So where do the Smurfs live? If those famous little blue creatures with the white hats have a life outside the cartoons, their place of residence might just be Geneva. Because this serious-looking Swiss city, which keeps its joie de vivre under wraps, the city of Lake Leman, of the UN office and the old town on the hill, hides an open secret.
The city of international organizations has another side to it: the bizarre appearance of parts of Les Grottes, a neighbourhood located behind the Cornavin railway station just to the northwest of the city centre. Here, the spirit of the Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudi is a palpable presence. This is how the architects Robert Frei, Christian Hunziker and Georges Berthoud wished it when they built a residential complex here between 1982 and 1984.
And the results are surprising. As they say on Swiss Tourism’s official website, this part of town offers “balconies in relief, wrought iron railings and, above all, no straight lines!” The buildings’ extravagant design, deliberately asymmetrical, has an apparent chaos within which a strange order grows. So where do the Smurfs come in? The neighbourhood’s nickname has come about due to the “resemblance between these dwellings and the houses in which the little cartoon characters live.” These strange, rather dreamlike surroundings evoke the mushrooms that house the legendary figures created by Peyo, the illustrator Pierre Culliford.
It is said that Gaudi was once asked why his columns were slanted and he replied: “For the same reason why, when the tired walker stops, he supports himself with his stick inclined, since, if he put it vertically he would not rest.” If this is so, then we must suppose that the dwellings at Les Grottes are having a good rest. Yet if the buildings rest, the observer does not: absorbed in the colourful facades and undulating outlines, this visual outburst is vigorous food for our stimulated imaginations. “The straight line is for man, but the curve belongs to God,” said Gaudi. And if he was right, then in Geneva there is a housing complex from heaven.
The name is a little misleading: in Les Grottes, there are no grottos or caves. The name comes from a small river that once crossed the area. Formerly called Nant des Crottes, it became known as Nant des Grottes because its waters created pools and marshy spots that greatly inconvenienced the area’s residents. But how did the neighbourhood’s architectural rarities, with their sloping walls and unusual ornaments, come about?
The pre-history begins in 1850, when Les Grottes became a part of Geneva city as the centre expanded. In origin it had a population of industrial workers and artisans. Much has happened since then, but the neighbourhood is still characterized by its vitality and a hard-working mindset, as well as a creative streak that has stayed alive over the centuries and which stems from the artistic and craft labour of the inhabitants.
The architecture, design and decoration website RevistaDeck points out that these picturesque buildings are divided into three blocks, and they surprise because of their “striking constructions, which are reminiscent of the spiral building in Darmstadt, Germany.” A walk through Les Grottes contrasts with the serious financial and bureaucratic image of this immaculate Swiss city.
But the surface is never the whole story, and let it be remembered that for a long time the famous anarchist newspaper Le Révolté was based here, before the publication moved to Paris. Certainly, an unconventional spirit has always existed in this neighbourhood, which is now one of the city’s most visited areas, helped by its central location. On the city map, the streets that wind out from Cornavin Station write in free verse, so different from the traditional Swiss prose.
And when the sun goes down, you are in the right place. You may be in Switzerland, but take some time away from the clock. At night this is a hotspot of alternative bars and cafés: the perfect place to listen to music, seek inspiration and put the world to rights. Such a new world would reward daring, and in it zig-zag buildings like those of Les Grottes would be more common, and straight lines a good deal rarer. Yes, even in Geneva.