Ville de Genève


Mise à jour: 20.03.2018

Monuments along the Plainpalais Cultural Trail

In addition to monuments, this dynamic district is home to outdoor spaces steeped in history that shape the popular urban image of contemporary Geneva.

The Parc des Bastions

Sentier culturel 3 - Parc des Bastions - Ville de Genève
© D. Baumann

A real breath of fresh air in the heart of the city, it is one of Geneva’s most visited parks. With its 150 varieties of trees and shrubs, it is located on the site of the former 16th and 17th century fortifications that buttressed the hill. In the early 18th century, local residents took to strolling in this open space, part of which was given over to kitchen gardens. In 1726, the authorities decided to make it a real public promenade: it was extended, trees were planted and benches installed. It became the "Belle Promenade".

Renamed the "Lycée de la Patrie" (Lyceum of the Fatherland) under the French occupation in the 1798, the park was the site for civic celebrations and home to the cavalry’s stables, later demolished to allow the planting of potatoes during the serious famine of 1816-1817. In 1817, Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle established the first Botanical Gardens there – but only after the potatoes had been harvested –, which included an orangery, greenhouses and a botanical conservatory. The construction of the university in 1873 and the bandstand in 1882 completed this park devoted to the sciences and leisure. The Parc des Bastions is used today for events such as the summer music festival (Fête de la musique), the start and finish lines of the Escalade foot race and the end of year school celebrations. The people of Geneva love to come here to relax, to eat, to play chess on giant chessboards or simply to walk through the park and escape for a moment from the hustle and bustle of city life.

The Reformation Wall

Sentier culturel 3 - Mur des Réformateurs - Ville de Genève
© O. Deslarzes

On the north side of the park stands one of the city’s most famous monuments, the Reformation Wall. Designed like a painting, this monument was intended to be commemorative and historical: in recognition of Geneva’s support for the Reformation (the small city republic endorsed the Reformation in 1536 and from then on became the European seat of Calvinism, the most rigorous form of Protestantism). At the centre are William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox, the four founding fathers of Calvinism. These 5 metre tall figures are dressed in the "Geneva Gown" and hold "La Petite Bible du Peuple chrétien" (The Christian People’s Little Bible). The motto of Geneva is engraved on the wall: Post Tenebras Lux (After the darkness, light), as well as two key dates: 1536 for the official adoption of the Reformation in Geneva and 1602 for the Escalade, when Geneva saved both its religious and its political independence. On either side of the central figures are statues and bas-reliefs representing major Protestant figures from the different Calvinist countries.

The result of a competition launched in 1907 by the committee of the Association for the Reformation Monument, the project by the Lausanne architects Alphonse Laverrière, Eugène Monod, Jean Taillens and Charles Dubois was selected out of 71 entries as it made good use of the old city walls against which it stands. In a geometric style that anticipates certain works of the inter-war period, it stretches for around a hundred metres in length. The statues themselves are the work of the French sculptors Henri Bouchard and Paul Landowski. The attention to detail that characterizes them owes much to the research of the historian Charles Borgeaud, who wished to protect the artists "from any historical heresy". Initially planned for the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth (1509-1909), the monument’s first stone was not laid until April 1911. The start of the First World War in 1914 brought work to a halt, since many of the stonemasons were drafted. It was finally unveiled on 7 July 1917.

By its size and abstract lines, this monument broke with the codes of commemorative statuary and struck a new balance between architecture, sculpture and inscriptions. Perhaps we can see in it the desire to celebrate history while not creating a personality cult about the figures represented.

The Place de Neuve and its institutions

Sentier culturel 3 - Place de Neuve - Ville de Genève
© R. Gindroz

As you leave the Parc des Bastions, the Place de Neuve opens out before you. During the 19th century, this square played a key role in the development of cultural and intellectual life in Geneva, with the successive construction of the Rath Museum (1824), the Music Conservatory (from 1858) and the Grand Théâtre, which opened in 1879. The cultural role of this part of town was further bolstered by the construction of the university, as mentioned above, of the Grütli School building (primary school, art school and industrial college) and of the Victoria Hall.

