Anyone who grew up in London in the ’80s and ’90s would have been probably been excited by the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square. Situated on the outside of the Swiss Centre, the clock used to play music, ring bells and feature moving figures dressed in Swiss costumes. I used to love standing and looking up at the glockenspiel in action as a young child. When the Swiss Centre was demolished in 2008 to make way for the W London hotel and M&M’s World, I was sad to see the glockenspiel go.
The Swiss Centre, a piece of Modernist architecture designed to showcase Swiss culture and encourage tourism, was built just west of Leicester Square in the Sixties. Opened in 1968, it consisted of a two-storey podium against a backdrop of a 14-storey tower block. The podium included a totem pole featuring Swiss motifs and adverts. On the Leicester Square facing side of the podium featured a Carillon – a musical instrument made of 27 bells set alongside 11 moving Swiss figures (carved by Fritz Fuchs in 1968). In 1984, the glockenspiel was added as a gift of friendship from Switzerland and Liechtenstein, making the Swiss Centre a popular stop for tourists and Londoners passing between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. On the hour, the clock would chime, the bells would ring and the figures would move around the curved wall.
However, the Swiss Centre never lived up to its expectations. The complex included the Swiss Tourist Board and other Swiss companies, including banks and restaurants. As time went on, non-Swiss businesses came and went, including nightclubs, tacky tourist shops and an art house cinema. In 2002, Westminster City Council concluded the Swiss Centre was failing as a building. It didn’t complement its neighbouring buildings and its Swiss theme in such a touristy part of the West End was confusing to many. In 2006, the council agreed to its demolition and by 2008, it was headed for history with the W London hotel built on the site. While there weren’t likely to be many sad about the removal of the Swiss Centre, plenty were lamenting the absence of the Glockenspiel. While the building is now a distant memory, its name lives on in Swiss Court – the name of the pedestrianised path leading from Leicester Square to Wardour Street.
In November 2011, the Swiss Glockenspiel was returned to Swiss Court, just metres from its original location. Derby clockmakers Smith of Derby worked with Swiss artists to redesign and restore the musical clock. Now a free-standing version, the 10 metre high Glockenspiel was officially inaugurated at a Swiss-themed ceremony. The clock is now wireless and controlled from Derby, while the Glockenspiel now plays new music written by London’s Royal Academy of Music and the University for Music and Art in Berne. A couple of metres away, stands a flag pole featuring the Confederation’s 26 state flags, which also used to stand on the Swiss Centre.
- Check out this YouTube video of the Glockenspiel on the Swiss Centre, filmed by David Gachechiladze shortly before demolition in 2007.
- The Swiss Glockenspiel stands on Swiss Court, Soho, W1D. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.
To read a review of the Afternoon Tea at the W Hotel on the old site of the Swiss Centre, click here.
To read more of Metro Girl’s London history blog posts, click here.