Changes on Bahnhofstrasse have been the order of the day since the very beginning. There have always been many reasons for this too. But without permanent change, Bahnhofstrasse would not be what it is today: a shopping boulevard, workplace and tourism magnet with global appeal. The comprehensively renovated Swiss Life Brannhof also contributes to this.
In the course of the 19th century, Zurich developed into a major Swiss city and an economic centre. Following the example of Paris and other major European cities, Zurich planned a prestigious boulevard with perimeter block developments, straight lines and modern shops.
The world-famous Bahnhofstrasse was built above the Fröschengraben, a medieval moat. As a result of this large-scale urban planning intervention, hardly one stone was left on top of the other. Increasingly, apartments were being converted for office purposes. Economic and social development led to the transformation of the once mixed residential area into a business and administrative centre. With its current length of 1.4 km, Bahnhofstrasse was completed in the 1880s and has since stretched from the station via Paradeplatz to Bürkliplatz on Lake Zurich.
A pioneer from the very beginning: Julius Brann
With the continuous development of Bahnhofstrasse, a renewal of office building architecture also began around 1900. Instead of the previous shop windows set back in arcades, glass fronts were created in the façade recess, and customers no longer climbed small steps to reach the shop entrances but entered at ground level. This process of city building gave Bahnhofstrasse a metropolitan flair with new building types such as office buildings and department stores.1
Julius Brann was a pioneer from the very beginning: in 1896, he founded Switzerland's first department store in Zurich. In 1912 he had the striking new building constructed at Bahnhofstrasse 75; it is still standing today and was expanded at the end of the 1920s. It was a true temple of consumerism, in which a hitherto unknown quantity and variety of goods was offered over several floors. It is therefore not surprising that this new form of retail has developed into an absolute crowd-puller.
Bahnhofstrasse remained a constantly changing street. This was the theme of the Brann department store when it celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1936. In a full-page advertisement entitled “Wer kennt ALT Zürich?” (Who knows OLD Zurich?), people of all ages were invited to take part in a competition. They were asked to indicate, on the basis of models displayed in shop windows and on sales areas, which buildings they were, where they had once stood and what was now in their place. Many things had changed in the course of forty years: “Our grandparents’ Zurich, old-fashioned and homey, has given way to a modern city. Many of the characterful buildings that were a hallmark of old Zurich have disappeared”.2
Changing shopping habits
The building that Julius Brann constructed back then has survived. With additions and extensions from 1927/1929 it is still standing today and has been given a new lease of life as “Swiss Life Brannhof” following its extensive renovation in 2020–2023.
In fact, the architectural appearance of Bahnhofstrasse has changed much less in the last fifty years than in the more than one hundred years before. This is partly due to increasing public awareness of historical buildings and the need to protect them. But while many of the facades look like they used to, the use of the rooms and areas has constantly adapted to new demands and trends.
Today, Bahnhofstrasse is home to shops of international brands alongside traditional Swiss companies, as well as boutiques, watch and jewellery shops and a variety of culinary offerings. Mono-brand stores, showrooms and pop-up stores – which have long since ceased to be just a temporary use concept – have been added in recent years.
Everything has also become faster and more short-lived. In the stores, stagings and shop window decorations change almost overnight in order to continuously offer customers new shopping experiences. And not to forget online retail, which has also led to a change in shopping behaviour and raises the question of how retail space can be used attractively and profitably in the future.
Active real estate management is key
These changes and developments are also challenging property owners: active real estate management is required to successfully let the available space on the market. The aim is to develop the properties in such a way that location, space and use complement each other as best as possible. In addition to extensive market knowledge, this requires in particular a continuous review of the portfolio and regular investments in the structure and fit-outs.
In urban locations such as Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse vacancies are usually low, and above-average rents are being achieved. At the same time, however, real estate management faces the highest demands: owners need to understand both history and trends and take them into account when developing buildings.
The renovation, revitalisation and re-letting of the properties at Bahnhofstrasse 75/79, at “Swiss Life Brannhof”, also plays a role in this context. Following the extensive restoration of the historic building structure, all the technical installations were modernised, the building's energy efficiency and earthquake safety were improved, while tenant fit-outs on the retail and office space are still underway. This shows how important it was and still is to address the wishes and needs of future tenants and their customers at an early stage. This is the only way to meet the rapidly changing requirements and to keep a property fit for purpose for the next twenty or thirty years. With a diverse mix of tenants and a varied range of offerings, this is a new meeting place for lingering, working and shopping. – Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse keeps reinventing itself.
Karin Pache, Communications, Swiss Life Asset Managers
1 Office for Urban Planning of the City of Zurich, Preservation of Monuments, March 2013
2 NZZ, 18.11.1936