Don’t Mention the War: A Peripatetic Interview with raumstation3539 through the City of Giessen

Part 1 of 4

The city of Giessen is just a little bit too far south to be part of the fairy-tale-like area where the brothers Grimm roamed and a little bit too far north to join the vibrant metropolitan area around ‘Mainhattan’ Frankfurt. Giessen counts almost 90,000 inhabitants; the University of Giessen was named after the scientist Justus Liebig and counts more than 28,000 students. During their introduction, these students might learn that the chemist Liebig not only invented artificial fertilizer, but also pioneered in the field of instant soup. Giessen can be considered an average Western German city.

We went for a stroll with Jan and Christopher from raumstation3539. The cooperative raumstation3539 (literally ‘space station‘) is in charge of the vacancy management for the city of Giessen and focusses on synergies and sustainability amongst the city’s off-scene, sets up independent venues like the prototyp – a multipurpose space for anything from co-working to concerts – and is one of the organizers of the festival Giennale (More on raumstation3539 you can find in our previous post:

What has Giessen to offer? What can we learn about urban life walking through its streets? Our meeting point is in front of the Anschlussverwendung, the headquarters of raumstation3539, which not only hosts offices, but also a pop-up shop and a donation-based café. Our walk starts next to a broad grey street, Grünberger Strasse. The first challenge: how to cross?

Jan: So, let’s try this.

Christopher: I am from the field of urban planning. Here at this street it is always super interesting to see how the distribution of space in a city works. In principle this is a huge public space, but there are seven lanes for cars or motorized vehicles and only very limited space for pedestrians or bikes.

Random Walks: This is one of the main streets of Giessen?

Christopher: This is the entrance gate to the city. So, the question arises: what impact does this have? Right now we have to talk very loudly, what does this do to us? I constantly have to turn my head to continue this conversation. What does this situation do to communication? What does this mean for this place? Do I even want to walk here?

Random Walks: All this was planned in the 1950s, 1960s?

Christopher: Yes, typical reconstruction after the Second World War. Before the War this was the Grünberger Allee, temporarily called Kaiserallee. Urban mansions had their own garden, this was a grove and had only two lanes.

Random Walks: In general, Giessen can be considered a city for cars? This would be my first impression.

Christopher: There are a lot of commuters coming to the city. Giessen is a regional centre, it is amazing how many people are actually entering the city every day.

Jan: Giessen was rebuilt after the war according to car-friendly guidelines. That was official policy. And if you apply these guidelines consequently and make sure that anything is reachable by car, this is something to which the population over generations adapts. And it becomes difficult to change that. Every parking lot becomes a battle field, because people cannot imagine things to be different, apparently. If one suggests, as we did recently as raumstation, to introduce a 20 mph zone in about 300 meter of Grünberger Strasse to decrease the public place for cars, you can immediately hear the critics.

We are crossing another big street, another six to eight lanes, flanked by parked cars. The Südanlage.

Jan: As for parking lots and in relation to prices for property and rent, Giessen doesn’t seem to have an actual problem. Especially because the city affords a lot of parking space in the very centre. We are now passing a small, park-like green area next to the Südanlage. To the left of us is the botanical garden.

Christopher (sarcastically): Those two children’s playgrounds are particularly nice. They are simply wedged between living quarters and street and accordingly there is no life. One always has to keep in mind: how are those things accessible? How can they be placed well?

During the first ten minutes of our walk, the issue of reconstruction after the war comes up twice. This seems to be symptomatic for many German cities, at least in Western Germany. How much of Giessen was destroyed? How deeply has this influenced the city up to today?

Christopher: People say that there were two destructions: first the bombing, then the reconstruction. For Giessen, this is very telling.

Jan: There was a relatively big demolition of the old city, in 1944, I think. Many historical buildings were destroyed. And then there was indeed the reconstruction under car-friendly guidelines. There are several examples… I once did some research on another subject and read a lot of contemporary newspaper articles. There was a discussion around a new parking house, and since it needed an entrance, a Gründerzeit mansion was destroyed. Same with the famous Jugendstil swimming pool. It survived the war, but not the parking house.

Christopher: There are so many examples. There was the Liebig Museum in Liebigstraße, which was part of some barracks from the 17th century, before Liebig used the building as a museum. Mirrored on the Frankfurter Straße, it had a second building. And this second building wasn’t destroyed. But it was destroyed afterwards and now there is still nothing, only a parking yard. A 400-year-old building, simply torn down.

Jan: It is a peculiarity of Giessen that one wants to get rid of anything older than round 50 years. Doesn’t matter if it is aesthetically or historically valuable. In recent times there was a long-running debate about the congress hall. Luckily a few people pointed out that this hall has been planned by a famous architect. But it was long open to debate to just demolish the whole thing. 

