Cities of the World Economy need places like Zentralstrasse 150
Subculture and production of culture in the logic of global
urban development - in the case of Zürich


Philipp Klaus*

* INURA Zurich Institute


Cities are places of innovation, of change, of Zeitgeist, capital and power. Zentralstrasse 150 in 1995 and 1996 was right in the center of these fields of force. As free and important its existence was in the urban context, as consequent it was in the logic as well of global urban development as of that of Zürich. In other words: Cities of the world economy need places like Zentralstrasse 150. To substantiate this thesis shall be the purpose of the present essay.


Zentralstrasse 150

The property Zentralstrasse 150 was bought in 1994 by the Karthago cooperative. It had been searching a long time for a suitable building for the realization of their concept of living and lifestyle as a 'bolo' in the sense of the utopian world design bolo'bolo conceived by the author P.M. The premises Zentralstrasse 150, set up in the 1950ies, is located in the borough of Wiedikon, built at the end of the last century. The building had been standing empty for some time. Before that it had been used as an office building as well as a storage and shipping warehouse by a Japanese electronics company. It was not possible for the members of the cooperative to move in at once, because the building had to be adapted to the requirements of the living community that was to be created. The period for this communal planning process was assessed to be two years. It was decided to sublet the building during this period. The interim use started in February 1995 and ended on September 1996. The top floors were leased to artists and small firms of the Zürich scene. Part of the ground floor was used as office by the Karthago cooperative as well as a meeting place for Kurdish men and women. The rest of the ground floor and the basement were handed over to 'All'.

'All’ was a group of innovative young people. They initiated a cultural venture in three parts: first there were lectures, concerts, exhibitions; then was a bar open once or twice a week, which soon became an important meeting point in Zürich; and thirdly it was used as a club for Techno parties. "All" is the german word for universe and is the same word as 'all' in English. And not smaller then the all were the pretensions of this group!

As a whole, the property was taken over by a flock of artistic people renting its rooms: painters, video artists, film producers, writers, party organizers, architects - let's call them the new creative force. A high density of information and creativeness was brought together, resulting in a process of mutual inspiration and drive. The bar and parties caused Zentralstrasse 150 to radiate all over town and beyond. Some of the "new creatives" had been known before they moved in, some became known later or are still in the process of becoming known. In any case they met a very stimulating, highly urban environment in the borough of Wiedikon.

There was a well defined policy applied to dealing with the media. The operations at Zentralstrasse 150 were not made public in order not be exposed to 'disturbing forces'. Neither the printed media nor radio or television ever reported on Zentralstrasse 150, in spite of the fact that lots of media workers visited both the bar and the parties, and that there was no lack of renowned cultural persons on whom they might have reported.


Zentralstrasse 150 and urban development in Zürich

The evolution of such a place, both rich in culture and stimulating, is not a coincidence. It is part of the logic of the urban development specific to Zürich, but also typical of other world cities.

After years of economic growth and increases in material affluence, in 1973 Switzerland suffered the first crisis in post-war times: the oil crisis and the revalorization of the Swiss franc. While the oil crisis triggered a short period of reconsidering values globally, the revalorization of the franc had a direct impact on the export industry of Switzerland. With products increasing in price, their competitiveness in markets fall abruptly. The consequence was the closing down of enterprises and mass dismissals. The uncertain job situation in industry was compensated by a fast growing service sector. Banks, insurance companies and other service industries expanded globally and required more and more space. They pushed their way into the city centers and were willing to pay higher and higher rents for offices in the center. Zürich in the eighties became an important location of highly specialized economic activities, in particular in the banking sector. A number of transnational corporations made their headquarters in Zürich, local enterprises expanded their activities internationally and effected their control functions on the world market from here.

The more service enterprises pushed into the city center, the higher the real estate prices climbed. Apartments became scarce as many of them were transformed into offices, and rents increased dramatically. The city lost a considerable part of its population. The exodus from the city and consequently the suburbanization of Zürich had started already in the sixties. In particular families left the city. The cities had become inhospitable, as Mitscherlich wrote in his famous pamphlet in 1965. Cars and the massive extension of the road system made it possible: Living in the country - which soon became suburbia - and working in the city.

