Basel In The Spotlight: The City That Learned to Love LSD
Seventy-five years ago, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann experienced the world’s first full-blown LSD trip on his way home from his lab in Basel. Hofmann had been researching the ergot fungus, hoping to develop a drug to treat fatigue. Among the compounds he was analysing was lysergic acid – Lysergsäure-Diethylamid in German, also known as LSD. On Friday 16 April 1943, Hofmann left the lab feeling a little dizzy: “I lay down and had these wonderful dreams – I saw every thought as an image,” he said in an interview for his 100th birthday. The chemist concluded that he had accidentally touched the substance, and was intrigued by its powerful effect.
Three days later, on 19 April, he returned to the lab and swallowed a tiny amount just to see what would happen: “As it later turned out, it was five times too much and gave me a horror trip.” He asked an assistant to take him home by bicycle, and Basel transformed into a panorama of hellish and heavenly visions. The bike seemed to freeze to the spot; a friendly neighbour turned into an evil witch. Hours later, Hofmann felt wonderful. “LSD called me, I didn’t seek it out,” he recalled. “It came to me.”
Today, Basel wears its psychedelic history with pride. Locals point out that the city has for centuries served as a safe haven for rebels and free thinkers. An exhibition at Basel’s Kunstmuseum celebrates Hofmann’s discovery in the context of the city’s creative history, pairing it with nightmarish, horror trip-like prints by Old Masters such as Bruegel. Thousands of visitors are expected to flock to Basel to celebrate “Bicycle Day”, as 19 April is known among the cognoscenti. And researchers are studying LSD’s medical properties again, shrugging off decades of stigma.
Switzerland’s relatively permissive regulations around researching LSD have helped the renewed effort to understand its medical potential. New methods, including advanced brain scanners, also give unprecedented insights into its effects. One study by the Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser has recently shown that LSD can be used to reduce a sense of existential fear. Its capacity to induce feelings of deep bliss raise the prospect of therapeutic uses, for example to treat depression.
“LSD is a Baseler product,” said Matthias Liechti, a clinical pharmacologist at University Hospital Basel, who leads a research project on the effects of LSD on the human mind and body. “It’s tied to Basel’s history as a centre of pharmacology and innovation.”
Sandoz, the chemicals company in whose labs Hofmann discovered LSD, has since merged with its rival, Ciba, to create the chemicals giant Novartis. In general the chemicals and pharma business has shaped urban life in Basel, most recently through the Novartis Campus, a $2.3bn research and development centre in the St Johann neighbourhood, with a centrepiece designed by Frank Gehry. The campus has attracted global talent, but some locals warn that an influx of wealthy newcomers is pushing up prices and crowding out poorer locals. “From working-class area to hip chemistry-corner,” wrote local journalist Andreas Schwald about the rapidly changing neighbourhood last year. He points out that while the area offers a bustling, interesting mix of students and expats, cheap housing for poorer families is under threat. Overall, rents in Basel have risen 15% over the past decade, pushing up the general cost of living – which is rising faster than anywhere else in Switzerland.
History in 100 words
Basilia was first mentioned in 374 CE, having started as a small Celtic settlement by the Rhine. Its reputation as an innovation hub began in 1460, with the founding of Basel University, Switzerland’s oldest, which in 1661 acquired the world’s first public art collection – setting Basel’s other big theme, fine art. During the Reformation, silk dyers arrived, laying the foundation for Basel’s pharmaceutical and chemicals companies. In 1897, Basel hosted the First Zionist Congress under Theodor Herzl. In 1996, Sandoz – in whose labs Hofmann discovered LSD – and its rival Ciba merged to create the chemicals giant Novartis.
Basel in sound ...
Musically speaking, Basel’s most important contribution to pop culture may indeed be LSD. Countless songs have been inspired by Hofmann’s discovery at the Sandoz lab, and it’s hard to think of a chemical compound with a broader and deeper musical influence. “Well I met a girl called Sandoz, and she taught me many, many things ...” sang the Animals. Even in current LSD studies, psychedelic music is played to the participants. On the other hand, John Lennon tried hard to dispel the rumour that the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was a nod to the substance and its acronym.
... and vision
Art Basel is one of the world’s most famous and extravagant art fairs, with off-shoots in Hong Kong and Miami Beach. But locals say there’s much more to Basel’s art scene than record prices. The city’s free-thinking legacy has inspired a robust counter-cultural tradition – with or without the help of mind-altering substances.
Sebastien Pierre Portron, an art consultant, grew up here and returned to the city three years ago after some time abroad. “People from all over Europe have been coming here for centuries,” he said. “Not just artists but different people from all cultures, all religions. In the arts, people came to Basel from very early on. Holbein the Elder and the Younger came here to develop and promote their art, and many others followed – Picasso, and more recently, even Ai Wei Wei.”
Portron works for Artstübli, a gallery set up by a local curator, Philipp Brogli, that promotes urban art. The gallery works with newcomers as well as more established urban artists. Among them is the French artist Invader, famous for his “space invader” mosaics in public spaces – of which there are 24 in Basel alone.
Gen Atem, a Swiss urban artist based in New York and Zurich, remembers being one of the first contributors to Basel’s budding graffiti scene in the 1980s. “I used to take the train from Zurich to Paris or Amsterdam, because at the time, a lot of good sprayers were there,” he said. “My train passed Basel, and I looked out of the window and noticed that all the walls there were still empty. And that’s how it started.”
He says now the urban art scene in Basel has overtaken that of Zurich, its longtime rival. Basel’s location helps – it sits between Switzerland, Germany and France, attracting artists from all over. And Art Basel is pulling in more and more graffiti artists as the boundary between commercial and street art increasingly dissolves.