A Return to the New and Innovative
16 October 2011
The war lingered. It was Kassel, Germany, 1987, and I was there to study for 5 months. I was occupied most of the time with my classes in German language, history, political science and culture. Free time was spent with fellow students, host families, and exploring this 1,000+ year old city and its lessons – lessons that were repeated to me in new ways recently. At the time, I continued my personal pattern in a new place of setting off on foot, map and camera in tow, to take in as much of the city as possible, from the ground up. What I observed first hand connected me to the stories I was told and the lessons our teachers reinforced.
Everyone talked about the war, even 40 years later, especially my host family. Known as one of the “jewels before the fire storm”, Kassel had suffered at the hands of eager British generals, who had thrown down 400,000+ bombs in October of 1943 alone, many of them incendiary bombs, primarily on the night of October 22, 1943. They landed in the dense inner city core of the middle ages. It did not survive. A massive conflagration in an area of 3.5 mile circumference destroyed the core “Altstadt” (old city). In the broader downtown area, from 65,000 homes, 40,000 were destroyed. Only approximately 2,700 were not damaged. By 1945 the population went from over 250,000 to around 100,000. But there were plans to rebuild.
The Nazi architects started to plan immediately, but then the war came to an end. Then the refugees came from the East. Then the iron curtain fell. More refugees came, while citizens left. The city planners got to work. The entire city was to be rebuilt, but more than rebuilt, it was re-imagined. The Nazi plans were scrapped (a few remnants of the street design and city layout from 1943 concepts can still be discerned in the planning maps, but the citizens, rightly so, protested any continuation). The citizens and their architects began anew without the dense, historical cultural heart of the city. The 1950s and 1960s saw a new cityscape and urban culture arise - Germany’s first pedestrian zone, (“Die Treppen Strasse” or “Street of Steps”) built before there were buildings, linking a major square with the main train station, using a series of steps through what had been solid blocks of the old city; the now famous “documenta” art exhibition; the new, broad avenues and ring road – all never imagined a decade before.
By the time I arrived in a cold January of 1987, much of the world had moved on in many ways, but in Kassel there were always some reminders. The shadow of the iron curtain still loomed, cutting Kassel off from traditional transportation and trade, north and south, east and west. But the Kasselers were nothing if not proud and determined. They continued to reinvent themselves and do still today. A week ago I returned to Kassel for the first time since 1987 and, like then, I armed myself with my camera, my questions and curiosity for the social, cultural and built environment, as well as history that I saw around me. Things had changed.
Today Kassel lies again in the middle of a reunited Germany, a reunification that saw Kassel receive some of the earliest urban renewal and revitalization funds from the federal government. Indeed, from my perspective, it was shortly after my time there as reunification came that Kassel had another chance at reinvention. A reinvention I was able to see first hand walking streets old and new to my experience. During my meetings and discussions, as well as participating in the inner city urban renewal walking tour, I saw a city that was reintroduced to me – a city that had found a way to look back and move forward simultaneously. By stripping the 1970s facades from the 1950s buildings and renovating interiors, the true design and craftsmanship of the period could again come out and be embraced. By making changes to crossings, parks and squares that had never quite been completed, there was a sense of newness and tying into those first plans to rebuild.
One place that struck a chord in particular was the “Unterneustadt” along the river Fulda, an area of the city founded in the late 13th century, immediately across from the old city core (really part of it in some ways, but separated by the river). And an area that was also reduced nearly 100% to rubble from the war. What the war did not take, the rebuilding in its first phase did so. I remember it as a place in Kassel that felt left behind, a place yet to be rediscovered. In one area what had been 250 separate building sites became a giant parking lot. With the reunification, came the demand for affordable, convenient living in the city. Unterneustadt got a new look.
What one finds in Unterneustadt today, primarily constructed in the years 2000-2006, are a series of late-blooming architecturally dynamic housing developments with schools, parks, playgrounds and shops that have created a livable, walkable compact neighborhood of great charm. I was won over completely, as were a number of my colleagues from the U.S. and Germany who engage in the work of community development and planning. The livability and connection to the city, is only further enhanced by the engagement of the neighborhood, city residents, universities and city leaders in the process; by the blend of award-winning affordable housing and mixed use spaces, including pedestrian zones. It is modern to be sure, but it is based on the older, denser neighborhood structure of the pre-war period where small individual parcels and buildings created an atmosphere of community. Their motto “Not just a housing development, but a city” says a lot about the concept.
Unique features include: the use of the old city wall portal from 1637 on a new school entrance; the building of a townhouse dwelling within the historically-protected partial walls of the water mill from the 1400s (original millstones as parking barriers and landscape details); the placement of parks where churches once stood and along houses that made use of the old “toll wall” for the city; the strategic placement of cultural and architectural pieces – poems, free standing sculpture, a walking bridge as pedestrian art and convenience, playgrounds that catch an adult’s eye as much as a child’s imagination.
All of this takes place along the river where small marinas, museums, restaurants and boat rental sites share the banks with excursion boats, castle wall remnants and an annual water festival, now one of the biggest in the region. Yet, community members, many low- and middle-income with nearly 20% immigrants, can walk the new bridge or ride one or two stops on the tram to reach the heart of the commercial center of Kassel.
It is an impressive series of developments for any location, but what struck me more than anything else is that I remember what was there and in surrounding sites along the river – ruins, weed-choked fields and lots, lower-quality buildings and bad planning decisions. The war lingered. At the time I could sense that and I talked about it with my classmates. There was a shadow then that seems to have lifted now. Here it was, more than 65 years after the war, rebuilt with the best of the old street and alley designs, compact living and view to the river, but with a sense of design, style and neighborhood cohesion that had been missing. Few ruins are to be seen. The iron curtain is gone now 20+ years already, and there Kassel boasts a trade school and university. Then there is the “Neue Unterneustadt” – the ‘new’ lower new city. This new city within a city inspired me to think deeper about our own cities and neighborhoods in the U.S. that, while circumstances that brought us to this point are different, deserve another chance.
1994-2009 Unterneustadt Kassel, Architekturfüher II (book), 2009, Euregioverlag; German Library primary reference: http://dnb.ddb.de
Bundeskongress Nationale Stadtentwicklung –
Exkursionsprogram am 12. Oktober 2011 (Federal National Urban Development Congress – Excursion Program on October 12, 2011), provided materials.
Website: Regio-Wiki: Kassel-Lexikon, http://regiowiki.hna.de/Unterneustadt
Website: Stadt Kassel: Projektentwicklungsgesellschaft Kassel Unterneustadt (City of Kassel: Kassel Unterneustadt Project Development Corporation)