Wednesday, December 14, 2005

European Escape, Part I - Basel, CH 

Last July, my friends at NextD asked me if I would be interested in teaching in Switzerland in the fall. NextD is an organization devoted to teaching designers leadership skills and I teach the platform courses there not because it pays, but because I love the opportunity to teach. I used to teach this work when I had my own consulting practice, but since I sold myself into one of my client organizations, I’ve been doing very different work.

Normally I teach for NextD here in the City and it doesn’t require me to take time off work because we do the majority of our workshops on the weekends. But NextD has been getting more and more attention from the international design community and so increasingly the requests for our attention come from overseas.

Given that I’d have burned through my vacation time before November I knew I would need to take the time unpaid. Additionally, late October/early November looked like it might be a tricky time at work.

But the fact is that I love to teach, I feel that the NextD mission is important, and it’s rarely a “good time” from your employer’s perspective for you to take a vacation, paid or unpaid. So I said yes to my friends at NextD.

Between the day in July when I agreed to do the gig and the day I finally got on the plane, the trip was alternately not a problem at all, potentially a problem, no problem and finally a significant problem again from the perspective of my day job. But I’d committed and things were nutty enough at work that I was very much looking forward getting away and figured the work issues would sort themselves out one way or another.

For years now, I’ve had a lot more vacation time than K. but all of a sudden things flipped around this year and she’s got more time than I do. So she was psyched to take the time and figured she’d occupy herself with friends and family while I was in Basel.

So Elizabeth (from NextD), K .and I hopped on a plane on a Friday headed to Zurich. When we landed there, K. hopped a plane north for Amsterdam and Elizabeth and I were chauffeured off by Sandra, NextD’s liaison at the Hyperwerk School in Basel.

I had no idea of what to expect from Basel. I’ve spent time in Lucerne and Geneva, but never Basel and I’d had no time nor given any thought to researching Basel. It’s a lovely city and Sandra and her boyfriend Simon turned out to be fantastic hosts. On Sunday, we had a partial day to see Basel before we began our preparations for three intensive days of teaching. Simon and Sandra lent us their bicycles and Elizabeth and I hied off to the Foundation Beyeler.

Basel turns out to be a great bicycling city. Unlike my beloved Amsterdam, an American can actually use a bicycle in Basel without getting killed. We followed the Rhine and then took a right and followed the Wiese River up around the city through a lovely park. It was unbelievably gorgeous weather, sunny and in the high 60’s.

We arrived at the museum after a gentle forty-five minute ride. It’s the first Renzo Piano structure I’ve been in. I can’t say that the structure lived up to Piano’s hype, but the collection is terrific and there was a great Magritte exhibit on. I have only seen one prior exhibit of which took an entirely different angle on his work. Whereas the SF exhibit ignored Magritte’s relationship to Surrealism, the Beyeler show focused entirely on his relationship to Surrealism. Strangely, both shows entirely ignored the fact that the man was a mystic and that his work is riddled with mystic Christian symbolism. The curation for his tremendously personal manifesto The Magician actually wondered in print why Magritte might have chosen to paint himself eating bread and drinking wine. Honestly. The mind boggles.

Anyway, moving on from the fact that the curation was poor, the show was tremendous and the Beyeler’s holdings are fantastic. It reminded a lot of the great Kroller-Muller in the countryside outside of Amsterdam. Both collections are like an art history survey course, with at least a few great paintings from every master in the periods collected by the patrons.

As it turned out, we were in Basel during an annual fall festival. So we also wandered the streets and peered into the stalls. It was an odd pastiche of things you’d see at a street fair here in The City and things peculiar to Switzerland. For instance, you know the guy wearing a microphone headset who hawks his AMAZING cleaning products by getting a piece of carpet dirty and then scrubbing it with his miracle cleaner? They had that too, only he was doing his pitch in Switzerdeutsch.

Basel’s old city is fantastic to walk around in. Situated on the banks of the Rhine, it’s full of old cobblestone streets and fabulous window shopping. The fall festival added a certain element of tacky surreality, however. It was odd to enter into a quaint plaza to find the four story buildings dwarfed by a 10-story Ferris wheel or to encounter a huge mechanical slide sitting alongside an ancient church.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I spent teaching the design students of the Hyperwerk School. Despite some linguistic challenges (to which I’m somewhat accustomed as I’ve taught this work around the world in the last 5 years), we had three energizing days together. The Hyperwerkers were eager to learn and apply the tools and techniques Elizabeth and I brought and it was so much fun to be teaching the work intensively again. It’s been a while since I’ve done three solid days of workshops and it was great! For those of you who are curious for some visuals, there’s a Quicktime movie slideshow here.

Thursday morning Elizabeth and I set out for France, she to visit friends and I to meet up with K. and our friends Koert and Kecia from Amsterdam who elected to join us for a long weekend in Paris. Some of you may remember that K. and I met Kecia on the plane coming home from Sundance 2004 and promptly adopted her. Since then, we’ve spent time with her and Koert in Amsterdam and The City, so we were looking forward to doing a new locale and to seeing how their daughter Chiara was getting along at six months.

I’ll save Paris for the next post. That tale includes a terrific encounter with a talented artist, a movie theatre full of expat Americans, and the best bread in Paris.
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