Bikini Goebbels

The other day I was listening to ‘Bikini Girls with Machine Guns’:

I misheard the lyrics as “Bikini Goebbels with Machine Guns.” Now I can’t get the image of Goebbels in a bikini out of my mind. And neither can you. You’re welcome.

Giant Cavernous Halls, Pointless Niches, Frozen Death-Slides

My post on German universities attracted a great comment from an insider called “Hausmeister” (building superintendent):

As someone who works in one of these and is deeply familiar with the technical building details, I doubt that they were build the way they are to save money.

– buildings tend to have large, unusable, multi-story, inside spaces that are the result of poor alignment of lecture rooms and outside features of the buildings. Huge amounts of space are wasted.

– nearly every part is completely custom. Windows, -grips, balconies, ceiling tiles etc. are all custom designs. You would think it would be cheaper to design a building around off-the shelf items and dimensions, but this hasn’t happened. Germany pioneered the DIN norms that have become the template for most of all international norms, but at the same time, we constructed buildings that did not follow any of the preferred dimensions or recommendations of these norms.

A big issue for us today, because we can’t get replacements for anything.

– a massive amount of space went into architectural statements instead of utilitarian buildings. Look at military barracks, they are build to be cheap. But this is not what German universities look like.

There are some 50s buildings that were constructed under much more severe constraints. These are utilitarian, square, have small rooms that are a bit claustrophobic, they are built cheaply – but surprisingly, they are much more pleasant to work in and still have a lot of charm.

In the 50s, no architect would have wasted space and money for the multistory pillars and the balcony in the picture above, all for a space that is already painful to look at that I cannot imagine to sit on.

Another overlooked factor is the so-called “Kunst am Bau”. Most states have laws on the books that state that a certain fraction of the building’s cost has to be spent on art.

Sounds great till you hear that this was explicitly done as a subsidy for artists with the proper political connections. There was never any requirement that this art improve the functioning of the building or make it more pleasant for the occupants. Most of it does not. There is a famous concrete car blocking a needed parking lot, ugly tiled walls, narrow walkways, sculptures blocking windows, outside concrete stairs that lead to nowhere.

These buildings are the typical outcome of socialist thinking:

– a strong hate for the existing paired with a desire to destroy and be different at any cost.

– a massive lack of talent.

– no ability to actually create anything new.

– a complete disregard of people’s needs, which were seen as far less important than making political/architectural statements.

– massive cost overruns due to incompetence and rejection of established building practices.

– primacy of politics. These buildings were primarily political statements and no one cared about the people going to be housed inside. Anyone raising obvious issues was labeled a reactionary standing in the way of progress.

– the usual graft

This all rings true for the buildings where I used to work, at the University of Düsseldorf. There 1970s buildings feature cavernous multi-story halls which remain gloomy and dark at all times (despite the windows) because they’re made of dark brown tiles and now-stained concrete. The buildings are filled with little walkways and niches which are supposed to be “inviting” places for students to hang out (doubtless this is how they were portrayed in sketches), but which nobody uses, because they’re isolated quadrangles made of uninviting concrete or brick. The “inviting” benches are literally made of brick or metal rods or concrete.

In Düsseldorf, there’s a special bonus: the main walkway which goes through the center of campus is bricked-over. This is fine in itself: it needs to survive millions of feet trampling on it. But the architects were inspired by Hundertwasser, the Austrian oddball artist and architect, who believed that humans were never meant to walk on flat surfaces, because nature is full of hills and valleys.

So the central walkway at the University of Düsseldorf is a bricked-over series of gently undulating hills and valleys. Which means that whenever it rains or especially freezes, the main walkway on campus becomes a giant frozen-over slip ‘n slide, in which you can observe dozens of students falling on their asses, or tumbling from their bikes, when they hit a slippery patch on a down-slope. Count double bonus points for all the times elderly people or people with disabilities have taken a bone-crunching fall.

All of this was totally unnecessary, because Düsseldorf is built on a flat river plain. All of the hills and valleys and stairs which turn into winter deathtraps were added artificially.

