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Zurich’s hidden rock’n’roll side

This buttoned-up Swiss city is starting to come clean about its bohemian aspects

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

On the green edge of Zurich, where this neat and tidy city melts into neat and tidy countryside, an icon of Zurich’s hedonistic heyday has been reborn. The Atlantis Hotel reopened last December, restoring an old landmark to the city and reconnecting prim and proper Zurich with its rebellious past.

If you’ve only ever been to Zurich on business, you may find it hard to think of this staid city as rebellious, but bear with me: Zurich really does have a wild side, and in the 1970s and 1980s the Atlantis was where it could be found. From Eric Clapton to Elton John, from Freddie Mercury to Frank Zappa, the hotel’s guest list reads like a Who’s Who of the golden age of rock. The Atlantis opened in 1970, and it made a big splash from the start. A garish slab of glass and concrete, even the architecture was an affront to bourgeois taste. At the time its futuristic design seemed terribly daring, and the Atlantis soon became the place to stay. Steve McQueen, Rod Stewart and Carlos Santana checked in; prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer had a food fight, leaving abstract patterns on the wallpaper; the Who paid the Atlantis the ultimate accolade when they threw the lobby furniture into the pool.


In the 1990s the Atlantis fell out of favour, and in 2004 it closed — it became a student hostel, then a halfway house for immigrants. But the Swiss hotel group Giardino has now given it a complete refit. Though the interior is new, traces of its misspent youth remain. The communal spaces are decorated with photos of guests like Sophia Loren and Abba. Muhammad Ali steps out of a limousine, ready to check in. These stylish paparazzi snaps conjure up an ambience that’s supremely glamorous and slightly decadent — the house style of all the best hotels.

What goes around comes around. Like 1970s superstars, 1970s architecture is back in fashion. After several decades in the doldrums, brutalist eyesores like the Atlantis are the height of chic again. Giardino’s modern refurbishment is immaculately tasteful, but it’s the remnants of the original design — the lavish marble lobby, the flamboyant spiral staircase — that excite the eye.

The new Atlantis is a good example of a subtle shift here in Zurich. A city dismissed as dull and boring, the home of bankers and bureaucrats, is rediscovering its artistic verve. Zurich West, once an industrial wasteland, is awash with artists’ studios. The Lowenbrau brewery has become a gallery. The Schiffbau shipyard has become a theatre. Zurich has always been a creative city — the adopted home of James Joyce and Hermann Hesse — but it never used to shout about it. Maybe that’s been the biggest change.

A hundred years ago, Zurich was where Dada started, and this year’s centenary has been marked with Dada events all over town. In 2070, will Zurich be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Atlantis? Or will this bizarre building sink back into obscurity?

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