Fig. 1: Development of occupation (fulltime jobs) and population in the city of Zürich 1965-1991

Source: Statistische Jahrbücher des Kantons Zürich.

While Zürich was experiencing a continuous economic boom, the largest city in Switzerland remained somewhat behind in cultural matters. There was no money and no room for 'other'' cultural events besides the established institutions (Opernhaus, Schauspielhaus, Kunsthaus, Tonhalle and a few small theaters). Even jazz bands found it difficult to get suitable venues to play in.


Pressure towards the city, 'd'Bewegig' (the movement) and the struggle for room

With punk and new wave something got moving at last in the music scene of the city in the late seventies. Groups popped up like mushrooms, and anyone mastering three chords on a guitar was part of it, performing in the bike basement of a high school or in some other makeshift premises, crying out to society how little he or she thought of it. This scene was the cultural basis of the movement of the eighties, the so-called 'd'Bewegig'. In the spring of 1980 the citizens of Zürich were called to vote on a subsidy of 60 million Swiss francs for the opera. This vote was the famous straw that broke the camel's back: 60 million for established culture, and nothing for alternative culture! On May 30 1980, the night of Bob Marley's Zurich concert, attended by 10'000 people, some two hundred people got together in front of the opera to protest against this proposed bill. The police intervened, and there were major confrontations between 'the youngsters' and the police. While the 'youngsters' or 'chaotics' as they were soon to be called, were only asking for consideration of their cultural and social requirements, namely financial support and space for their own culture, meeting points, and more quality of life, the society and the public for several years were at a loss. There was a wide movement of the discontent taking to the street in thousands and believing in social change. Some of the slogans of this movement were: 'only tribes will survive', 'we demand an end to pack ice' or 'down with the Alps - a free view on the Mediterranean'. The political alternative was at the same time the cultural alternative.

The 'Rote Fabrik' (Red Factory) and AJZ (Autonomous Youth Center) were wrested from the municipality. Cultural life was blooming in the eighties, in these centers as well as in dozens of communes. Buildings were taken over by squatters time and again. Probably the most famous squat was at the 'Tor zu Aussersihl', the Stauffacher squat in 1984. This is where the idea of Karthago has its origins. These squats were an expression of the determination not to give in to the pressure on the boroughs and the rapid change of the environment.

D'Bewegig claimed the city also and in particular for its own. It grew as a reaction to the territorial claims of the expanding service sector in prospering Zürich which threatened both to completely block the real estate market for normal wage earners and to suffocate public space under concrete. It was also a reaction to Zürich as a culturally destitute and conservative town.

City development continued. In particular borough five was under enormous pressure and was undergoing a gentrification. It became fashionable to reside in this international melting pot with its Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Asian restaurants, shops and stalls, and at the same time so close to the city center. The yuppies were moving in, and speculation reached heights never heard of before. Apartments were vacated, redeveloped and refurbished in luxury style. As an off-shoot of the 'Bewegig' a movement against housing shortage developed in the late eighties. Substantial numbers of people took to the street to protest against speculation and demand affordable housing. Several empty buildings - more than ever before - were occupied. The largest squat was that of the Wohlgroth premises in borough five, in close vicinity to the main station of Zürich. A center of 'alternative' culture was set up where eventually more than a hundred people were living and realizing their concept of life. The squat ended after three years with a large-scale evacuation in October 1993. The squatters were offered a vacant factory on the outskirts of town as an alternative. The Wohlgroth people, however - to the dismay of the media and a considerable part of the population who had been sympathetic to the Wohlgroth project so far - rejected this. But it is really obvious: the city is the place of innovation, and this is particularly true for social and cultural innovation of a type that took place in Wohlgroth. These cannot be realized in the suburbs. Everybody wants the center - the dissidents, too.


