Bern: a Model Medieval City Plan

The Geneva Journals Day 6
Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
Our clients highly recommend that we see Bern before leaving Switzerland. We purchase tickets and board the train the next day. We have no idea that we are about to see a model medieval city that incorporates the amenities of modern life and design. On the train ride northeast into the German-speaking region of Switzerland, we see spectacular views of the Jura mountains, quaint villages where homes are built into the ends of barns housing livestock, and hillsides of grape vines in the snow.

The Zytglogge clock tower, a medieval landmark of Bern's Old Town, filled with row houses, fountains, and arcades

In the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and beginning of the Renaissance, the era known as the Dark Ages, economies were rooted in agriculture and the feudal system was used to create order. Merchants and craftsmen formed guilds to strengthen their social and economic position; wars were created by rivaling feudal lords. Early medieval towns were dominated by a church, monastery, or castle of lords. For protective measures, towns were sited on irregular terrain, occupying hilltops or islands and had informal and irregular development. Church plazas evolved into market places, where roads radiated away from the plazas to city gates, then to secondary lateral roadways connecting them. Castles used surrounding walls and moats as protective elements. Irregular planning patterns in layout confused enemies, as they were unfamiliar with villages. Pedestrian traffic used the streets; wheeled vehicles were restricted to main roads.

The city of Bern is an exceptionally clear example of medieval town planning. Despite changes that may have occurred over the course of its history, many original structures remain intact. It is rightfully designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded on three sides by the startling green waters of the Aare River, it is readily seen that medieval urban settings can adapt to meet the requirements of modern capital cities. Bern's cityscape, shaped initially by its compact medieval rows of houses, now includes arcades, cellars, fountains, elegant and imposing government/administrative buildings, intricate public transportation, and an impressive skyline of structures that colorfully dot the sloping hills beyond its city center.

The Ryfflibrunner Fountain, depicting the hero with the bear, the symbol of Bern

The Zytglogge is the landmark medieval clock tower in the Old City. It is one of the three oldest clocks in Switzerland that have existed since the early 13th century. Its name translates literally to "time bell." During the second half of the 13th century, the Nydegg Castle was strengthened and connected to a new west city wall to protect four streets known as "Savoy City.' The new west wall included a gate known as Kafigturm (prison tower). In the 14th century, a third wall and tower Christoffelturm (St. Christopher Tower) was built to protect the growing population and six new streets. The bell towers feature mechanical figures that include a rooster, knight, piper, lion, and bears that put on a show. 'In the day,' small crowds always gathered to wait for the show to begin.

There are over 100 public fountains in the city of which eleven are crowned with Renaissance allegorical statues. The fountains were originally built as the public water supply. There is a blindfolded female figure holding the sword of truth called the Justice Fountain; figures of the Pope, the Sultan, the Kaiser, the Emperor, and the Mayor are placed at her feet.  Other fountains feature a Banner Carrier, Moses bringing the Ten Commandments to the Tribes of Israel, Samson killing a lion, a hero in armor with a Bear Statue at his feet, an Ogre statue called Kindlifresserbrunnen ("child eater") to scare disobedient children, and the Anna Seiler fountain, memorializing the founder of Bern's first hospital in 1354.

The beauty of this World Heritage Site is that it provides the visitor with an example of how a thriving, functional modern city can co-exist with much of its original medieval infrastructure. It elevates our understanding of sensitive, sustainable planning and design.

 


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