approach for the complex’s western wing; the only intervention visible from the outside is an extra storey in unclad concrete that sits atop the yellow brick façade, somewhat like the head of foam on a glass of beer. The entrance feels strangely tentative. A large gateway beside a small public entrance leads through a new wing into the complex’s second courtyard; there are large windows offering views into the new foyer with its staircase zigzagging through three storeys. Surely a more inviting entrance could have been created? Other possibilities were discussed, Guyer explains, ‘but the existing structure took priority.’

This decision can also be read as pragmatism, which is the magic word behind the Löwenbräu Complex’s rise to the status of an international art hub. This success was by no means a foregone conclusion, since Zurich never fully recovered from the 16th-century iconoclasm of Ulrich Zwingli’s Reformation. And there’s a hint of this icon-smashing quality in the architects’ decision to remove the legendary original staircase, which was always packed with visitors during openings. The staircase was the true heart of the Löwenbräu experiment, embodying its temporary character; this unfinished, undefined quality was a key factor in its success, explains the director of the Migros Museum, Heike Munder: ‘The industrial building offered tremendous freedom to think and to act.’ The museum is now moving back into larger premises with 2,500 square metres of exhibition space. Yet the invasive architectural interventions of the past – such as breaking open the floors for Tatiana Trouvé’s installation 350 Points Towards Infinity (2009) – don’t seem likely in the future.

Entrance to Löwenbräu area with a new top storey (Photograph: Thies Wachter)

‘This temporary quality was also a sign that we were showing art here until further notice,’ explains the director of Kunsthalle Zürich, Beatrix Ruf, ‘whereas now the site’s long-term future is secure.’ The association responsible for the Kunsthalle was founded in 1985 with the aim of presenting international contemporary art without establishing its own collection. Four years later, its first director, Dr. Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, launched a regular series of exhibitions at the abandoned Schoeller Complex; he managed to draw lively audiences and was soon joined by gallerists like Bob van Orsouw, Peter Kilchmann, Iwan Wirth and Eva Presenhuber. This period laid the foundation for the unique character of the Löwenbräu Complex with its mix of museums and galleries, although it was not always easy to tell the two apart. ‘Of course there were artists who had shows at the Kunsthalle and who were later represented by galleries at the site,’ Ruf explains, ‘but we never allowed ourselves to be used as the showroom for any gallery.’ Here too, Zurich pragmatism is clear: ‘There was the sense of a new beginning,’ recalls Presenhuber: ‘What we had was a common interest in art, not these problems of drawing boundaries.’

In 1996, when the old Schoeller spinning mill was scheduled for demolition, the site’s various tenants moved into the former Hürlimann Brewery, which had recently been rented out by the Migros Museum as part of the so-called Löwenbräu Complex. At first, it was not clear that the location would become attractive. ‘We never paid any attention to concepts or marketing,’ says Wirth: ‘At some point, we just began to organize joint parties for openings.’ He admits that redevelopment might cause the Löwenbräu project to become uninteresting or even boring, ‘but it has been a success so far. It would be good if we could continue that way.’ Wolfgang Tillmans had his first major solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle in 1995; now he will be exhibiting alongside Helen Marten for the inaugural show in the revamped complex. The title of the exhibition – ‘Neue Welt’ (New World) – promises a fresh start and new horizons. One can only hope that this new world remains a little bit like the old one.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Max Glauner is an author and journalist living and working in Zurich and Berlin.