From Emptiness to Urban Art

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

After walking through Giessen for several hours we are now almost at the end of our walk. In our four-part peripatetic interview, Jan Buck and Christopher Reuter of raumstation3539 introduced us to the seventh biggest city of the federal country of Hessen, and in doing so gave us an introduction to many facets of urban planning and activism. Our impression: Giessen has something to offer – in regard of ideas and activism, but also in regard of issues and shortcomings. Only a few steps away from Johannette-Lein-Platz, we are now heading back to Giessen’s pedestrian area.

Christopher: At Johannette-Lein-Platz we saw a beautiful old building, a little bit further there is a new construction. Every ambition is just simply missing, I would say. You could run an exhibition in Giessen: An exhibition of missed opportunities. [laughing] Same for the Haarlem: there actually exists a pretty good concept by a Frankfurt-based architect, but in the end it is just as Georg Büchner said: “alles hohl und mittelmässig” –empty and mediocre.

Random Walks: Is this emptiness a tradition?

Christopher: Somehow this seems to be the standard of the city’s urban planning. This is also related to the fact that overall only very few architects are involved. But this is something you can actually see in several cities.

Random Walks: Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you do not believe in your city, you will end with uninspired urban planning.

Christopher: Yes, absolutely.

We are heading towards the Galerie Neustädter Tor, one of the newer attractions in Giessen.

Jan: Neustädter Tor is beyond good and evil. From the very beginning, the planning process was problematic. Regarding the exterior area, especially. There is a huge space, which one can only walk past. There are not even shopwindows, nothing to look at.

Christopher: It just works like a sponge, absorbing the life of the city.

Random Walks: The generic mall. It looks the same everywhere, but still it is a social magnet. Either because there is nothing else happening anyway, or because nothing is happening due to the mall.

Christopher: In principle it is public life turned inside out and sealed off from the outside world.

Jan: We can pass by, I can show you my favourite spot.

Random Walks: I have to admit I am a big afficionado of malls. Especially when I am abroad I often stroll through malls. On the one hand, there is a good chance to find a proper toilette, on the other I think it is quite fascinating to find the small differences in this very standardized schema. Because what attracts your attention in the monotony of the mall says a lot about a specific city, culture or society. It is a space that makes specificities visible.

Jan: Well, in Giessen the concept does not work at all. We have an enormous amount of vacant units in this mall. For us the question arises: Can we use this space and find interim solutions?

Random Walks: Would raumstation, theoretically, get access to these venues?

Jan: Theoretically yes. For instance, there is already a gallery in the gallery of shops. But it is indeed a space that does not offer anything. It is there, it is finished, it dictates how it wants to be used. It doesn’t encourage you to start anything new. Rather, it pushes you away. If you don’t stick to the affordances of the planning, you don’t get to belong here the first place. Then there are limited opening hours.

We are now in front of the Mall, facing a huge entrance.

The famous (or rather infamous) shopping mall Galerie Neustädter Tor in the city centre of Giessen
Photo credit: private

There is this huge entrance area, obviously making the claim to be visible from far away and to radiate attractiveness. But if you stand directly in front of it … it wants to be monumental, but in the end it is only dead space. On the left there is a cycle rack, so there is at least something you can do. What I am fascinated by is the area on the right. Usually there is nothing. Now there is a bike, but most of the time it is just plain. There is not even shade.

A few days ago we had a day of action to promote a change in public transportation. The street was blocked, there were different stalls and a stage, but it quickly became apparent that just blocking cars is not enough. One has to redesign. Otherwise the asphalt will stay empty and uninviting. The stage we had here, although there were people standing around, was quite sad. If there is a space that is truly repellent, there is hardly anything you can do.

Random Walks: Do we want to continue our walk?

Christopher: Everything is just so, so idle. Big, ambitious projects in city planning are difficult to realise. But probably it was always like that.

Random Walks: On the other hand – looking at maybe the Berlin airport and other projects – I think currently there are a lot of reservations against big projects.

Christopher: The Neue Altstadt in Frankfurt is a counter example. That was received very positively. That’s a special case, of course, since there was property available that only a small number of people were interested in, although it is in very centre of the city.

Jan: Just hypothetically: if Neustädter Tor would be torn down because it just unprofitable. What could replace it?

Christopher: Unambitious housing. Maybe another hotel. One that sounds like this [knocks against the next wall – a dull, empty sound].

Jan: Or a parking house. Didn’t we want to walk to Kreuzplatz?

Although it is called a place, the Kreuzplatz feels more like a crossing. When Giessen was reconstructed after the second World War, properties were reallocated, smaller parcels were put together or completely erased, to allow bigger structures. Also, the building line was changed to make space for cars. In principle, just a small change. But the impact is huge, as Christopher describes: places are no longer experienced as places or squares, small alleys disappear and one has to walk longer distances. The liveliness declines. The scale is changed: If the scale of the human is not the orienting measure, Christopher explains, things get unproportional.

Now we are entering a small backyard. Cars are parked, small heaps of trash litter the ground. Private property, usually the gate is locked.

Photo credit: private

Jan: Over there you can see the last remains of Giessen’s most famous graffiti. Originally it consisted of four parts.

Random Walks: We have to go there!