Empty buildings, interim use, free space

The structural change that started in the seventies lead to more and more abandoned industrial sites. At first, the service sector elbowed into these areas. The conservative politicians wanted to leave these areas fully to the booming economy. The political left wanted a structured development. The fight for these vacant industrial sites lasted until the cantonal government (with a conservative majority) intervened in 1996 and gave consent for office development.

But: the situation had changed radically since the boom years. In the first place, speculation had slackened considerably, and secondly the demand for office space fall. This was due to the onsetting recession and also to the fact that the creation of value is being realized with less and less people on increasingly small surfaces. Conclusion: the desired well-stocked demand for industrial sites was absent.

Some factory owners realized that they would not be able to profitably dispose of their sites within a reasonable time. Instead of letting them stand empty, they let the rooms to artists and promoters etc. at low cost. This way they not only made a modest amount of money, but also prevented occupation by squatters. In the course of the last twenty years in Zürich have been implemented more than two dozens interim - and in some instances permanent - use projects in vacant industrial sites for cultural ventures in the largest sense of the word.

On these vacant industrial sites in Zürich and in other places a cultural life grew beyond anything that had existed before. The sites became areas of tolerance where consumption was not compulsory, but space for meetings, for rehearsal, for simply being, for experimenting and getting together, they became free spaces. Many of them, however, only survived for a short period.


Zentralstrasse 150 - workshops, living quarters and ‘All’

In the beginning of 1995 the upper floors of Zentralstrasse 150 were taken up as living and working space: the ground floor and the basement were occupied by ‘All’. For these spaces the following factors were decisive in the creation:

1. The recession, sinking pressure on the city, continuously decreasing space requirements of enterprises, and the relocation of production to the countryside or abroad led to more and more abandoned industrial sites and, as from the early nineties, empty office buildings. Such an empty office building is Zentralstrasse 150.

2. In the course of the last fifteen years of the 'Bewegig' and the Stauffacher squat the people of Karthago had acquired an astonishing amount of skills in organization and the implementation of ideas, and in particular in dealing with authorities, politicians, real estate owners, sponsors, which eventually lead to the purchase of Zentralstrasse 150.

3. There was (and is) a great demand for low rent work space by artists of all kinds in advertising, design, film, music, sound, in fashion, architecture and tour operating, even in writing. In a word: a flourishing sector of 'new creatives' depends on such interim use in order to survive in a market where they are needed as suppliers of new ideas. For the period of 1995-1996 the Karthago people were free to sublet the house as they pleased.

4. The 'All' as a bar and meeting point, a site for raves and parties, a place for exhibitions and performances and laboratory for avant-garde art developed from the explicit resolution to create a free space for just such activities. This decision was based not only on the fact that other important spaces for social and cultural innovation such as the 'Wohlgroth' no longer existed, but also on the fact that different scenes wanted to build up something new together. In this case, the skills acquired in appropriating space and setting the scene for cultural events was an important prerequisite for the creation of 'All'.

It was not just an accident that creative, innovative, fertile, even workaholic forces came together at Zentralstrasse 150. The upper floors were leased deliberately, and the ‘All’ in the lower floors was planned in minute detail by a only a few people intent on shaping a soruce for overall artwork. A lucky strike, because the encounter grew into a mutually enriching conglomerate.

The ‘All’ bar on the ground floor became an important meeting point once a week for a city-wide exchange for ideas. The atmosphere felt like the sum or rather the hum of a multitude of projects. Media representatives of the most varied origins, activists of today and yesterday, advertising artists and promoters, one-man or one-woman entrepreneurs, people on the dole and artists from the backwoods stranded here with high hopes. To a background of muted Techno music and with a drink in their hands these people were enjoying a new rendez-vous: at last another free space! On the other hand, if you came along playing the fiddle, you would not be able to penetrate the bustling of loquacious busybodies. The same fate suffered those who on the spur of the moment tried to show films, recite poems, or play music as the author. All projects had to be discussed and approved beforehand.

