Lived Spaces and the Demand for the Undefined

A peripatetic interview with raumstation3539 to the city of Giessen. Part 2 of 4

Our journey of exploration continues. In the first part of our peripatetic interview with Jan Buck and Christopher Reuter of raumstation3539 we talked about the reconstruction of Giessen after the Second World War, the relation of urban planning and design to identity, but also about parking lots and playgrounds. We crossed busy streets, passed beautifully preserved or restored mansions and strolled over big public places.

Now we are standing on Brandplatz, a long-drawn-out square northeast of the city centre: between the botanical garden and the so called Old Castle, this area could be considered an entryway to the pedestrian area, the heart of Giessen.

Random Walks: Earlier we talked about the city as machine, about function-oriented urban planning and development. And about ideal not prevailing anymore. What is for you a city worth living?

Jan: I think there are several points. First of all, the development from monofunctional space to spaces that can be filled with life in various ways. For instance, a road that is not only open to cars, but that can be used for something else, maybe a café or sports ground (or whatever). There is a theory that claims that a space is only really alive if there are at least ten things you can do there. And a quarter is only really alive if it contains at least ten places, at which you can do at least ten different activities. It is about enabling freedom and potential. Following this idea, spaces should not be already and completely defined and marked. There should be the option to redefine space over and over again. To be animated in various ways. This also increases people’s creativity and fosters social exchange. This is very important, I think.

Random Walks: Urban planning would have to limit itself and would consciously leave blanks and empty spaces? To provide opportunities?

Jan: It has to make offers. The administration should not just do nothing, but has to plan and design spaces in a way that makes people want to be there. Without preparing everything from the beginning. Spaces should develop according to the demands and needs of the people.

Christiopher: Urban space is always only the scenery. People have to fill this space. You cannot and should never tell people what to do. That’s what an open, humane society is about. Since you mentioned the functional city: I would say that things have changed because of the Internet, of course, but also because of mail order business. In the past cities were centres of supply and sustenance. Today that is not the case to the same degree. Nowadays they are rather centres of leisure. People meet, ride their bikes, have coffee, make music. Urban space ought to be designed according to these needs.

Random Walks: We are now on the margins of the pedestrian area. Cobblestones, parking lots, but no wide streets.

Christopher: This is a quiet situation, but it is still not consciously designed, it isn’t a humane space, it is only a ramp. We have moved from Brandplatz to Lindenplatz – probably most people in Giessen don’t even know this place, let alone realise that it is a square. Next there is Marktplatz and then Kreuzplatz. This is perceived as one big place. Due to the widening during the reconstruction, every delimitation got lost. If only someone could be convinced to start a café or restaurant here. There is so much potential.

Jan: Those two places, Lindenplatz and Brandplaz, work best on market days. People meet, it is not only about doing groceries.

The next question is then: how to preserve spaces like this? If we look at Seltersweg or at Giessen in general, which views itself as a shopping venue, with a strong retail sector, and we keep the increasing digitalisation in mind – why should people still enter the city to do their shopping? If they, for example, might in some time even be able to try on clothes via VR glasses?

But the central issue is the social space emerging in the city centre. People come here to meet because they have things do to here. How will this work in the future? What will be the social offer? These are questions one has to address and answers have to be developed. I think Giessen will face a huge structural transformation. Maybe even similar to the one in the Ruhr region. But right now, this is not even discussed as an option.

Random walks: A structural transformation regarding the economic status quo? 

Jan: On the one hand, yes. But what I had in mind is more the social space that would disappear. If there were a lot of vacancy on the Seltersweg, then this would firstly be an economic fact, but also a social fact: why should people still enter the city centre? This has already started. If a shop shuts down, a retail store, then there is a short vacancy and then some form of gastronomical locale opens. This serves the same purpose. A new space and a supply that cannot be consumed online. Where people can meet and social exchange happens. But will this last? What about in maybe 30 years? Will we then have only restaurants and cafés here – and maybe only ten percent retail? This is a process that has to be monitored.

Random Walks: A question on transportation: are there any plans to improve public transportation, especially if one wants to have fewer cars in the city centre?

Christoph: Yes, there is a huge debate going on. There is group called “Verkehrswende in und um Gießen” [loosely translated as “Transport Revolution in and around Giessen”] that has proposed a detailed concept on how the transportation can work without relying mainly on private cars. For instance, they plan a regional tram, which also uses the railway tracks out of Giessen connecting the surroundings, but two lines of which would run in the city as well. Then bike lanes. There was also the idea of a ropeway, connecting the sites of the university. Although it sounds exotic, this is something other cities seriously consider.

Jan: Yes, right. In fact, that’s a big debate, because many say: OK,a tram might be the most efficient means of transportation, but there are costs. And the costs are an argument always put forward to claim that an idea might be beyond reality. On the other hand one realises that other cities faced this decision as well and decided to build such infrastructure. Estimations of costs for various projects are already ordered and a Regio-S-Bahn is supposed to be introduced soon. This train would operate only on existing tracks, but with additional stops.