The Victoria Hall

Rue du Général-Dufour

Sentier culturel 3 - Victoria Hall - Ville de Genève
© R. Gindroz

Life-size and completely naked, the statue of "Harmony" on the facade of the Victoria Hall conceals nothing of her charms. When it was unveiled in 1894, this allegory attracted much ribald comment : such calm immodesty right next to the Grütli primary school did not go unnoticed. The work of Joseph Massarotti (after a model by the Parisian sculptor Jean Coulon), this well-rounded, curvaceous figure still invites us to push open the door to the building, the promise of beautiful harmonies.

The Victoria Hall owes its construction to the wealth of one man and the savoir-faire of another. Daniel Barton, the extremely rich British consul was a great friend of the architect John Camoletti. Both members of the Geneva Nautical Society, they shared a passion for sailing and music. Together they decided to provide Geneva with an acoustically superior concert hall.

Decorating the French "Beaux-Arts" style facade, the coats of arms of the Barton and Peel families (Peel was Mrs Barton’s maiden name) surmount the entrance. Above, a false loggia in Pompeian red with imposing Ionic columns sets off the allegory of Harmony. The more austere lateral sections are treated like massive corner towers, on which are engraved the names of sixteen symphonic composers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inside, after passing through the sobriety of the foyer and up the staircases, you come to the auditorium decorated in red and gold with neo-Baroque and Rococo stucco work and with a monumental organ (dating from 1993) as a backdrop.

Given to the City of Geneva in 1901, this concert hall, named after the Queen of England (and no doubt after Victoria-Alexandrina-Julia Peel Barton), was home to a wind symphony orchestra (the "Harmonie Nautique") until 1976, as well as symphonic orchestras such as the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (under the direction of Ernest Ansermet). Partly destroyed by arson in 1984 and since then carefully restored, the hall has been added to the cantonal list of heritage buildings. It is now mainly used for classical music concerts but also hosts some of the greates names from the world of song, jazz and world music.

The Synagogue

Place de la Synagogue

Sentier culturel 3 - Synagogue - Ville de Genève
© S. Margot-Calame

In the mid-19th century, the Radical Revolution brought Geneva into the modern era. Among the key changes, a new law instituting freedom of worship led to each of the different religious communities in the canton being allocated a piece of land for the construction of edifices such as the Russian church, a Masonic temple and the first synagogue in modern Switzerland. In 1857, five years after the Jewish community was first authorised in Geneva, the Zurich-born architect Jean-Henri Bachofen presented his final plans for the Grand Synagogue to the State of Geneva. With its large central dome flanked by four smaller ones, the building is remarkable for its orientalist style never before seen in Geneva.

For several years, the synagogue stood in splendid isolation on a vast tract of land left empty by the destruction of the ramparts. Finally, around 1870, the square assumed its definitive shape with the construction of the two rows of buildings that border it. The new road leading up to the front of the building created a perspective that gives its monumental status. Yet it was not until 1989 that the synagogue, renamed Beth-Yaacov (House of Jacob), was classed as a historical monument.

The current layout of the square, with its double line of trees and its fountain, was designed by the architect and urbanist Maurice Braillard (1879-1965), who was awarded the commission in 1944 by the City of Geneva.

The Cimetière des Rois

Rue des Rois

Sentier culturel 3 - Cimetière des Rois - Ville de Genève
© S. Margot-Calame

No monarch is actually buried in this "Cimetère des Rois", the Republic of Geneva’s very own Pantheon. Its name comes from the nearby shooting range of the Compagnie de l’Arquebuse (Company of Arquebusiers) where, every year since 1509, the title of  "roi" or "king" has been given to the marksman with the highest score, known as the "coup du roi" (2the king’s shot"). Established outside the city walls in 1482 near the plague hospital, the cemetery was first used for victims of the Black Death. It became Geneva’s main cemetery under Calvin. From 1833, only people who had purchased one of the expensive concessions could be buried here and the number of ordinary burials declined. The custom developed of burying famous people in this cemetery and even today it is reserved for "magistrates and notable figures who have contributed, through their life and actions, to the influence of Geneva". Here you can find the tomb of Rodolphe Töpffer, the inventor of the graphic novel and those of the Argentinian born writer Jorge Luis Borges, the philosopher Jeanne Hersch and the politicians Léon Nicole, James Fazy and Adrien Lachenal.