On the lower floors, however, culture was not something to be talked about, but to be experimented, to be lived and driven to extremes. Raves, parties, after hours: break-through of extremes, emergence of suppressed emotions, an expression of staging oneself to compensate for an inhibited and trivialized everyday life. Here there was leeway for individual freedom.

The occupants of the upper floors were, as mentioned, a colorful flock of creative, innovative, to some extent passionate workers and for the most part young people. Creative work was done in a variety of areas like film, painting, performance art, advertising, design, writing, tour operating etc. The density of information produced and available with such a grouping was inevitably high. Encounters at least in the staircase and cooperation of these creative people was programmed. Owing to the low rent tiny enterprises were thriving in an inspiring environment.

At the same time, Zentralstrasse 150 was a mirror of development in general. The number of small companies with less than ten employees has been increasing for years, while the number of other enterprises has been decreasing since 1991. The reason for this is, on the one hand, the fact that with the high number of unemployed many are trying to make their living by establishing their own company. On the other hand many of the large enterprises are outsourcing more and more of their services, making use of external consultants or suppliers. This is obviously saving costs, because, as an example, it will be the responsibility of these smaller companies to pay their own staff. In a one-man or one-woman company this problem will not arise: either you get an order or you don't. In times when orders are not easy to come by, this will lead to self-exploitation being taken for granted. Cities of the world economy or global cities, however, depend on these 'new creatives' who just barely survive with their own mini-enterprise.


The Thesis of Global Cities

Zurich is probably in the second row of Global Cities. The uncontested leaders are New York, London and Tokyo. Global cities are those cities in which the worldwide decisions of transnational corporations are made and from where the majority of global financial transactions are controlled. Even if certain strategic functions of a corporation are relatively free in the selection of their location, they are still concentrated in the centers of the major cities. Saskia Sassen even recognized a specific concentration in spite of the options of telematics. This concentration is explained by the specialized services of computer science and advertising, financial, legal and other consulting firms catering to big business being dependent on cities, i.e. the proximity of other specialists. Only this way they are able to keep up with the high speed of innovation and product development. Corporations, on the other hand, depend on the production complex of these specialists serving corporate interests. In the global cities the highly sophisticated services and telecommunication infrastructure required for the implementation and management of global economic activities are available. Stock, securities and foreign currency transactions of all kinds have left behind the importance of traditional commerce and industrial production. Direct investments worldwide in foreign currencies in the eighties tripled as compared to goods export. In parallel with this globally active sector of the affluent and the rich there is, however, the sector of the miserably paid cleaning staff, maintenance personnel and unskilled labor, made up to a large extent by immigrants. In the global cities the dwellings of these are in the immediate neighborhood of city centers.


Culture, Production of Culture, and Subculture in the Logic of the Global Cities

Let's pursue the theory of global cities further to include culture, the production of culture, and subculture in order to finally arrive at the thesis that cities need places like Zentralstrasse 150.

The established culture today is a well functioning commercial entity, aiming at a blend of adventure and event, and a central urban factor. One of its manifestations is the 'festivalizing' of cities described by Margit Mayer and Bernd Hamm in this book. The limits of good taste have mixed socially with pop culture. A corporate consultant may be a fan of Lou Reed - like the Czech President -, find La Traviata grandiose, dance through the night at a rave, and eat breakfast at the Red Factory on Sunday morning, without ever having any personality or other problems. A rich cultural environment is an asset for a city which is also used for promotion of inward investment of cities. For the sector of the affluent and rich it is an essential ingredient of a place worth living in. Concerts, theater, opera, musicals, exhibitions and festivals of all sort are essential characteristics of an 'important' city.

But what about subculture, that kind of culture which is not promoted and subsidised by public funds, and which is the manifestation of a part of the city population wanting to be different? The most innovative product developments in the form of cultural creations take place in subcultures. Call them avant-garde or trend setters, they are taking place at particular places under particular conditions: in garages, in abandoned industrial sites, most often in temporary arrangements, in places where people meet to bring their ideas to reality, at Zentralstrasse 150. And: they are ahead of their time, and one fine day they will be commercially usable.