As a bonus, here’s an infamous BBC documentary on the Smithsons, a loony husband-and-wife pair of architects who inflicted many hideous Brutalist buildings on England:

The building featured in the documentary, Robin Hood “Gardens”, was finally torn down in 2014. Good riddance to bad rubbish:

 

The Mysterious Store Which May be an Oscilloscope Repair Workshop

A few years ago, a shop opened up on the Aachener Straße, in my beloved Bilk neighborhood. At first they stripped the walls down to the bricks, which led us all to thing yet another coffeeshop was coming. All that was needed was Edison bulbs, and the Global Coffee Shop aesthetic would be complete.

But no. Instead, the shop filled up with neatly-organized racks of what look like oscilloscopes, and tables piled with…something:

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It looks like a Stasi listening post, but I doubt many Stasi listening posts were housed at street level behind a glass facade. You can often see a man puttering around in overalls inside. He’ll give you a friendly wave if you make eye contact at him.

The workshop — if it is a workshop, and not something far more sinister — has no name or sign of any kind. It’s not listed on Google Maps.

What the hell is going on here?

German Universities Ranked by Ugliness

First there was Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, now here comes Vice Germany with German universities ranked by ugliness (g). Surprisingly, the winner isn’t the Ruhr University Bochum:

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Bochum places fourth, out-uglied by Regensburg, Siegen, and Bielefeld.

Some may ask: Wait, I thought German universities were quaint and picturesque, like Heidelberg or Tübingen. Don’t you study in old castles, or at least with views of old castles?

There are two separate kinds of German universities. The first kind are established old universities, which often don’t have any ‘campus’ as such; their faculties are spread out around the city, in buildings ancient and modern. These are the kinds of traditional universities people spontaneously associate with the phrase ‘German university’ (if they associate anything at all).

But that’s not where most German students learn. Almost all of the universities on the most-ugly list were thrown up hastily in the 1960s and 1970s. Along with various other social movements, there was a mass movement to reform the German university system, which was regarded as outdated and elitist. Criteria for university admission were drastically loosened, and a system of free tuition and student stipends was intended to reduce financial bias in admissions. As a result, the number of students at German universities quadrupled (g) between 1970 and 1997.

Lots of new buildings were needed for all these new students, and — alas — the need for these new buildings coincided with the flowering of Brutalism, the most inhumane and arrogant architectural movement in human history. Yes, there are some interesting and even beautiful Brutalist buildings. But for every one of them, there are 20 soul-crushing banalities.

Sad fact: The reason Brutalism prevailed was not because it was wise or inspiring or but because it was cheap. Just pour 50,000 tons of concrete into prefabricated molds and Bingo! There’s your university. What’s that you say? No, my friend, you don’t need to put anything over that concrete. Students and professors will be mesmerized and enchanted by thousands of cubic yards of stained, graying concrete and pea-gravel bearing the imprint of the wooden forms into which it was poured. Why cover that fascinating vision in gray with bourgeois fripperies like molding or paneling or paint or any fucking form of decoration whatsoever?

So that’s how newer German universities got to be the way they are. As I often told visitors to the University of Düsseldorf (which could have fit neatly in this Vice article): “Yes, most of this University is composed of hideous, soul-crushing bunkers which look as if their only purpose was to survive nuclear war. But this is what education in a social democracy looks like. The buildings are cheap, the salaries low, and middle-management basically non-existent. But you can still get a good education here if you put a lot of work into it. And that education is free. Which would you rather endure: 4 years of study in this monstrosity, or $100,000 in student-loan debt chasing you for the next 30 years?”

Fortunately, things are improving. German unis no longer need to expand at any cost, and now usually commission pleasant-looking buildings. And if they can’t afford to do that, at least they have started covering the naked slabs of exposed concrete with something humans might enjoy looking at. But time is running out: Some of these buildings are going to get protected historical landmark status soon if we’re not careful. Be on the lookout, and be proactive!

 

 

German Word of the Week: Zwiebellauch

The other day I dropped by Pizzeria Cemo, one of Düsseldorf’s best, where the pie has the thin, crispy crust. The owner sings merrily (as merrily as Turkish songs ever get) while preparing your order. I scanned the menu:

Boring Pizza.

Tuna fish, calzone, and then “Boring Pizza”.