However, the most famous tomb in the cemetery is that of John Calvin. But is it really Calvin's? The reformer, who died in 1564 at the age of 55, had asked to be buried in an unmarked grave, without speeches or hymns. He was accordingly interred in the area reserved for religious ministers, with no exact indication as to the place of his burial. It was only in 1840 that a stone bearing the initials J.C. was laid at the supposed spot. In 1999, Calvin’s request was ignored for a second time. To please tourists and despite the anger of Geneva’s residents, a simulated tomb was erected, surrounded by a railing, and the stone of 1840 was complemented by a plaque with a detailed inscription. Everything that Calvin had feared!

Another tomb, visible from the entrance, does not go unnoticed: that of Georges Favon, who was born in the Plainpalais district. A pile of rocks is surmounted by a massive block of stone engraved with Freemasonry symbols. A Radical State Councillor from 1899 to 1902, Favon was also the Master of the Masonic Lodge of Fidelity and Prudence. According to the codes of Freemasonry, such a huge rough stone represents the human imperfections that Masons have to try to amend during their lifetime, aiming to make it as polished as possible, with the aid of the set square of moral superiority and the compass of spiritual wisdom. No-one can ever achieve this goal, but the greatness lies in the attempt.

The Rue des Bains

It is hard to imagine now that this district was subject for centuries to the course of the Arve River and its floods. Major work began in 1850 to build retaining structures and to raise land levels, making it possible to control the river and to develop the district. A tradition of bathing grew there, though the numerous pubic baths that existed have since disappeared.

In the late 19th century, the discovery of the beneficial effects of the waters of the Arve River led to the opening of baths, the most famous being Champel-les-Bains, which attracted a large cosmopolitan clientele. Cold baths, showers and Turkish baths were used to treat gout, neuroses or melancholia. The Arve Baths, at the end of the Rue des Bains (on the site of the Radio Télévision Suisse tower today), were more mainstream. They were demolished around 1920. The Rue des Bains is now a byword for contemporary art, since no less than 16 galleries or exhibition spaces are located on or near this street.

The Plaine de Plainpalais

Sentier culturel 3 - Plaine de Plainpalais - Ville de Genève
© D. Baumann

With its open space set against the backdrop of the Salève mountain and its panoramic view of the district, this huge brickred diamond-shaped plain, 640 metres long and 200 metres wide, is the heart of the Plainpalais district. It is a reference and meeting point, with its alternating flea markets and fresh produce markets, its games for people of all ages and the funfairs and circuses that visit several times a year.

For long a marshy island in the Arve delta, the plain was, from the 13th century onwards, a place dedicated to amusement, fairs and official ceremonies. After the destruction of the city outskirts in 1534, this vast space was used for staging military reviews and for shooting drills. The plain reverted to its previous entertainment and celebration functions in 1637 with the installation of a game of pall-mall (a precursor of croquet) that entailed the planting of an avenue of trees and once again the people of Geneva came here in droves. Its present shape dates back to around 1850 when it was the hugely popular location for the Rancy Circus, the Moulin Rouge cabaret, the Diorama, the national festivities on the 1st August, the federal gymnastic festivals and of course, the National Exhibition of 1896. In the first half of the 20th century it hosted in succession motor shows, flights in hot air balloons, airships and aeroplanes, as well as major political demonstrations, such as the tragic one of 1932 in which 13 anti-fascist militants and onlookers were shot and killed by an ill-prepared army. A commemorative stone was erected 50 years later at the extreme southern tip of the plain.

Commemorative art, ranging from Gérald Ducimetière’s bronze lifesize (and lifelike) statues on the Rond-point de Plainpalais or "Frankie" by the Klat collective which concludes this Trail, together with the fun concrete dunes designed for children's play by Carmen Perrin and the neon signs on the surrounding roofs along our "By Night" trail, make the Plaine de Plainpalais a unique window onto art in the public space.

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