Established culture as well as subculture are the urban substrate on which people thrive whose job it is to develop new products; these may be financial, fiscal, promotional or cultural products such as festivals or commercial raves. Whatever the type of product, they have to be one up on the competition, they have to be innovative - and they need to have a market, be on demand. In the global cities thesis, it is the corporation-oriented services which are responsible for the consistent growth of the cities, for their concentration of power and capital. These corporation-oriented services depend on vicinity and information in order to survive on a competitive market and maintain their innovative potential. The innovators in the enterprises of corporation-oriented services need a creative environment in which to spend their leisure time, look around, finding inspiration. This need can be met by the established culture.

What is essential, however, is that subculture is an important supplier of product development, in particular in the area of advertising art, fashion, design, layout, language, and music. Advertising and the media virtually draw their creative capital from the subculture. I have been looking for an accurate term for this process, until I came across a company on the Internet describing the company profile as follows: 'marketing activities in overlapping scenes’ or 'szeneübergreifende Massnahmen' in German. This expression accurately describes the process. 'in overlapping scenes' means nothing other than transactions from one 'scene' to the next with the objective to open up the widest possible segments of population for the products of the transnational corporations. This company is tied to other mini-enterprises (dance agency, computer shop, hair stylist, Close Combat Underwear and others) in a deserted office building on the periphery of the city. It offers night-life guides and promotion for the tobacco and liquor giants. What looks like something purely for scene insiders on the homepage in reality proves to be a cultural transaction company acting from the innovative, creative subculture straight into the marketing strategies of transnational corporations.

An example for the speed with which cultural innovations may be marketed is the 'Bewegig'. After the riots of the Opernhaus hardly a few weeks passed before the design of sprayed slogans, flyers, and pamphlets appeared on commercial posters. Rock music, of course, also was big business right from the start. But in the nineties everything is much closer, flowing into each other and everything happens very fast. Techno as a youth culture has been absorbed by the market. In the meantime even the city utility companies are acting as tour promoters for parties, together with the third program of public radio, aimed at a young audience. Sponsors are ABB, Sulzer, Chesterfield - all of them international corporations with a cash flow in the billions. The rooms of the city electricity works in the past were utilized to transform alternate current into direct current. With new technology only a fraction of the space is needed for this process. The building may not be demolished, however, as it is protected under the historical monuments act, which led to the idea of a party. The party extended over three nights on April 4, 5 and 6 1997. Each night was dedicated to one form of power generation: hydro night, atomic and solar night. While in Germany the Castor transports with nuclear waste were fighting their way through protesting crowds with a huge deployment of police forces, in Zürich crowds were dancing around the golden calf of nuclear power, sponsored by ABB Switzerland. The flyers posted up before the event were in state-of-the-art design, even the logo for radioactivity looked really sweet. This is the culmination of a policy of capitalizing culture imaginable only in the nineties.

But inside the youth culture around Techno there are other forms of evolution going on as well. One such way was chosen by the 'happy people'. The 'happy people' not only lived and worked closest to the sky on Zentralstrasse 150, they are also the operators of open-air techno parties. Together with the fun this kind of Techno offers they also managed to establish a small enterprise which seems to survive beyond Zentralstrasse.



Cities - cities of the world economy in particular - enable cultural innovations such as those taking place on Zentralstrasse 150, and they need them to feed the market with new ideas. Culture, production of culture, and subculture always found ways and means to claim and occupy space. Industrial sites were joined by deserted office buildings. The empty buildings are one by one filled with mini-enterprises offering the most unconventional services in the area of media, advertising, and culture: consulting, marketing, organization, event operating, and even security operations. They depend on low rent and a maximum of information exchange on trends, new developments and hits.

The 'new creatives' of Zentralstrasse 150 found new space when the project ended, establishing themselves. One room was moved as a piece of art to the Centre de l'art contemporain in Geneva even before the interim use ended. Several artists relocated to the neighboring estate on Zentralstrasse 156. Some others found common workshops in other abandoned industrial or office sites. The 'All’ no longer exists. But the constellations and cooperation that had grown in the two years of interim use prove to be enduring. Some of the new creatives had been known or even famous already before their time at Zentralstrasse 150, some became known during that period, and still others will make it - certainly.

