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:


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various other social movements, there was a mass movement to reform the German university system, which was regarded as outdated and elitist.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!



4 thoughts on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness

  1. Strangely enough, you mention the reasons why Brutalism was both efficient and necessary in its time, yet you still bemoan it, bizarrely enough, as “inhumane and arrogant”. I’ve had countless debates on this with critics of modern architecture before, but I feel like I’ve always have to repeat it again and again. In the years following WW2, all European countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain had a massive population boost. People needed housing, and the cheapest and fastest way to build them were those high-rise blocs. Yes, they may not have been Neuschwanstein Castle and especially the German ones were rather uninventive (compared to some of the really sci-fi-esque Brutalist estates built in France, Spain, Britain, Finland or the Netherlands). But imagine the city planners would have decided to build just a few baroque-style buildings for just a few people with very much money, while the rest of the population would have been crammed in small flats in the old buildings – that would indeed had taken inhumanity and arrogance to a new extreme.

    Of course, it’s eays to diss that style from today’s point of view, where we see them as outdated and unfashionable. But back in them days they didn’t have the bad rep they get nowadays, as they had modern central heating systems and basically looked like “the future”.


    1. Poor countries and socialist countries often had no choice but to resort to pre-fabricated architecture, but nobody celebrated it as a wonderful innovation — it was just the only way to deal with a problem. That’s not the main target of my critique.

      Rich nations like Germany have no such excuse.

      The problem with your argument is that there are many nations across the world who experienced the same post-WWII population boom, but didn’t go for Brutalism. You see very little Brutalism in the Nordic countries, or in Japan, for that matter. Sure, you can find some examples, but nowhere near as many.

      Brutalism was an ideological architectural language, developed by theorists who explicitly discounted and mocked ‘bourgeois’ conventions such as decoration, color, repetition, harmony, and modest human scale. (Speer was a proto-Brutalist). Committed Brutalists despised color — it would have been cheap and a massive improvement to simply *paint* those gray slabs, but Brutalist architects sued over and over to stop this, and to prevent the humanization of their buildings, because they actively hated humanism and, I would say, ordinary humans. Reading Breuer or Corbusier today sends chills down your spine.

      Brutalism also happened to be cheap, but it was entirely possible not to build nice cheap buildings and not inflict concrete slabs on defenseless humans, and most countries did just that. Only the US, the UK, and W. Europe really got fucked, but they have since come to their senses.



  2. 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.


  3. Form follows function (excluding the function of providing an environment suitable for human habitation).

    The university I attended was a crazy mash of sandstone (it even has a semi-circular Great Court with dozens of sculpted gargoyles that caricature academics) alongside gratuitously ugly 1960’s-1970’s monstrosities.

    The inner Sydney area that I live in (Edgecliff-Paddington) suffered from developer greed in the 1960’s. They sought to tear down terrace housing and replace it with cheap highrise. Public resistance to this rose, and the area’s character was largely preserved. The terraces were bought cheaply from the working poor who had always owned them, they were painstakingly renovated and now they form some of Australia’s most desirable and expensive real estate.
    The several brutalist blocks of apartments that were built, meanwhile, quietly develop concrete cancer caused by the indecent haste of their construction. My opinion, is that their construction would have been much less resented if they had at least attempted to accept their human purpose. Instead, they revel in their inherent awfulness. They love the fact that their cheapness underlies their rude, hideous design, and then they display their contempt with names like Piccadilly Gardens (a 30 storey block of flats without any reference to a Piccadilly of any sort).


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