Jan: One piece is here, originally it had four parts. Another one at the former Samen-Hahn-building. One was next to the Wieseck creek at a wall, the last one I don’t remember right now. It consisted of four words: “Yes”, “Love”, “is” and “wonderful”. Here we can still see the “yes”. Everything else disappeared.

We are now approaching the end of our walk. Leaving the pedestrian area, the shops of Seltersweg and walking through small backyards and alley ways, we are now and again on a big, four lane street. In front of us: a wide square, surrounded by an ensemble of bright, newly erected buildings that smell like administration.

Jan: This is maybe the most controversial building in Giessen’s recent history: the city hall. First of all it was outrageously expensive. Secondly it is aesthetically polarizing. Actually, I quite like it, because it created a kind of square, at least to some extent. And it has some kind of aspiration.

Christopher: For me, this is again a great example for how urban planning works. Opposite to the city hall is the Congress hall, which is, in its scale, far more human that the city hall. The city hall looks far away, the square, Berliner Platz, is surrounded by two ugly facades. Both are closed and uninviting, both are not representative.

Random Walks: Exciting, yes. Although it is a fairly big square, it feels narrow. You are almost lost between those walls, despite the trees.

Christopher: In principle, urban spaces work properly if they can be conceived as interior space: four sides and a humane measurement. The square in front of the city hall is actually no space, it is more like an area. As human beings we have a physical body, we have a front and a back and we try to stay in places where our back is protected. To stay on open field induces the desire to run away – that is still imprinted in our perception.

Jan: Now we are passing Ludwigsplatz. Here you can see a direct effect of the quick demographic growth in Giessen: the city can hardly expand, so additional floors are added to many buildings. Here, a wooden penthouse has been added. This is something we might see more often in the next years.

Christopher: Let’s have a look on the door bell nameplate at the mansion over there. Have a guess: how many parties might live there?

Random Walks: This is an expensive looking building. Well, maybe there is an attorney or a solicitor, maybe a doctor and then maybe another party on the upper floor.

Christopher: Let’s check. The mansion belongs to an investor who currently buys a lot of these mansions and uses them following the same scheme. Using property in a high payed segment as an object of reference to raise the average rent. A single agent can have enormous power on the market if he owns many buildings.

Random Walks: So a monopoly could easily circumvent any restriction?

Jan: Monopoly would be too much, an oligopoly works already.

Random Walks: Is this also a factor in the field of gastronomy?

Jan: Yes, there are a few persons owning numerous bars, cafés or restaurants.

A few steps, and we are directly looking at the door bell nameplate.

Random Walks: Wow.

Christopher: That’s quite something, isn’t it?

Jan: How many names are there? 30, 35?

Christopher: 40.

Jan: Apparently someone realised the status of Giessen as a student’s city and found a way to benefit from that. The mansion has been reconstructed in a way to accommodate as many people as possible. Shared flats and small rooms, rented separately. There is also high fluctuation, most people are studying here for three years, which gives plenty of opportunities to increase the rent.

Christopher: These are typical flats for students moving to Giessen from somewhere else. They are finding the offer online and after half a year, when they made friends here, they are moving to another place. This is also connected to the issue of agglomeration: How much space does a person need? How many square meters? This is not necessarily a bad development. Here, of course, economical benefits are the main motivation.

Heading back to where we started hours ago, the “Anschlussverwendung” in Grünberger Strasse, we are again walking along big busy streets. The noise of cars almost drowns out our voices and again we are talking about what mainly shapes urban life and space in Giessen as well as in many other German cities: automobile traffic.

Christopher: Look at the restaurant over there. They might want to have a seated area outside, but instead we have public parking lots.

Random Walks: But would one actually like to sit here next to a busy street?

Christopher: Traffic has to be reduced, of course. We analysed what would happen if the automobile traffic would be reduced to two lanes and if one would create a park instead. Through trams and a bike lane, traffic capacities could actually be doubled. And you would save a few hundred tons of CO2, just on this short section. That’s not rocket science.

Random Walks: So the occurrence of traffic jams wouldn’t be higher? You can expect people to walk or go by bike instead?

Christopher: You have to create alternative opportunities. Only if the other means of transportation are attractive, change is possible. Bike lanes have to be attractive, sidewalks have to be attractive, public transportation has to be attractive. User behaviour changes with the supply. The current situation would already allow a reduction to two lanes without any disadvantage. Back in the 1960s, streets were crowded so they were enlarged. And right after this enlargement the streets were as crowded as before. If you plan for traffic, traffic is what you will get.

Random Walks: And once you have acquired a car, you will use it.

Christopher: In Grosser Steinweg, one of the tiny streets we just passed, there are usually a lot of compact cars parked with number plates from other cities. They belong to students living in surrounding cities and villages. They are arriving on Sunday, looking for a parking lot and then leaving their car for the rest of the week. The city is a huge intermediate store for cars. The average time of use per week and car is less than an hour.

Our walk ends with many concerns, but also with a hidden gem of street art. Giessen has a lot to offer – although it is not unique, but shares so many issues of urban planning with other cities. A city is always the focal point of myriads of dynamics and developments.

There is one thing we take with us as well: shaping urban spaces can start very small. Sometimes it is the tiny projects and the details that make all the difference.

The End / back to part III

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