Culture is not the same anymore. At Zentralstrasse 150, creativity was not used to shock the establishment with incredible happenings, to claim space and rights, to fight injustice, transnational corporations and class arrogance, or to establish a different society, but in the first place to create and live culture, to survive financially, to find shelter in interim use to make a living from a mini-enterprise, and to have fun doing all this, and if necessary associate with others to find a path into an uncertain future. Today's subculture moves in the soma of a linked digital world. It has sucked in the destruction of forests with mother's milk as a baby, accepted AIDS as part of the initiation rites, and come to take the glitter and make-believe of the postmodern age for granted.

Zentralstrasse was a bit of leeway in the capitalist shell of the artificial consumption-inducing logic of Zürich's moneygrubbers and their staff of servile consulting specialists.


1. P.M.: bolo'bolo, Paranoia-City publishers, Zürich, extended and improved edition 1986
2. Only in 1996 a group of people (among them the author of this contribution) decided to produce a book on Zentralstrasse 150 which appeared end of 1997: Zentralstrasse, Edition Patrick Frey, Scalo-Verlag, Zürich 1997
3. cf. Hansruedi Hitz, Christian Schmid, Richard Wolff: Boom, Konflikt, Krise - Zürichs Entwicklung zur Weltmetropole, in: Hitz et al.: Capitales Fatales. Urbanisierung und Politik in den Finanzmetropolen Frankfurt und Zürich. Rotpunktverlag, Zürich 1995, p. 213 ff.
4. Mitscherlich, Alexander: Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte. Eine Anstifung zum Unfrieden. Frankfurt 1965
5. The 'Rote Fabrik' today is an established center for alternative culture. (see the article in the book „A Star is born". The AJZ was torn down in spring 1982.
6. An example for this trend was Heinrichstrasse 137. After 1987 teh property changed ownerschip twice, both times at a massive price increase. After rent increases, teh tenants were given notice in 1989. On july 10, 1990 the house was squatted. The last owner went bankrupt in 1992f. Together with a communal housing foundation the squatters were able to acquire the estate in 1993 for a third of the prize paid at the last "Röntgenblick", no 3.
7. cf. also Philipp Klaus:: Leisure in Abandoned Industrial Areas. Between Marketing Concept and Self-Help Project, FUTURES, vol. 28, No.2, Oxford 1996, and Das Buch Wohlgroth, Edition Patrick Frey, Zürich 1994
8. Martin Blum, Andreas Hofer, P.M.: KraftWerk 1, Projekt für das Sulzer Escher-Wyss Areal, Zürich 1993
9. In the city of Zürich alone there is an estimated surface of vacant office space of 500'000 m2. This equals 6,6% of the total office space available. In the metropolitan area of Zürich this percentage is even higher with almost 20%. Back in 1990 there was no excess capacity at all. Information taken from: Wüest und Partner: Monitoring, Zürich 1996, p. 95.
10. A list of 'Culture and leisure factories' for whole Switzerland is included in: Philipp Klaus und Roger Monnerat: WoZ-Dossier Fabrikalternativen, Die Wochen-Zeitung No. 16, April 21, 1995.
11. Attempts have been made time and again to classify cities based on certain criteria such as number of international representations, entertainment etc. Depending on the criteria selected, this classification will vary. An overview of the different classifications can be found in Angelo Rossi: Concurrence territoriale et réseaux urbains. L'armature urbaine de la Suisse en transition. vdf, Zürich 1995, p. 105ff.
12. Saskia Sassen: Cities in a World Economy, Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 1994 / Metropolen des Weltmarktes, Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt a.M. 1996
13. This was the subject of an exhibition of the Museum für Gestaltung, August 31 to October 23, 1988 'Anschläge - Plakatsprache in Zürich 1978-1988'




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