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?