Let’s look at what makes this pizza “boring”. The first ingredient is Pastirma. Pastirma (g) is dried beef. It was originally invented by Turkic nomads, who hung specially-prepared cuts under their saddlebags to dry as they rode in the desert. It may well be the origins of Pastrami, which was brought by Romanian Jews into Europe. Although only the shape is similar; pastrami is not dried.

The next ingredients are mushrooms and artichokes, which are boring enough. But then comes Zwiebellauch. Odd: I can’t figure out exactly what Zwiebellauch (onion-leek) is in English. There’s no entry for it at the LEO website. There’s only one entry for it at linguee, which is pretty startling. They call it “chives“, but I don’t think that’s right.

Wikipedia re-directs you to Winterzwiebel (winter onion), one of whose alternate names is Lauchzwiebel — but not Zwiebellauch.

So what the hell is Zwiebellauch anyway? Little help here?

Also, why is this pizza boring? I asked the owner, but he only smiled. I’d say an exotic delicacy from the Inscrutable Orient™ and an unclassifiable mystery vegetable makes this the most exciting goddamn pizza on the menu. But what do I know?

Time Capsule Bilk/Unterbilk, October 2018

Yesterday I took a stroll around the neighborhood, and took a few pictures of ephemera:

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Frozen between cheap cars and Juncker trips
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Every tree in Düsseldorf has a number, but not all have a felt wreath
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Basement Chemistry: Dirty-Hard and Bass-ocial
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Everything about being a soldier is dumb, say young commies

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“You come with Kölsch, we come with gasoline” (local soccer fans threaten)

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“Bilk Stays Dirty”

Mysterious things happen in my neighborhood, Bilk, the hippest, hottest place in Düsseldorf, the finest city on the Rhine. It’s vibrantly diverse, in the good way!

About a week ago, I crossed the Merowinger Bridge over the Düssel river, and saw this attached to it:

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“bilk stays dirty”.

I have no idea who put it there, or why (anyone know?). It’s gone now, either to a landfill or an art gallery

Just one of those odd things that sometimes happen here.

Europeans Love ‘Columbo’, and Who Can Blame Them?

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If you want to strike up a conversation with any European, just mention ‘Columbo’. I have yet to meet any European who doesn’t know and love the rumpled, quizzical gumshoe. Even Hungarians.

A few theories as to why he’s so popular:

  1. Pragmatic: The show seems to have been broadcast everywhere in Europe for much of its storied 32-year run. Can’t become a pop icon without everyone seeing you. The broadcast rights must have been fairly affordable.
  2. Linguistic: ‘Columbo’ and most of the characters spoke relatively slowly, without too much slang. This makes them easy to dub or subtitle.
  3. Universal cultural references: Everyone across the world likes Los Angeles, and knows (or thinks they know) enough about it to get most of the references.
  4. Universal themes: Everyone gets greed, duplicity, jealousy, and hate.
  5. Non-political in a vaguely leftist way: ‘Columbo’ was one of the few American TV series which was broadcast in Communist countries: “Hungarians love the series because it’s ‘thinking’ television, one in which the audiences enjoy watching the detective solve a murder…. ‘Columbo,’ like ‘The Saint,’ was among the few TV series allowed on the airwaves during the reign of communism — both shows were apolitical and painted the West as a den of murder and mayhem — making Falk a favorite uncle for Hungarian viewers over 30.” ‘Columbo’ was one of the few cultural products that were the same on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
  6. ‘Thinking’ television. Europeans have far less tolerance for gore and violence than Americans do (this is slowly changing). There was never any violence on ‘Columbo’; and he solved crimes by using his noggin. His European Jewish noggin. Not his giant American revolver.
  7. ‘Columbo’ was a real human: Bildergebnis für peter falkHe had a glass eye, slightly stained teeth (at least in the 1970s), rumpled clothes, strong opinions, a sharp tongue, faults, and moods. Europeans distrust and dislike shiny happy beautiful thin fun-loving perfectly suntanned Americans with their terrifyingly straight rows of blindingly white teeth. They like their heros to be slightly-above average schlubs, like Columbo was.

All told, ‘Columbo’ was probably one of the most effective American cultural exports of the late 20th century. And the show’s still pretty fun to watch.

