Entrance to Shopville in Zurich, 1989.
Entrance to Shopville in Zurich, 1989. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

Shopping underground

On 1 October 1970, the Shopville shopping centre opened underneath Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof. The underground shopping arcade was a minor sensation.

David Eugster

David Eugster

David Eugster is a historian and cultural studies expert.

On 1 October 1970, Zurich’s Bahnhofplatz was closed to pedestrians – for nearly 22 years. A number of police officers were stationed around the area, politely asking pedestrians who tried to cross the square to proceed underground using the escalators. Over on the station concourse, their colleagues from the police band played as a city councillor, FDP politician Ernst Bieri, solemnly cut a ribbon and gave a commendatory address on the underground shopping centre that, over the preceding five years, had been built directly below the Bahnhofplatz – the only one of its kind in Europe. From now on, anyone who wanted to cross the Bahnhofplatz had to go through Shopville, the shopping arcade underneath the square.
Bahnhofplatz Zurich in 1953.
Bahnhofplatz Zurich in 1953. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

Going underground

The idea of tunnelling under the Bahnhofplatz was first mooted as far back as the 1950s. At that time, all forms of transport converged on the square in front of the main railway station: tramlines, cars, taxis and pedestrians – at peak times up to 17,000 people an hour – came together there to form a slow-moving knot of flesh and metal. The railway station bridge was widened, an arm of the Limmat river was drained in order to direct the flows of traffic there, Leonhardplatz was remodelled into a ‘hub’ – but nothing helped. The inexorable rise of the automobile no longer brought speed into the city centre, but gridlock. It became clear that plans needed to be made to remove one group of users. Initially, municipal traffic engineers proposed moving the trams underground. But the ‘Tiefbahn’ idea was rejected in a ballot in 1962 – not least because people regarded trams below ground as an objectionable scaled-down version of an underground railway. What did survive the vote was the plans for a pedestrian underpass under the Bahnhofplatz. In 1964, a vote was taken on the creation of an ‘underground pedestrian level’. To avoid slowing the flow of private car traffic, it was the pedestrians rather than the trams that were to leave the overcrowded surface; in future, those on foot would cross the Bahnhofplatz underground. This was during the Cold War, and the level of acceptance of subterranean shelters was high. Thus, the proposal was adopted. From 1965 onwards, the Bahnhofplatz was characterised by a gaping hole.
Construction site under the station forecourt, 1967.
Construction site under the station forecourt, 1967. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

A futuristic fossil

The desire to clean up the Bahnhofplatz in the name of transport went so far that there were even moves to get rid of the Alfred Escher fountain, statue and all – but that suggestion met with fierce opposition. In the debate about Escher, it became clear that the Bahnhofplatz was not just some transport hub – it was Zurich’s ‘calling card’, an extension of Bahnhofstrasse. The underpass, now referred to in the planning stages by the more dignified term ‘passage’, was intended to form the glorious subterranean finale of the city’s most prestigious shopping street, the ‘diamond in the crown’, as some shop tenants proudly claimed. In 1967 the planned retail area was enlarged. The aim was that the arcade would properly welcome tourists and commuters to the city of Zurich. In the late 1960s, Zurich saw itself on the way to becoming a metropolis of international standing. The construction of the underground railway was already included in the building phase – a cavity was left below the retail area, in which the U-Bahn was to run later.  The Schweizerische Bauzeitung, the Swiss construction industry journal, saw in this empty tunnel the ‘most deeply symbolic sign of Zurich’s big-city ambitions’.
By the late 1960s, the underpass had become part of a larger urban planning ensemble. Urban planners and business folk visualised the area around the main railway station as being transformed into a mini ‘Manhattan’, with high-rise buildings, expressways and an underground railway. The precinct, according to Richard Allemann, then President of the Zurich City Association, would ‘express the creative power of our society, our age and our century’. Dreams of the future swirled in the air above the construction pit on the Bahnhofplatz.
The plan also included an underground railway.
A shopping centre in the city centre Stadtplanungsamt Zürich (Zurich urban planning authority)

A shopping centre in the city centre

Increasingly, the plans for the underpass envisaged it as an underground shopping centre, clearly understood as an urban challenge to the retail centres also being built on the city’s outskirts. The Bahnhofpassage was just pipped at the post in the battle of the retail plazas: the Shoppi Spreitenbach shopping mall opened a mere six months earlier. In 1967 the 23 retail spaces were offered for lease; only businesses that already had a shop in Zurich were allowed to apply. This was due, on the one hand, to a desire for the stores to be representative of Zurich, but it was also for reasons of working conditions – long shifts underground were to be avoided. The stores included a ‘Silberkugel’ outlet, a fast food shop, a florist’s, a bank branch, clothing and shoe shops, and a milk bar. The vending machines, at which people could make purchases day and night, would be a very special ‘attraction’ – a favourite word used by council functionaries in the minutes of the related meetings.
The shopping centre in Spreitenbach, 1970.
The shopping centre in Spreitenbach, 1970. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

Competition and naming

The selection of shopholders was kept secret from the public until spring 1970. Then the publicity machine ground into action. In the free newspaper Züri Leu readers were asked to send in name suggestions. There was a VW-Porsche for the winner, second prize was a trip to Mexico, and the third-place winner took home a karakul broadtail coat. A jury made the final selection. A total of 5,000 proposals were submitted. English options like Mini, Maxi and Power City vied with traditional Zurich dialect suggestions such as Buuch, unedure, Im Züri-Grabe and Lade-Schacht, as well as more erudite offerings like Orpheus-Shopping and Hades.  There was also some contemporary reference: at least theoretically, the jury could have named the Bahnhofpassage Ho-Chi-Minh-Pfad (Ho Chi Minh trail).
TV report on the opening of Shoppville (in German). SRF
‘Ladorado’, ‘Shoppikon’ and ‘Shopville’ made it into the top three. As soon as the choice was announced, an angry chorus of letters to the editor condemned the name as an manifestation of a loss of native identity, calling it an ‘English-French monstrosity’ and a ‘bastard hybrid’. Zurich City Council bowed to this linguistic xenophobia: the postal address was now ‘Bahnhofpassage’. But the shopholders held on to the name. At the centre’s opening they even handed out red campaign badges defiantly printed in English with ‘I like Shopville’. Aside from these contentious issues, there was great enthusiasm for the new centre. The press applauded the shopping arcade’s big-city flair, and the public strolled through the underground space or, after the shops shut, marvelled at how cans of dog food and bottles of milk could be bought from the vending machines.

The reopening of the Bahnhofplatz

In the 1970s, the optimistic faith in progress came crashing down – people in worm costumes protested against projects like the pedestrian underpass at the main railway station. The spirit of optimism for the future that had prevailed in the 1960s had faded; even the plans for the underground railway were shelved. As early as 1980, the space under the station had lost its gloss. The newspaper NZZ wrote: ‘It can safely be said that Shopville is no big deal anymore; for those who pass through it, unless they are actually tourists, it has become part of the furniture, just routine.’ Increasingly, it also became a shelter for homeless people. In the late 1980s, the drug scene pushed underground, especially in winter, as the arcade offered dry places to sleep. From January 1992, the station was locked at night, Shopville was closed and shuttered, and parts of the Bahnhofplatz were reopened for pedestrians. The old Shopville was now considered obsolete. The drugs scene was eventually pushed out of the city centre, the commuter railway (S-Bahn) arrived, the space underneath the railway station was expanded and, above and below ground, the city became a different one. One with more marble.
TV report about Shopville in Zurich, 1989 (in German). SRF

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