1870–1900: New centers at the periphery

The university moves west: within just three decades, the university, the city, and a financially committed citizenry erected a series of impressive new buildings in the area of the former fortifications behind St. Peter’s Square: the Bernoullianum, the Vesalianum, clinic buildings, and a university library.

The university’s spatial focus shifted from Cathedral Hill to what was then the outskirts of the city for both the city and the university: the urban area developed so quickly that this periphery soon became a new center. Reading the university’s sites and buildings as representative of its development indicates that the focus of its scientific energies also shifted during this time: to the new and expanding fields of the natural sciences. Yet it may have been the other way around: perhaps it was the decision to construct new buildings that provided the decisive impulse for developing the natural sciences.

The construction of the new museum in 1849 had foreclosed the most straightforward opportunity for providing the university with more space at its existing location on Cathedral Hill; options for larger construction were now extremely limited. The decision of the city authorities for a museum and against a new university building thus also triggered a spatial reorientation of the institution.

Things were different on the outskirts of the city at the time. The subsequent reorientation of the university in Basel’s urban fabric was thus probably more a reaction to existing spatial possibilities and less the result of long-term strategic considerations. After 1860, the fortification zone on the western edge of the city became available – an area at the urban periphery, too remote for representative buildings.

The medical facilities made the first move – initially independently of the university. Between 1837 and 1842, the new cantonal hospital was established in the Markgräflerhof on Hebelstrasse, operating as the University Hospital from 1862. In the following decades, a hospital district emerged around the building in tandem with its expansion from 1857 to 1868, including medical and surgical clinics (1865), an obstetrics clinic (1868), a polyclinic (1875), an ophthalmic hospital on Mittlere Strasse (1877), the Institute of Pathology on Hebelstrasse (1880), the Women’s Hospital on Schanzenstrasse (1896), and finally the move of the Hygienic Institute into the Stachelschützenhaus on St. Peter’s Square (1893).

Over the last decade of the nineteenth century, this peripheral area was deliberately developed into a new university district with four major construction projects: the Bernoullianum in 1874, the Vesalianum in 1885, the University Library in 1896, and the Botanical Institute in 1898. One project that was intensively discussed but not realized was a new university building. Instead, on the occasion of the university’s quadricentennial celebrations in 1860, the Old College on Rheinsprung Street was renovated to serve the next stage of the university’s future.

The university’s spatial reorientation became apparent at the latest with the ceremonial inauguration of the Bernoullianum in 1874. On the occasion of the university’s four-hundredth anniversary, citizens from the city donated funds to construct a new observatory. For the science of astronomy, the remote location on the high rampart on Petersschanze was no detriment but a technical necessity. Opened in 1874, the Bernoullianum housed an observatory and the departments of astrology as well as chemistry and physics. It was the first piece of architecture built explicitly and specifically for the university, and the elaborate celebrations for its opening clearly demonstrate the symbolic importance it held for the institution, the relationship between the city’s citizens and their university, and the rapid rise and burgeoning prominence of the natural sciences in a society turning toward scientific knowledge for new foundations and values.

Further developments similarly resulted from the interplay of existing and available building land, the financial possibilities generously afforded the university by the citizens of Basel through the Voluntary Academic Society, and dynamic developments in the subdisciplines of the natural sciences and medicine. Just nine years later, in 1885, the Vesalianum, a second university building for anatomy and physiology, was opened on the former workshop area between the Old Arsenal (Zeughaus) and the Spalenvorstadt district.

In 1896, the university and the city once again had cause for celebration in inaugurating the magnificent new University Library. Not even fifty years after library had moved into the museum, its collections had tripled in size, and finding them an ample home had been a political issue for some time. The representative building on the old Spalengottesacker cemetery took shape as the spatial counterpart to the Bernoullianum, definitively establishing a center for the new university district – all the more so as the new library also provided accommodation for various institutes.

Just two years later, another important institution was housed next to the library – the Botanical Institute (1898) and the Botanical Garden (1897), which had existed since the university’s founding – though it had occupied various sites in the city since being established in the courtyard of the Lower College and a permanent home was sorely needed.

By the end of the nineteenth century, i.e., within just a few decades, the properties on the western edge of the city which had initially seemed to be peripheral had become a core university district with the many buildings of the hospital complex around Hebelstrasse, Schanzenstrasse, and Mittlere Strasse, and the cohesive ensemble of the Bernoullianum, the University Library, the Botanical Institute and Botanical Garden, and the Vesalianum.

The dynamic development, expansion, and diversification of the canon of fields and disciplines in the natural sciences, as well as their symbolic significance for the university and the city, can be seen in the construction undertaken at the time, in the architecture of the buildings, the costly adaptation of their spatial structure and technical equipment to the special needs of the institutes for which they were initially intended, and the constantly evolving use and often changing occupants over the following years. The architecture from this period of the university’s history shows on a spatial level how the natural science functioned as a dynamic factor driving the further developments of the institution; conversely, the new buildings offered the representational space enabling the newly emerged sciences to clearly demonstrate their claim and status to society.