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Lights reflect changing face of Bahnhofstrasse

Bahnhofstrasse now has a new Christmas face

(Keystone)

Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse has endured as one of Switzerland's most iconic locations for 140 years by changing with the times while retaining its character.

This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse Association, sees yet another evolution in the life of the famous shopping street: a new set of cutting-edge Christmas lights.

The image of Bahnhofstrasse is underpinned by traditional shops such as confectioner Sprüngli, which has been plying its trade in the area since 1859 – six years before the street was even built.

Another that has made the thoroughfare its home for more than a century is Türler Watches and Jewellery, which has been keeping it in the family since 1907.

According to current owner Franz Türler, the arrival of well-known international brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel and Zara, has breathed new life into the street.

"Bahnhofstrasse is surrounded by a myth that it is all about banks and highly exclusive shops," said Türler, who is also president of the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse Association. "But in recent years we have developed with the introduction of new global players, so we are no longer an island."

"We have on the one side preserved our standards of high quality and excellent service, but on the other we are now more accessible to more people and offer a broader palette for shoppers.

"Life changes and if we stay stood in the middle of the river, we will get cold very quickly. We have to adapt or we will end up as a museum."

Christmas lights

Another sign of the changing times are the new Christmas lights, called "The World's Largest Timepiece". Designed by Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, the decorations replace the previous illuminations that have lit up Bahnhofstrasse since 1971.

The chain of 275 seven-metre-long tubular bulbs stretches 1.1 kilometres down the middle of the street. Each tube has 32 light points, which turn on and off to send a ripple of light along the length of Bahnhofstrasse.

Sensors detect the number of people passing by and control the lights to make them more active when the street is busy.

"Light is not static, but rather has a dynamic medium-like nature," said Gramazio. "The ability today to control [light] makes it a flexible information carrier that will change the face of our city."

International reputation

One of the newest of the 120 or so shops on Bahnhofstrasse is the internationally known boutique Longchamp. The Paris-based chain has branches all over the world and opened its Bahnhofstrasse store in November.

"Bahnhofstrasse is a must-have location in the luxury fashion retail industry," said international marketing manager Laure Le Cainec. "It stands for value, elegance and good taste, and the spirit of the street is very positive.

"Not only is it famous for its shops, but it also makes a good impression with its classic architecture."

And Türler believes that Bahnhofstrasse will remain one of the world's most famous shopping locations.

"The spirit here is very special because we are not just simply a shopping street," he said. "We all pull together to create a special atmosphere. We cannot survive as individual players, only as a team.

"I cannot imagine that other shopping streets in the world have cultivated this special family feeling. If we keep this philosophy then I am optimistic that Bahnhofstrasse will remain the finest shopping street in the world for many years to come."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Key facts

Zurich's old Christmas lights, designed by Willi Walter and Charlotte Schmid, illuminated Bahnhofstrasse from 1971 up to this year.
The World's Largest Timepiece cost SFr2.4 million ($1.82 million), with SFr1.35 million coming from the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse Association, SFr300,000 from private businesses and the rest from Zurich's electricity department.
The new lights use 80% less electricity than the previous decorations, reducing the annual bill from SFr20,000 to SFr2,640, which will be covered by the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse Association.

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