First appeared in The Woolf
Notes from the Unexpected
Profile: Rote Fabrik
Another day, another train ride – and the whoosh of brick, graffiti and thicket still makes little sense. A constant of the commute and Zurich’s most unlikely landmark, the sprawling red jumble not only follows its own logic, but dares to do so on what is now prime lakefront property.
Then again, the Rote Fabrik got here first.
At one time a silk-weaving mill on the outskirts, the ‘red factory’ dodged the wrecking ball in the early 1970s to eke out a new life as a cultural center. Its real rebirth came in 1980, when throngs of the young and forgotten rejected the establishment definition of culture – which infamously excluded rock music and the more experimental youth arts scene. Words mattered when the lavish funding went elsewhere, mainly to the Zurich Opera House. But history ran its course: riots ensued, the Fabrik got its subsidies and, within a generation, unsuspecting opera audiences might catch some full-frontal before the night was through.
Today, the Rote Fabrik churns out a packed program of theater and dance, as well as reams of rock, indie, rap and jazz gigs. The organization behind the cultural center is also responsible for the themed events, from poetry slams to debates about the migrant crisis. With its bustling agenda, the place has its fans. Or maybe it’s just because the Rote Fabrik is the only spot I know where the heavily-inked, stroller-bound and chess-playing are equally welcome to grab some homemade carrot cake and mill around the still-drying tags. For some, it’s all a bit messy.
“Like the zoo,” says Sarah, one of seventeen in the management team, “I think sometimes people see us as a zoo. As in, what we do over here is just about acceptable, but at least it’s contained.”
The site does appear unruly, with its concert halls, artists’ studios and sailing school, not to mention the bike shop, kindergarten, museum and restaurant. As much of this is tucked away or camouflaged by graffiti, extra time must be budgeted to find the right door. And then, there is the exotic way things run: as a collective.
Here, equal salaries reign and inexperience counts. As Sarah puts it, “It’s not as easy to understand as a bank.” But rules are in place – the team is adamant that tolerance not be confused with anarchy – and those who become a member of the Rote Fabrik get to shape it.
I look through the industrial-sized windows at the lake. Just out of view, a new multi-million-franc walkway juts into the water and connects the Rote Fabrik to more familiar shores. A marina, swanky restaurant and boutiques are only five minutes away – and their counterpoint, five back.