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Rennweg Well, Zürich

I am moving through Zürich while my wife stays still.

We’re pausing here for a night on our way home from Spain for the benefit of our little one, still in my wife’s belly. I’ve come in to the center to wander the streets.

Breaking off from the flow of trams, cars and people on Bahnhofstrasse, I head up Rennweg to have a closer look at an object that is doing a good job of staying still in the midst of the churning city. A large, polished steel cylinder. Sitting shiny and low to the ground, it’s only effort for attention is its reflection of the sun. No outward markings, no tourist plaques. It just sits quietly and still in the street exactly the same way that all celebrated objects don’t.

Peering over the side, a grate sits a few feet below. Plants grow at its edges – small ferns and plants born from the alignment of moisture, dirt and sun. Piecing together the ingredients of a grate and protective barrier, the usual assumption of a subway ventilation shaft comes to mind. As my eyes adjust to the darkness below the grate, I see a wide surface of water far below catching bits of light from the sky above. I realize there is more going on here than a functional vent. It is always pleasing when assumptions are wrong. Just below my chin my curiosity is answered with a small faded inscription:

“A former well dating from around 1300. The depth to the groundwater is about 10 meters. The spring was abandoned in 1740 and the well shaft was filled in. In 1999 the well was restored as part of the redevelopment of Rennweg.”

Knowing this, I walk down Kuttelgasse. Downhill from the well, I look back to appreciate the perpendicular X axis of history – layers of time, a measurement separate from the common horizontal Y axis of a city’s timeline. New streetscapes, paving, street furniture, planning schemes layer on top of each other over time. The buildings, residents and retail units of the surface layer have changed and morphed with time, tastes and desires. The well shaft cuts through the fluctuations of time, connecting the history above with the foundation of the city’s history below.

In 1300, the well would have been the catalyst, the enabler, of settlement and survival in this area of the city. Abandoning the well and filling it in after 1740 marked a developing city turning its back, or rather turning the ground, on the necessities of the well. Its restoration during the redevelopment of the area was a nod to the past, allowing residents a wormhole through time to see what was, while surrounded by what is.

Leaning against the rough hewn stone of a nearby building, I watch as the occasional tourist peeks quickly over the well’s edge. No one reads the inscription inside. No one spends enough time to let their eyes adjust to the ancient water source pooled below. Each quickly moves on, joining the flow of residents and shoppers. The cylinder and its contained history quietly holds itself in place, remaining still.

Published inZurich

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