Picture Zurich, it’s the early 60s and the high rise scene looks very lame. There’s only a handful around. They’re not very high. The city’s architectural aspirations are garden-city sized. In comes Hochhaus Zur Palme high rise. It introduced: a windmill-shaped plan! A 50m high office tower! A drive-in bank counter! A futuristc car deck and a petrol station! A Silberkugel, the city’s first fast-food chain! An open, walk-through plaza! Boy, you couldn’t get more disruptively modern than that. And thus, our local Mad Men found a cutting-edge playground on Bleicherweg 33, two tram stops away from Paradeplatz, the financial heart of the city.
But Zur Palme isn’t just another late International Style box on stilts in the middle of a windswept plaza. While clearly nodding to Frank Lloyd Wright, architects Haefeli Moser Steiger (HMS) proved to be early and able adopters of brutalism’s sculptural expressiveness.
A two-storey base covers most of the site. It contains shopping arcades and a large mezzanine level for offices. Its deck serves as a car park and is edged by an ingenious precast snow shelter, whose shape vaguely resembles a row of palm fronds. While elegantly shielding the cars from view and the elements, it links the base visually to the office tower above. It also references the titular ‘palmtree’ or ‘Palme’ in German. The tower sits on eight large columns, of which only two stand free for their total height. A filigrane, double helix dual access ramp neatly encircles one of them. It looks a bit like the Guggenheim in New York, or a distant memory from Werner Max Moser’s internship with Frank Lloyd Wright.
The architects also thought very carefully about what was needed and possible in order to get the most benefits from this particular 3900 m2 site for both the owner and the public. As a result, the complex managed to avoid most of the problems associated with urban office towers. Zur Palme didn’t only va-va-voom Zurich into the car age, it also marked the beginning of a veritable high-rise boom that would last a good decade.
Zur Palme high rise may look like your perfectly rational éminence grise. But things are not as straightforward as they seem:
The high rise is built on sand, clay and mud sediments from the Sihl delta and former lake ground. The load-bearing columns had to be artificially extended with plinths for a further 18 metres to reach rock solid building ground.
There’s no 13th floor. Who’d have thought those 60s suits were so superstitious?
The Silberkugel fast food restaurant still exists (design: Justus Dahinden). Tuck into a ‘Silber Beefy’ for a slice of authentic 60s city life vibe. Or catch these office people during their lunch break at a Silberkugel in 1962
There’s a giant golden chandelier in the central lobby. ’The Fallen Chandelier’, a 1996 addition by artist Ilya Kabakov, can be read as a reference to the 1837 classicist villa and lush garden that had to make way for the high rise. It gently weeps, if you listen closely.