Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

Tunnel Vision

The sixties are back. And so is Verner Panton. And his chair. But do you know his psychedelic public passage in Basel? Be sure to make the trip ASAP.
Karin Bürki

Karin Bürki

Text & Bilder: Karin Bürki

In his Theory of Colours, published in 1810, Goethe maintained that bright colours were suited to children and animals, not sophisticated grown-ups. The designer Verner Panton (1926-1998) did not subscribe to this point of view. The Dane, who only dressed in blue, definitely made the world a more colourful place.

 

If you think late 1960’s and early 1970’s moon age design in trippy colours, bold geometric patterns and room designs that took on the shape of undulating liveable sculptures in soft textiles, chances are high it is a Panton creation. He also gave us the Panton Chair, one of the 20th century’s most iconic design classics (now reissued in duotone, courtesy of Vitra).

When tasked to brighten up the dreary, windowless public passage connecting University Hospital Basel’s Klinikum II ward with the parking lot, Panton went full-on psychedelic. And why not. It was 1978. Lurid yellows and garish orange were considered sensible neutrals. Second, hospital visitors are a captive audience, why not divert and uplift them with chromatic art during the unforgiving minutes en route to a loved one on painkillers?

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Enjoy your trip

Panton unterteilte den 100 Meter langen unterirdischen Gang in acht Sequenzen in den acht Spektralfarben Orange, Hellrot, Dunkelrot, Aubergine, Lila, Violett, Blau und Türkis. Der Designer malte in der für ihn typischen Allover-Technik direkt auf den Beton, wobei sich Streifen-, Kreis- und Rautenmuster abwechseln, und verwandelte den klaustrophobischen Nicht-Ort in eine halluzinogene Farbexplosion. Peng!

Even today, walking down the passage is a mind-spinning and jaw-dropping experience. If you land here from a world of calming, neutral greys and sophisticated Scandi cool, be warned: you’ll be going through the equivalent of the shocks and joys of a cold-water swim. Expect positive palpitations. If you suffer from chromophobia, don’t make the trip. Although the specific location makes calling for a doctor easy, Panton was sensible enough to include a few sections in shades of grey, where eyes and mind get a chance to rest a little. Enjoy your trip. For it might also be your last.

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

No light at the end of the tunnel?

Virtually unknown outside Basel, the tunnel looks set to have its grand and well-deserved moment in the sun: the Sixties and Seventies are back in fashion. After two decades of neutrals, bold colours are popping up everywhere. Having schlepped through two years of a joyless pandemic, it seems the world is finally ready to embrace the positive powers of Panton-style colour therapy. The tunnel also happens to be the designer’s sole surviving, fully preserved room installation. Aka top Panton-pilgrimage destination. Basel could really capitalise on that.

But no. Standing in the way of plans for a new patient wing, the oeuvre faces imminent death by demolition. Though the building permit for the Klinikum II project has not yet been granted, the hospital has made it very clear it wants to see the iconic passage bulldozed.

In February 2022 the Basel Heritage Society and baukult launched a joint appeal, backed by Vitra Design Museum founder and long-term Panton supporter and friend Rolf Fehlbaum. There’s also an online petition up. So far, they have failed to strike a chord beyond the art and design bubble. Maybe an army of Panton Chairs should stage an Instagram-friendly fundraiser sit-in during Art Basel.

How could a possible after-life look like? The heirs of Verner Panton propose a comprehensive documentation and faithful reproduction as an art installation. A VR room looks a likely choice. But, as two years of of virtual art shows have taught us, art needs to be experienced in the flesh. Besides, public art is for the public.

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

An act of cultural vandalism

Come on, Basel. Not only did Verner Panton’s game changing colourscapes write design history in the second half of the twentieth century, but the Dane was also a Basel-resident by choice, having moved here in the early Sixties. His major works and most spectacular room designs were born here: the “Visiona” pleasure boat installation created for the Cologne Furniture Fair (1968 and 1970), the Spiegel publishing headquarters in Hamburg (1969) and the Varna restaurant in Aarhus (1970). And the cantilever chair.

Besides, the artistic value of the tunnel installation is estimated at several 100,000 Swiss francs, based on the going auction price of Panton’s wall decorations and carpets. Trashing that amount of money and destroying so much cultural value on top appears excessively wasteful and short-sighted.

Like it or not, the Panton-Tunnel has become an integral part of the city’s civic memory. Demolishing it without a proper replacement plan has an ugly smell of cultural vandalism about it, especially in a city that prides itself as the art capital of Switzerland.

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Panton-Tunnel, Verner Panton, Basel 1978. © Karin Bürki. Explore on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Learning from a shell ceiling lamp

Here’s an example of how cultural heritage handling can be done more smartly and respectfully. Just head to nearby Kunsthalle Basel. In honour of Mr Panton, who was a regular at the art museum’s restaurant, the Basler Kunstverein (Art Association Basel) acquired and restored the designer’s unique shell ceiling lamp, originally designed for his private home in Binningen on the outskirts of Basel. Consisting of thousands of translucent shell leaves, the large-scale, immersive light installation found a new home in the restaurant’s former wine room, now renamed “Panton Room”. The setting is contemporary, the work is open to the public and the wine is excellent, too. Everybody wins.

For the time being, the best way to keep the Panton-Tunnel alive is to experience it now. Immerse yourself in the colourful spectacle, enjoy your trip and revive the memory, whenever you come across a place in shades of grey and dull.

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