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:

 

An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world — conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

DSC_0141
DSC_0141
DSC_0141
DSC_0141
DSC_0141
DSC_0141
DSC_0141 DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218

Constantly Changing Geometric Structures

Düsseldorf is just about to open a new subway line. No ads, just art. The Guardian is impressed:

Fifteen years in the making, the Wehrhahn metro line consists of six new stations running east to west beneath the city centre, collaboratively designed by architects, artists and engineers. “Normally the construction part happens first and then the artists are commissioned. Here the architects, artists and engineers worked together from the beginning,” she says.

It started back in 2001 when a joint proposal by Klussmann and Darmstadt-basedarchitecture practice Netzwerkarchitekten won an EU-wide, two-stage competition to design the stations. They commissioned five artists to develop concepts and, €843m (£657m) and two miles of tunnel boring and excavation later, the results are surprising, outstanding and ambitious.

There have been other art on the underground projects but two factors make this one stand out: the total lack of advertising throughout, and the cohesive vision of a common architectural language….

The station designed by Ralf Brög has three atmospheric sound corridors exploring noise sculpturally and visually, while Ursula Damm’s station features aerial views of Düsseldorf in the entrance. There is also a giant LED wall overlooking the concourse displaying real-time footage of passing pedestrians overlaid with constantly changing geometric structures that respond to the movement of passengers.

At Graf-Adolf-Platz, artist Manuel Franke created an immersive journey where sweeping layers of green rock strata accompany passengers down to the concourse and combine hand-painting with laminated security glass. Klussmann’s graphic black-and-white designs for Pempelforter Straße station play with the architecture and boundaries of the space and traditional notions of perspective to a dazzling effect….

It may seem surprising that Germany’s first art on the underground project has taken place in this relatively small and well-heeled city by the Rhine – with its population of 600,000 – instead of the larger and edgier metropolises of Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne. Yet Düsseldorf is no slouch in art scene terms. All of the artists selected have links to the city’s Kunstakademie, the renowned art school founded in 1762 whose alumni include Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. According to Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle, the city is more interesting than its expensive car and luxury-loving image would have you believe. “It has always been an art city and it still has the most famous art academy in Europe,” he says, referring to the Kunstakademie….

Perhaps surprisingly, the city agreed to the no advertising dimension immediately. Ulla Lux from the city’s cultural department explains their rationale: “It’s so rare to have the opportunity to create an art project of this scale in public space that in the end it was a conscious decision to allow this to be a pure art and architecture experience.”

What is perhaps most inspiring about the project is how the lack of adverts means people can be people, and not consumers. Klussmann says: “Art is often used to attract people to buy things.” But here it is just about the art and the space, and wherever your imagination takes you. How many public spaces can say the same? 

I haven't seen the finished stations yet, but I did take some photos during a 'day of the open tunnel' a few years ago:

  IMG_2397 IMG_2410
IMG_2410
IMG_2410
IMG_2410
IMG_2410

 

The Unknown Fate of the Düsseldorf Artists’ Bunker

Now for the less-appealing side of Wersten. While innocently bicycling down the Kölner Landstrasse, I was confronted with perhaps the ugliest goddamn building I have ever seen. Not intentionally ugly, as in Brutalism, but unintentionally ugly, as in whoever designed it despised humans and wanted to actively make them suffer.

Which is true, since the building was originally a bunker (g) built by the National Socialists.

What we're dealing with is a two-story L-shaped building, probably about 3 stories tall, with a sheer stone facade with almost no windows. There is a copper roof with dormer windows set in irregular intervals, and strange barred windows, surrounded by bays of dark stone, placed seemingly at random. The entrance is, for some reason, painted a lively orange and white:

Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse

I suspected at first this might be a bunker. Like most German cities, Düsseldorf has many bunkers left over from World War II. They're 3 stories tall and made out of solid concrete. In many cases, it's extremely expensive or impossible to get rid of them, because the explosive force needed to blow through meters of solid concrete would irreparably damage other buildings nearby. Some can be dismantled, but it's painstaking work and usually creates major disruptions in the neighborhood and many complaints by nearby homeowners. The city or state sometimes tries to get rid of the bunkers but local neighborhood opposition gets in the way. So the bunker in my neighborhood, Bilk, still stands, with its annoying mural. One Düsseldorf bunker has even been turned into a church.

This bunker, like so many others, has a fascinating history. According to this article (g), a pair of German artists moved into the bunker in the mid-1980s, which is pretty common. Bunkers make good studios. The city of Düsseldorf granted the artists a lease. This is what Germans call Kulturpolitik: official state support for independent creative artists. The two artists created their studio inside the bunker, and presumably had cultural events there as well. Robbe has invested 70,000 Euro in renovations.Apparently, the bunker at some time officially became the property of the Bima, the Federal Ministry for Real Estate. 

This video from August 2012 gives you an idea of what the place looked like. Six artists had studios there at that time:

 https://player.vimeo.com/video/59440682

Then, nearly 30 years later, the Bima announced it had enough. It ordered the city of Düsseldorf to cancel the lease to the two artists by 30 September 2012. The Bima wants to build 'high-quality condos' on the spot. (Wersten is a working-class neighborhood where 50% of the children are on welfare). The artists fought the eviction notice in court. While that was ongoing, a construction firm began ripping the roof off the place, allowing rain and bird-droppings to flood the studio (g). The spokesman for the Bima is annoyed. The artists were supposed to have moved out by September 2012, they didn't, now somebody wants to buy the property. The artists obtained an injunction to stop this work. Apparently the parties were trying to work out a settlement as of early 2013.

