by Emma Borgschulte
If you think unicorns are fairy-tale creatures that don’t really exist, maybe a visit to my hometown of Dübendorf, on the outskirts of Zurich, Switzerland, will change your mind. If you walk down the streets here, one unicorn after another pops out of the shadows. They were part of a beautification project to mark the 100th anniversary of Dübendorf’s Beautification Committee back in 2019. “The board members thought that we needed to do something special for the anniversary – something that would last,” says Esther Stockmann, who helped organise the event. “I talked a lot with my sister-in-law, and then she suddenly said: ‚What about Dübendorf’s heraldic animal? We could fill the town with unicorns!’” The result was a project that reached out to local people and institutions, and which helped me and many of my peers to feel more closely connected to our hometown. Dübendorf’s coat of arms pays tribute to its old feudal lords. The lower half depicts silver stripes on red ground and the upper half depicts, on blue ground, a golden unicorn.
“We asked the artist Bruno Eggenberger if he could make a prototype,” Ms Stockmann explains. This prototype then turned out to be the final result as his creation captured the hearts of the board members. With the help of Mr Eggenberger’s contacts and the support of the city council they were able to find a factory to produce the unicorns. To start with, they only ordered a few of the mystical creatures. „At the beginning we thought that if we could put 50 unicorns on the streets, we would be happy. But then the project gathered more and more momentum.“ Over time, more and more unicorns got ordered until 89 unicorns were bought.
The idea was that people could buy a unicorn and then paint, plant, or decorate it in whatever way they wanted. If someone wanted a unicorn, they had to sign a binding contract: the association didn’t want people to put their names down for a unicorn on a whim and then change their minds, leaving Dübendorf with a whole herd of unwanted unicorns.
A diverse group of people took part in the project: companies, schools, individual shops and private citizens. “And that was also our aim, that it should be supported in as many ways as possible.“ Many people turned it into a programme: banks, schools and kindergartens turned it into a team project. Esther Stockmann remembers: “People had to talk to each other a lot and whole families designed unicorns together. For that reason alone, there was a very good input.“
Every unicorn is unique. “A lot of thought went into it”, explains Jana Fenner a teacher who spray-painted a unicorn with my own primary school class back in 2019. I can still remember all the little things we had to do: from sanding down the unicorn, coming up with the idea of a galaxy themed unicorn, and then to try and implement this. We worked together with a professional artist and a specialist in spray colours. “It really welded our class together,” recalls my old classmate, Mia Wilhelmi. “It was a great adventure,” remembers Melina Vryonakis, another class member, fondly.
Even four years after the event, the unicorns are still there. “My son thinks they are really great; he loves to sit on them and plays with them every time he sees one,” says Jana Fenner. However, some people were less welcoming towards the unicorns. At the early beginning of the unicorns stay in Dübendorf, two of the statues were damaged. Ms Stockmann recalls: “A lot of people took to Facebook to warn that the project would turn into a huge mess, with mutilated unicorns on every corner.“ During the event, however, the people of Dübendorf became very protective of the colourful creatures and the number of mutilated unicorns stayed very small.
Dübendorf’s initiative is part of a change in the way that towns and cities across the world are approaching street art. The unicorns were in fact inspired by two similar projects in Zurich with life-size cows back in 1998 and then with bears in 2005. The cows, in particular, made headlines around the world and inspired similar projects in other countries. The idea of „beautifying“ urban spaces through offbeat art projects that actually involve local people – rather than simply hiring an artist to create a statue in the conventional way – has become increasingly popular. In Kentucky, the Paducah Power System worked with the city council and created the “Art in the Park” competition in which twelve artistic designs were chosen and the creators were allowed to paint these designs on special power boxes in a park.
Paradise Creek Gathering Place, an entry point to Kimball Park in National City has also beautified itself with the help of ARTS members, artists and locals. They created art that reflected the nature around itself, bringing the community together and helping young people, in particular to connect with the environment around them.
National City created a butterfly park, a community gathering place, with the help of hundreds of people ranging the ages 5 – 80. Here too, people created something for their city themselves and felt proud of the result.
As a citizen of Dübendorf, however, I have a special place in my heart for the unicorns. They are a way for me to connect to the town as I have directly contributed to something that makes Dübendorf what it is. Mia Wilhelmi feels similar as she states: “That I can connect this unicorn with our class fills me with pride every time and this pride of the unicorns unites Dübendorf as a community.” It’s fun to cycle through the city on a kind of unicorn hunt, finding sculptures in the most unexpected places. As Melina Vryonakis sums up: “These fairy-tale creatures add a touch of magic to the streets of Dübendorf.” However, if you do want to see a unicorn, you should hurry: unicorns, according to legend, can disappear as magically as they arrive!