Musil on Socialism

I’m dipping into the English translation of the diaries of Robert Musil, a handsome book published in 1998. Here is his discussion of socialism from the 1919-1921:

Ideology of socialism

  1. ) All people are equal
  2. ) Love thy neighbor as thyself.

1. is a downright untruth. The real true meaning of this assertion has become apparent in the meantime. Trials by jury, councils, parliament, the pupil often cleverer than the teacher. Take, from time to time, a spiritual purgative to clear out all knowledge. Spirit is destructive, and only constructive through setting up a collection of solutions from which practice makes its selection. When left to its own devices, spirit is a feud without end. (From this follows the position of the creative writer and the philosopher in socialist society.)

2. This principle has never been realized. It is not only unsuitable for the ethics of everyday life but also for the ethics of those who are most advanced. The only way it is realized, if at all, is in the exaggerated form: “Love thy neighbor more than thyself.” But then it is no longer pure, for here an idea is loved, an issue. Moreover, it denotes a condition, that of love.

This should be replaced by a principle that is, in ethical terms, of much less consequence but, in practical terms, more important: “Act in solidarity.”

Accordingly, the ethics of socialism rest on 2 practical maxims. That corresponds to the tasks of a political movement.

Hatred of the oppressors, feeling for the subjugated—all these ideas so dear to the socialist, his elan? First of all, these ideas all belong to the “status nascendi” of socialism, not to the finished society. [. . .]

Cycling the Rotthäuser Bachtal

The Rotthäuser Bachtal is a nature preserve just east of the Düsseldorf suburb of Gerresheim. Trails accompany a creek valley whose Western bank is made up of steep cliffs made of sandy yellowish soil with many erosion paths. The east flank of the creek is largely flat, and dotted with pastures. The area is heavily forested, mainly with splendid old beech trees. As the soil has eroded beneath them, many of these trees have begun to tip over at hair-raising angles, and some have been uprooted entirely by storms. If the fallen tree blocks the trail, then so be it: most of the fallen trees have been left where they are, and you just have to climb under or over them.DSC07474.JPG

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The trail is twisty, with moderate ups and downs, plenty of tree roots, and some marshy areas, so it’s something for my 10-year-old Trek mountain-bike, Tapio, not my cross-bike, Elfriede. The creek has been dammed to create a series of fishponds which attract many native bird species, including a magnificent gray heron which exploded into flight right next to me as I skirted one of the ponds. There are also some protected plant species, like the odd-looking horsetail plant, with its long, spiky “leaves”. Of course, marshy areas mean mosquitoes in late summer, but they’re more of a nuisance than anything else.

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The southern part of the trail skirts the Gerresheim Forest Cemetery, which opened in 1906. The idea behind a German forest cemetery is to leave large parts of the forest intact, and to spread graves around in a random-seeming manner, as if they had been scattered about by natural forces. The trails run up and down 20-meter inclines around the outside fence of the cemetery, which extends across the crowns of several hills. Owing to the height difference, the cemetery offers a free bus service for people who don’t fancy climbing to the higher graves on their own.

After snaking around the trails next to the Forest Cemetery, you descend into the idyllic pastures surrounding Pappendelle Farm, with its two large ponds, half-timbered farmhouse, and contented cattle munching grass.

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If you live in central Düsseldorf, your ride home takes you through the former Glassmaker’s Quarter in Gerresheim. This used to be a massive glass factory drawing workers from all over Germany, but it has been torn down to make way for new apartments. All except for the former water-tower, which is now a protected landmark.

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The Rotthäuser Bachtal is one of the gems to the east of Düsseldorf, in the outskirts of hilly Bergisches Land territory. The trails are well-marked, the scenery diverse, and the ups and downs make for a solid workout. If you haven’t paid it a visit yet, now’s the time — the fall foliage is just coming in.

German Word of the Week: Reanimieren

Here’s a headline from Austria about an accident during a youth outing. A boat capsized, and two girls were rescued from drowning and resuscitated:

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The German word for resuscitation is “reanimate”. Which makes me think two things:

1. That’s a lot less fussy and pretentious than “resuscitate”.

2. H.P. Lovecraft would approve.

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