Behold! I Shall Fish the Bottles Out of the Düssel

Take a look at this:

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This is the Düssel river, the local Rhein tributary that gives Düsseldorf its name. Some rivers are so big, cities are built around them, not over them. The Düssel isn't that big. The city fathers of Düsseldorf did actually keep the river, mind you. However, it flows underground most of the way through the city, only popping into view occasionally. But when it does come into view, it's a refreshing change. And as here, near the Karolingerstraße, a bit of riverbank has been preserved, creating a nice park-like atmosphere.

Granted, it's only a little brook, and the riverbank is only about 5 meters on either side before the streets and buildings begin. But even a small bit of nature and green in the city does a surprising amount to make a place more livable. Trust me, I've lived in cities which don't know how to do this.

But here's the thing: you see those shapes in the water? No, they're not fish. There are fish in the Düssel, but they're much smaller. Those things are bottles. 

Fucking bottles.

Over the years, subhuman fucksticks have finished their bottles of cheap beer and casually tossed them into the river. Even though there's a bottle deposit in Germany, which poor people rely on, scouring the city for deposits. You could simply put the bottle on the bridge over the river, and it would be gone in literally 5 minutes, collected by some retiree living on a miserly pension. Also, no more than 2 meters from where I shot this photo, there are not only trash bins but a fucking glass recycling box.

But did Jackass McShitforbrains (or perhaps Güldüz Al-Antisocial) use any of these opportunities? No. He just threw the fucking bottle into the cool, clear, pristine water of the river. So every single time a human crosses this bridge and pauses to enjoy a nice view, he's reminded of the fact that certain humanoid entities exist who would fuck up a nice little view out of sheer laziness or spite.

I have never actually seen anyone throw a bottle in the Düssel. Actually, that's pretty fortunate, because if I did, I would probably fly into a rage and try to beat them to death. I'm not joking. One of the reasons Northwestern Europe is such a nice place to live is that people take care of public spaces. One of the many curses of the developing world is that people in those countries have no understanding of why it's important to keep public spaces clean. They are often scrupulously neat in their private homes, but think nothing of throwing garbage anywhere in the open. This is one of the key conflicts that arise when immigrants from the Third World arrive in Germany: they go picknicking in the park and leave a mound of dirty diapers, trash, bottles, plastic bags, disposable barbecues, and food remains just sitting in a pile in the middle of a pristine meadow of luscious green grass. 

Now, part of this is because the countries they come from don't have functioning garbage-disposal infrastructures, etc. But there's also a cultural component, as anybody who's ever lived in a country like India can tell you. Even in middle-class families, there's a sense that the interior of the home is a focus of pride and should be kept spotless, but if you don't own the land — especially if nobody owns the land — then it's fair game to just throw anything away there. As a 2013 book call The Concept of the Public Realm puts it:

Take something as simple as streets and public parks. Since they lie outside the family home, they are seen as a no-man's land, an empty space, almost a wilderness. While the Indian home is clean and tidy, streets and even parks are unacceptably dirty. Streets are used as garbage heaps, and rubbish and leftover food is thrown around in parks. Even the front of the house is sometimes turned into as a garbage heap. Since public spaces are not seen as theirs, Indians generally take no care of them and expect the civic authority to do so. And if it does not, as is generally the case, things are left as they are. It is striking that few Indians protest against dirty streets and lack of pavements and zebra crossings, almost as if they cannot see how things can be otherwise (Kakar and Kakar 2007, p. 21).

Not that India deserves to be singled out. The problem also exists all over the Arab world and even in Italy, although it's much less serious there.

In any case, I've had enough. I already have a really long pole which I use for certain camera shots. I just ordered a pool net strainer. When the weather cools down, I am going to go out there and clean out those bottles. You'd think some German would have done this already, but there's an old German proverb — as accurate now as it ever was — which goes: "A German is someone who, when he sees a mess, sneers in disapproval (die Nase rümpfen) instead of cleaning it up." 