Then there is the question of affordability of public transportation. Some parties demand a ticketless public transportation, for trial purposes on Saturdays. The city of Tübingen started that already, as far as I know, Luxembourg as well. This would also tackle social segregation and open the inner city.

Random Walks: If I take a look around in this pedestrian area, I only see a few younger children – well, it is around 10:30 am. There are also a lot of elderly, maybe retired people, but then many around the age of 20, 25 or 30 or 35. What about the demographic structure of Giessen?

Jan: In general, the inner city is very busy. The demographic is particularly interesting. The population pyramid of Giessen almost looks like that of a developing country, except for a small bump around the people younger than 18. The shape of a Christmas tree, actually. A narrow trunk, but a broad area for the people under 35. Because of the students. By now Giessen is the city with the highest density of student population in Germany: almost 90,000 inhabitants; one university and one university of applied sciences and a total of almost 40,000 students. Not all of them live here, many commute from surrounding cities and villages, but for sure there are a lot of young people here.

This catches one’s eye as soon as when one leaves the train station and heads for the city. The people passing by, well, one rarely sees grey hair. This, of course, brings about its own problems. For one thing, students are not a major economic factor, in proportion to their number. Many leave the city during the semester breaks, which can cause trouble for cultural institutions and bars. For months they have to live without a considerable part of their revenue. And even struggle to survive. So the nightlife and cultural offer decreases – and more people are tempted to leave the city. It is a vicious circle.

Random Walks: Additionally, I can imagine that many students only stay for their Bachelor’s, maybe their Master’s, but then leave. Giessen does not look like the place where you can find your first job easily.

Jan: Exactly. Many know that from the very moment they move here.

Random Walks: So Giessen is only a stopover, a passage.

Jan: It is. And that’s why, I think, many don’t engage fully with the city. If you know you are only staying for three years, this is a very limited amount of time. Perhaps one term abroad, then it’s even less. Why should I engage fully and immerse in this city? This is indeed a relevant factor.

The entrance to the yard of the Alte Kupferschmiede (Photo credit: private).

We have been strolling through the main shopping area of Giessen. The streets are growing more and more lively and we are approaching noon. People are sitting in the sun, sometimes children run around, shouting and screaming. Instead of going with the flow and drifting with the majority of people, we are now entering a couple of narrower alleys. Our aim is the Alte Kupferschmiede, a former forge which is now one of the hotspots of urban activism in Giessen. Our conversation increasingly orbits around access to urban spaces, political decisions shaping the city and the influence of economic interests.

Christopher: Yes, well … to whom does the city belong? Interesting in this context is that we as raumstation3539 also manage vacancies for creative spaces in Giessen. We often look for vacant places. It is interesting to see that most real estate owners do not live in Giessen. As for property speculation, the big question is: what would happen if the actual spaces became scarce?

Jan: Also, more and more buildings are owned by funds. And amongst those owners that still have a strong connection to Giessen one can see an increasing concentration of property. There is a small number of owners that possess an increasing amount of buildings and estates– and who thus have an increasing influence on politics. Concessions are made, which – regarding urban planning, are sometimes problematic.

Now, what we see here is, I would say, one of the few cultural open spaces of the city. We are now at Tiefenweg, at the Alte Kupferschmiede.

Literally: Old Coppersmith’s. What sounds like an Irish Pub is a cozy backyard. Brick walls covered in stickers, murky windows and a smell of DIY and underground: the Alte Kupferschmiede is a place for cultural encounter and a venue for concerts and exhibitions, workshops, film screenings and events. A collective of artists and students took over the abandoned smithy and has been enriching the cultural life of Giessen since 2016.

Jan: This is a great example of what can emerge in an urban space not (yet) owned and developed by an investor. A former copper smithy and in poor structural condition, the building was affordable for the collective ”Karawane“. They opened a cultural centre, a concert venue but also an open bicycle workshop. But this was only possible because the place wasn’t commercially used. Spaces like this are becoming rare.

Christoph: The property itself is a great example as well. There are two mansions, both belong to the same owner. The owner started with relatively big ideas, which then were rejected by the city’s administration. So they started a campaign against the administration and now there is a big conflict and the buildings are out of use, there is even an underdevelopment.

For us, since we look for abandoned places, in principle this is positive, but over time regulatory agencies will show up and now comprehensive standards have to be met. Fire safety and so on. This greatly complicates the low-threshold use.

Random Walks: Sounds like there is a great deal of improvisation?

Christoph: Improvisation is always the first step.

Jan: More difficult is the second step. Taking over a place and starting something for a certain amount of time works out repeatedly in Giessen. But to stabilize such projects and to transfer them into a legally and economically sustainable form, that fails too often.

End of part II / to part III / back to part I

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