I can't find any more recent news about this contretempts since that time. But from the look of the photographs, nothing much is happening in the former artists' bunker…

German Word of the Week: Zwingburg

Zwingburg (g) is a German word made out of the root of the verb zwingen (to force or coerce) and Burg (fortress).

It is a fortress or castle or citadel erected in a prominent place in areas in which (to quote the German Wikipedia article), the local residents were considered 'insufficiently loyal' to whatever feudal lord owned the country. The design is purposely menacing, the building says 'I am your Lord. This ugly-ass fortress is full of lust-crazed Swabian mercenaries who will stream through your defenseless villages and daughters unless you show me unswerving obedience, reechy-necked lickspittles.'

It's a very Tscherman thing.

I thought of this word when I took a short bicycle ride through the Hafen (harbor) area in Düsseldorf last weekend. Back in the 90s, the city fathers decided to raze most of the existing port infrastructure on the Rhine as it fell into disuse and create a sexy, stylish area full of trendy boutiques, fashion houses, lux hotels, hip bars, and other hangouts for lawyers, lobbyists, advertising executives and other wan, dead-eyed parasites pillars of the local economy. They called it the Medienhafen (Media Harbor).

On a huge promontory in the middle of the Medienhafen stands the Düsseldorf Hyatt Regency Hotel (g), glowering menacingly at the rest of the city:

Hyatt in the Clouds

Hyatt. We're watching you

Youtube Lectures on Medieval English History

I've recently moved offices, so as I set up my new crucible of habitual effectiveness (ha!) I've been looking for something to edutain me in the background. That's when I stumbled upon Gresham College's free lecture series, which started in 1597 and has been online since 1721.

Here are two most edifying lectures, one on the medieval hospital, one on the creation of illuminated manuscripts. Both are delivered in flawless received pronunciation by immaculately-coiffed English — well, I want to say MILFs, but that's just the Yank crudeness in me. Let's call them gentlewomen.

Enjoy!

By the Shark-Filled Rivers of Schwabylon

54162814-180-656x240

Berlin, they say, is being overrun by Swabians. 'Swabian', one of the most amusing words in English, denotes people from Swabia, a region in South Germany. According to native Berliners, the Swabians are  industrious, conformist yuppies. Above, you see the work of extremist Swabians, who have changed street signs into their (IMHO totally awesome) regional dialect. Under their baleful influence, Berlin is rapidly changing from a place where cafes serve breakfast until 4 PM to unwashed, still-hungover 'creative types' into yet another safe, sanitized, mind-shatteringly expensive, tourist-friendly playground for the upper-middle classes and
above (you know, like New York, Paris, and London).

Those parts of Berlin which have suffered an unusually heavy infestation of Swabians are often referred to as Schwabylon, derived from the short-a German word for Swabians. Which brings me to the subject of this post. There once was an actual Schwabylon! The Voices of East Anglia describes it thus:

The colourful Schwabylon shopping and leisure centre had one hundred
shops, a cinema, twelve restaurants, a beer garden, sports facilities,
Roman spa, sauna, solarium, swimming pool and a skating rink. Located
next door was a Holiday Inn which contained a three-story nightclub
named after The Beatles song Yellow Submarine, which was surrounded by a
600,000 litre water tank with more than 30 sharks – What could possibly
go wrong?

Schwabylon is a portmanteau word that blended together
the name of the district in Munich, Germany and the word Babylon. The
pyramid shaped shopping centre with it’s bright red, yellow and orange
rising sun paint work was designed by architect Justus Dahinde and
opened for business on November 9th in 1973.

Although the centre had many attractions it was (almost) windowless
and had ramps instead of stairs, and just fourteen months later the
retailers “shut up shop” and the Schwabylon closed. Parts of the
building  were demolished in 1979, however the Holiday Inn and night
club remained – Minus the sharks.

Schwabylon-600x400
Yellow-Submarine
Schwabylon1-e1363967720831

With Niemeyer, Another Part of Le Corbusier’s Baleful Legacy Dies

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is dead at 104. He was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, who I hold to be one of the most sinister intellectual frauds of the 20th century. Le Corbusier was principally responsible for the mid-century fad of brutalism, which encouraged architects to compose buildings from giant, prefabricated slabs of untreated reinforced concrete. No attempt would be made integrate the buildings into existing city or landscapes. They would be plopped down like the used, soiled Legos of a race of alien giants.

In the hands of talented architects, brutalist buildings might occasionally display deeply obscured hints of elegance or wit. In the hands of hordes of epigones (and budget-conscious city planners), brutalism resulted in a plague of anonymous, inhuman bunkers that quickly crusted over with mold and rust stains. In other words, Brutalism brought the charm and elegance of Stalinist industrial encampments to Western capitals. Here's a quick quiz: Is this sad, stained, crumbling structure the Great Hall of the Democratic People's Assembly in some Eastern European country, or is it a priory in France?

La_tourette-_arq._Le_Corbusier

Here's the answer. Sometimes only a British reactionary (in this case, Theodore Dalrymple) can do justice to a pompous, crypto-totalitarian twit like Le Corbusier:

Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.

André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.

    …Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:

    A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many).

Now, Niemeyer's not in the same league. Although influenced by Le Corbusier, he was capable of designing buildings of beauty (the headquarters of the PCF, for example). But he has to take responsibility for the inhuman monstrosity that is Brasilia, a sprawling wasteland of rectilinear concrete slapped down in the middle of the jungle. Its residents scurry for cover amid its gigantic, broiling public squares. And Brasilia's here to stay, since it was quickly added to the UN's list of World Heritage Sites, which is a very good reason not to take that list very seriously.