Gießen’s Congress Hall, located at Berliner Platz
Photo credit: private

Christopher: A lot of beautiful facades have been chiseled off. There are, well, various theories why this happens. The facades have been built during the so-called Gründerzeit, in Wilhelminism. Later in the Weimar Republic, our first democratic phase of liberty, let’s say it like that, the Bauhaus emerged. Parallel to the Bauhaus, the ideas of modern urban planning developed, and in many cases both went together. During the reconstruction, another few years later, one of the tasks was: how to deal with one’s past? Obviously, there was the recourse to the Weimar Republic and to modernism and quickly their ideas were adopted. One usually connects this to Le Corbusier’s images of Paris and his plans for rebuilding the city. The city as a machine, as decentralized. The reconstruction of Western Germany was built on these ideas. Quite soon, already in the 1980s, one realized that this backfired. But it is of course difficult to get from that to humane urban planning.

Random Walks: What does this mean concretely? Especially in Giessen?

Jan: There is one interesting example. We are right now walking through Senckenbergstraße, on our right there is the Zeughaus and we are heading straight to another parking area, that is, the Brandplatz.

Hard to translate: in German, instead of “Brandplatz”, the actual name, Jan said “Parkplatz” – the German word for parking area. And immediately declared this as a Freudian slip.

What is debated and at stake in Giessen right now is the following issue: how many cars have to be in the city centre? There are also claims for a car free city, brought forward especially by a number of groups of civil society. During the last weeks, this claim has been recognized by some political parties, but first resistance is forming already.

Now we are entering the Brandplatz. Again, one of those places, I guess, which resulted from a huge fire in the 17th century. Before that there were only small alleys. Twice a week you have a farmer’s market here, for the rest of the time it is actually a parking area. Right now, the Brandplatz is a bone of contention, because many shop owners in the city centre close by say that they need those parking lots. Here are about 60 lots, from around 6,000 in the entire city centre. Otherwise, they claim, they would lose customers. In fact, this is dead space.

Christopher: It is always one question: how to design space to attract people? This discussion we have is very dogmatic. Some take a stance for the car, some completely against any cars in the city centre. This is hardly constructive, because it divides. For instance, one has to ask how handicapped people can enter the city. There are a lot of contemporary options to share the public space. A lot of potential is not discussed.

One more thing regarding the reconstruction of Giessen: the situation is not as tragic as in other cities. Giessen has been rebuilt on its historical layout. What we see here, with those attached facades, is typical reconstruction architecture – that could be so much worse. Whether you like the style or not is one thing, but the planning itself is OK. It then all depends on the design of these spaces.

Jan: What many people don’t even know: the building over there, the Old Castle, is reconstructed, too. It is from the 1980s, ferroconcrete.

Random Walks: But with an imitation of the original facade?

Jan: With the original facade. Not completely, I think the tower has been at another spot, but this is something I myself only learned a few weeks ago.

Random Walks: At the initiative of the city council? In some cities such projects are started by citizens’ campaigns and these monuments are then memorials also of civil action.

Jan: Not in this case. But there is a citizens’ initiative in Giessen as well, which campaigns for the reconstruction of the city centre. Right now, it is about the reconstruction of the Apollo on the theatre, which was melted down during the war.

Random walks: A bronze statue?

Jan: Exactly, a kind of chariot. Bronze, I suppose. It was melted down during the war and has not been there for many decades … Now the question is: what kind of story about one’s city do the people of Giessen want to tell? Often there are no coherent ideas behind these attempts regarding urban planning. It is the search for the historical city, but on a modern layout.

Christopher: Identity is a question one should definitely address, because modernity and the modern international style regarded the car as their pivotal element and cities became confusing. The cityscape becomes confusing. If there is the same architecture and the same urban planning everywhere, the result is that everything always has a specific size and cities lose their identity. This is a question that in the end indeed has to be addressed by architects and urban planning. Maybe because our time has no answer for the demand towards a city regarding identification, this can lead to a fixation on the past. We are in part always where we come from. I am a Giessener, this is part of my identity, if I like it or not. It is a part of it, even if I live here only for a few years or months.

Random Walks: The city space can represent the demand for identity. One could say, if this demand is not addressed, it eventually breaks open and people campaign for brightly polished old cities, which glorifiy an idea of the past instead of reflectively dealing with it.

Christopher: Precisely.

Photo credit: private

Kreuzplatz, at the heart of commercial Gießen on Seltersweg: the former groundplan is marked, together with the date “December 6, 1944” – the day of the destruction of main parts of the city by allied bombers.

Jan: You can see how narrow the streets actually were before the war.

Christopher: The difference between those two lines creates the space. People just flow through here, hence it is not a natural plaza anymore.

Jan adds: “Terrible actually is that we are complaining all the time.”

Christiopher: Yes, that’s true. The inner city of Giessen is quite beautiful. It was built on the historical groundplan, everything is reachable by foot. The architecture has a scale – nothing’s too tall, but not too dense or too open either. The reconstruction was based on reasonable urban planning.

End of part I / continue: part II

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