Well, fuck that shit. Just as Tyrell Corporation's motto is "more human than human", mine is "more German than German". I am going to clean out those goddamn bottles, and post before-and-after pics to prove it. If that doesn't earn be the German Service Cross, I don't know what will.

Weber The Ironmonger

From the Facebook feed Pearls from Düsseldorf, which is pictures of Düsseldorf from local graphic designer and photographer Markus Luigs (g), this picture of an old-school German storefront:

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'Iron-Weber' is the name. The store sells Eisenwaren (iron goods), tools, house and kitchen appliances. So, basically, a hardware store. But the name Eisenwaren is satisfyingly antique; from an era in which tools actually were made mostly of iron. So the capture the old-school flair, I'd translate it as an 'ironmonger'.

This picture gives you a good idea of German street architecture. The sidewalk, as you'll notice, is clean. Then you have the underground-access grates. Some of these are for city utilities, but the ones close to the building are for trash: you take your trash downstairs to the cellar, then put it in a special dumb-waiter like contraption under the street. The trashmen open the grate and haul up the square plastic trash can through the opening, or sometimes go down into it. All the while yelling at each other in a mysterious language that probably takes years to learn. Children love watching the trash and the men disappear up and down the magic sidewalk-holes. It's loud, but it solves several problems: first, no trash bins waiting on the street. Second, the garbagemen don't have to enter the store to collect the trash.

Here's one difference between Germany and developing countries. You will never see these grates lying open in Germany, posing a threat to pedestrians. Never. In my many years living here, traveling all across the country, in neighborhoods both haughty and humble, I've never seen one of these things lying open, unattended, unless it was roped off with warning signs and tape. Nor do they ever break. You can walk over them every single time, without giving them a second thought. The average German probably walks over 30 of them every single day, never giving them a second though. Contrast this to basically any developing country, where sidewalk murder-holes are a fact of life. Here's a picture I took in Alexandria:

Alex - Street near Pompey's Pillar

The contrast may help explain why so many people from places like Egypt want to relocate to places like Germany, no?

Then you have the display cases on either side of the storefront. Often, these are only big enough for posters, but these seem to have room enough for small displays. Then the actual display windows. If you want to run your own shop, you will generally go to a vocational school to learn, in great detail, how to structure an appealing shop-window display. This is called Schaufenstergestaltung in German. Of course, since this is a hardware shop, Weber hasn't really put all that much effort into it. Anything too schicki-micki (fancy) would probably drive away customers for these sorts of things.

Then you have the A-shaped ad placards to put in the way of pedestrians, stored safely beneath the chain protecting the door. Of course, since this is Germany, there are detailed regulations (g) for how large these stand-up signs (Stellschilder) can be, where you can put them, and how long you can leave them out. You may chuckle at those crazy Prussians, but you shouldn't. These signs are already an annoyance, and if the rules weren't there, they'd probably clog the sidewalk even more than they do already. Which would lead people to destroy them. So, a delicate balance is required between the needs of the shopkeeper and those of the public. That's what rules are for.

This store is almost certainly going to close soon, to be replaced by an artisanal vegan fair-trade frozen-yogurt studio. If this were Japan, the entire store would be recreated lovingly inside a museum, staffed by animatronic shopkeepers giving tinny mechanical advice to animatronic customers:

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But since this is Germany, 'Eisen-Weber' will probably just disappear forever. At least we'll have the photo.

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:

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Reclamation of A Trade Park

Witzelstr. 55 is the address of a mixed commercial and industrial trade area in the middle of Duesseldorf that was entirely abandoned in mid-2002.


Since then, lots of interesting things have been going on there. I’m working on a more ambitious project, but until then, here is a slideshow of images taken in October 2007, April 2008, and August of 2009. However, I recommend that instead of watching this glorious decay through a little window, you follow the link below to my Picasa photo album, and run a full-screen slideshow.








Witzelstrasse

Duesseldorf World’s 5th Most Livable City

According to ratings from Business Week, Duesseldorf, Germany is the world’s 5th most livable city. Up from No. 6 last year.

