Exacting and efficient, Zurich's surprises are entirely unexpected

Despite a muted sensibility and practical aesthetic, Switzerland's largest city is anything but bland.

Split in half by the River Limmat, Zurich offers more than banks and shopping. The place where the Dada movement was formed, the city's efficiency 'sets you free', our writer finds. Matthias Wassermann / Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

I'd arrived at Münsterhof square on a walk through Zurich's Old Town, which straddles the River Limmat as it flows north out of the glacier-fed Lake Zurich. On the Münsterhof cobbles, drizzle pooled around a stone commemorating the British statesman Winston Churchill's famous call for a "United States of Europe". Placid Zurich may be famous for banks and shopping, but its conservatism is often a mask: tales of revolution flow just beneath the surface.

Behind the Bahnhofstrasse boulevard - the closest Zurich gets to ostentation, with its halogen-lit outlets for Vuitton and Cartier - I'd climbed from the artist workshops of the riverside Schipfe quarter to stand where the Romans stood. On the Lindenhof hill, their Turicum customs post once exacted levies from passing traffic. Now, old-timers play giant chess while loafers daydream beneath foliage.

The Münsterhof is a short clickety-clack away, over the patterned cobbles of Chimney Sweep Alley, Swan Alley and Stork Alley, leaning against the gradient. I ducked into the adjacent Fraumünster, a 13th-century church that sports exquisite stained glass by Marc Chagall, installed in 1970 in five, soaring, Romanesque choir windows. A blood-red image of the prophet Elijah in the chariot of fire and an angel trumpeting eternity: the juxtaposition of modern art and medieval architecture hints at Zurich's heterodoxy. This is, at heart, a revolutionary city.

Half a millennium ago, Zurich's twin-towered Grossmünster (Great Minster), on the opposite bank of the Limmat, was briefly the epicentre of the Protestant Reformation, a tight-lipped theological hurricane that swept the world. From 1518, in 12 years at the pulpit, Huldrych Zwingli - a contemporary of Martin Luther's - railed against ecclesiastical corruption, preaching individual liberty and the sole authority of the word of God. Zwingli trounced a papal representative sent from Rome in public disputation, and as the city embraced Protestantism, he celebrated Mass for the last time in 1525. His church remains bare inside, its beauty all in lofty austerity and revolutionary associations.

And then there's 1916. A few hundred metres along the narrow Niederdorfstrasse, I caused a pram-pushing mother to tut by stopping short outside the low corner windows of the Cabaret Voltaire, where that year a group of artists defied bourgeois sensibility to form the "anti-art" movement Dada, wild forebear of surrealism.

Round the corner shoppers and besuited bankers passed by the house at Spiegelgasse 14, marked with a plaque noting that Vladimir Lenin lived there until he departed to lead the Russian Revolution. Five minutes away, amid the plotting and the iconoclasm, James Joyce was holed up in the ground-floor flat at Seefeldstrasse 54, writing Ulysses.

Other cities offer up their choice tidbits on a platter for visitors' consumption. Zurich, though, doesn't preen. The city's capacity to surprise - where what is left unsaid resonates more than what is said - helps me love it.

And, of course, everything works. The Swiss design aesthetic, apparent in everything from architecture to fashion to the national train timetable, could be summarised as elegance through efficiency. Moving around the city you feel as if there is invisible machinery at work to make things right: not merely that somebody thought about that railing or that road sign, but that somebody thought about it specifically in relation to me.

The design of the public realm - not just public space, but all the million things that make life function - is so unobtrusively brilliant that even noticing it requires effort. In more boisterous countries bad design forces itself onto you, invading the space between your ears by making life just that little bit harder. In Switzerland, where you can rely on everything to work, your thoughts are your own. Some outsiders, apparently preferring a life of grumbles, have concluded the country is bland. They lack imagination. Switzerland sets you free.

Take the clocks. Zurich railway station has dozens of them, their broad, numberless white faces supported on horizontal stanchions above the platforms, each featuring a red second hand tipped with a large red circle - odd for a country obsessed by accuracy. But look. As the second hand sweeps round to 12 o'clock, it stops. Everything stops. For a second, nothing happens. Then the black minute hand lurches forward, the second hand begins its sweep again, whistles blow, train doors click shut and another minute is dispatched to history.

Since I first saw that, years ago, the image of the temporarily jammed yet eternally accurate clock nagged away at me. How can Swiss railways rely on clocks that stop for one second every minute?

Birgit Bircher solved the mystery for me. The brand manager at Mondaine, a Zurich firm that has sole rights to produce a watch replicating the design of those station clocks, explained that the idea arose in 1944. At that time Swiss Federal Railways asked the engineer Hans Hilfiker to design a clock to be used across the network that would be both highly visible and pinpoint accurate. First, Hilfiker did away with numbers. But his genius came in conceiving each clock as a slave, controlled from a central master by an electrical pulse produced at the top of every minute. This pulse pushes the minute hand of every clock on the network onto the next mark at precisely the same moment.

But in a country where trains depart on the dot, a problem remained. Since the minute hand could not move until the pulse came, how would people rushing for their train know whether they had five or 55 seconds before the scheduled departure time? (Such are Swiss concerns.) With the lack of a mechanism inside each clock, no tick was possible. Hilfiker, therefore, introduced a sweeping second hand, powered by mains electricity. For maximum visibility, he designed it in red and tipped it with a circle, to mimic the hand-held "lollipop" signs used by stationmasters to signal to train drivers.

Then, Bircher told me, came a yet more abstruse refinement. Fluctuations in the mains current meant that Hilfiker's second hand could not be relied upon to complete a full circle in exactly 60 seconds. So he tweaked his design to make every second hand run very slightly fast: it didn't matter when each one reached the twelve o'clock position, since they all had to wait there for the centrally issued pulse.

And this, Bircher finally explained, is why the second hand stops at the top of the dial. Even today, Swiss station clocks mark one minute with, on average, 58.5 seconds, creating a tiny, breathless pause before that pulse shunts every minute hand onward simultaneously.

Hilfiker's 68-year-old design is a triumph: in one glance it imparts information more quickly and precisely than a digital clock ever could. It is mesmeric to watch.

With the giant four-faced clock above Zurich's station concourse momentarily frozen, I headed out to meet the art curator Boris Magrini. This summer Zurich is hosting an eclectic, city-wide exhibition of public art by the likes of Ai Weiwei and Richard Tuttle. Most pieces are dotted around Zurich West, a quarter of towers and postindustrial warehouses flanking the railway lines behind the main station.

As we walked beside a brick viaduct - every arch now occupied by independent galleries and design stores - we discussed why Zurich's image of prim reserve persists. I wondered if it was because visitors mistake cleanliness for docility. Magrini raised the issue of the city's liberal mayor, the first woman to hold the post.

"Zurich?" he laughed. "It's not that conservative."

If You Go

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Geneva from Dh2,930 return. Trains run frequently from Geneva Airport to Zurich for 85 Swiss francs (Dh310). From Dubai, Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct to Zurich in about six hours from Dh2,760 return

The hotel Every room in Hotel Du Theatre has been designed by the Swiss architect Pia Schmid, evoking the building's past as a theatre in the 1950s. A double room costs from 205 Swiss francs (Dh760) (00 41 44 267 2670; hotel-du-theatre.ch)

The info The ZurichCARD gives holders access to public transport by train, bus, tram and boat, as well as museum admission and other perks and costs 40 Swiss francs (Dh145) for three days. Order online at www.zuerich.com

Matthew Teller is author of the Rough Guide to Switzerland (roughguides.com).