I could not agree more. Because it doesn’t have any real tourist attractions, Duesseldorf doesn’t get much international press. But it scores high on all of my personal livability factors: it’s green (in both senses of the word), studded with museums, easy to navigate, well-ordered, and safe (2006 featured a whopping 11 ‘crimes against life’ in a city of 580,000 — virtually all of which resulted from private grievances).

Three cheers (again) for German urbanism!

Due Process for Trees

Spring has sprung in Germany, and I am having a hard time staying in the office during this glorious weather, even though I’ve got far too much to do these days. In honor of Spring, a little story about trees.

Over the weekend, I spoke to a friend who had trained as a lawyer in Berlin. A friend of hers did an internship with a local court (Amtsgericht) in Berlin. These courts have jurisdiction over local and routine matters, which, in Berlin, includes the protection of trees (probably under this law (G)). In larger European cities, trees are considered precious commodities, and protected by law.

If you want to tear one down for any reason, you’ll have to submit a special petition to the local Amtsgericht. This will turn into a real legal controversy, since the standards for removing trees are very high. In some cases, you may be denied permission to cut down the tree, even if you planted it yourself. According to the Berlin ordnance, the principal reasons for permitting the removal of a tree are that the tree is ill or dead, has largely lost its "ecological function," or has become a danger.

Once presented with a petition, the judge will often hold a hearing in situ. He will summon his interns, his secretary, and often at least one of the lawyers, and visit the tree itself, holding an open-air hearing. Many judges actually look forward to these petitions, since it gives them a chance to venture out into the open air. The judge usually begins the proceeding with a thorough, careful description of the tree. Speaking into his dictaphone, the judge tours the tree: "Subject of this proceeding is an elm tree located near the intersection of Krupp and Wilhelmstrasse, approximately 10 meters tall, currently in bloom. Approximately three branches appear to overhang the street…"

I don’t have much to say about this, I just found the idea of a judge holding an open-air trial on the fate of a tree to be charming and Spring-appropriate.

Japanese Toilet Sound Effect Questionnaire

I stopped visiting women’s bathrooms at least a decade ago, after there were some misunderstandings and an incident. Let us draw a veil across these matters.

Now I only go into the women’s bathroom so when some cafe owner decides to replace the good old traditional German letters (D for Damen; H for Herren) with something pretentious and confusing. This is, unfortunately, not rare. One bar in my town features a picture of a sun one one door, and a picture of a moon on the other. WTF? Unless you know German, you’re not going to catch on that in German, "sun" is a feminine noun, and "moon" masculine. (No, there was no "neutral" bathroom, even though German has a "neutral" gender).

But now, there’s a chance to go into the womens’ bathroom without fear of misunderstandings or injunctions. A friend recently sent me a questionnaire distributed by a graduate student at the Kyushu School of Design. She wants to know — well, I’ll just quote the thing.

Questionnaire Survey on Attitudes
toward a Sound Masking Device for Toilet

In Japan, there is a unique sound effect device in many women’s restrooms: a sound masking device for toilet. This device functions to produce the sound of flushing water without the need for actual flushing. To mask the sound of bodily functions, women tend to flush public toilets continuously while using them. As a result, they waste large amounts of water in the process. If a sound masking device is used instead of flushing the toilet several times, then a large amount of water can be saved. Therefore, this sound device was introduced to public toilets to preserve water.

A questionnaire survey was conducted in Japan to investigate the attitudes of people toward such devices. …The survey also aimed to clarify differences in such attitudes according to gender, age, and nationality (ethnic). We would appreciate your understanding to the aims of our research, and your cooperation to this questionnaire.

Female prudery — Environmental Public Enemy #1. (Can’t you just picture the propaganda poster?). Seriously, if you’d like to help save the oceans by confirming the market for "sound effect devices" in women’s toilets across the world, you can download the questionnaire here and the response sheet here.

I’ve already filled out the questionnaire. Of course, I expressed my strong support for a masking sound effect device. However, I suggested more festive sound effects, such as a cannon, or an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth. Or this, or this, or this, or this, or this…[ok, that’s enough — ed.]

[Hat-tip: Nanna]