I’ve never been to Wiesbaden

I’ve never been to Wiesbaden but I do know that it is a German city of some 275,000, that it is not far from Frankfurt, and that it is famous  for the presence of large numbers of US troops, and for its, supposedly curative, thermal springs. Anyway, some time around 1910, the plan of the centre of the city assumed a rather unusual pattern. The buildings being black and the spaces between them white, you will detect at once a rather significant difference between the left (west) and right (east) sides. On the left side are the streets and squares of the old city which had been built and rebuilt to the same pattern for hundreds of years. There are relatively few freestanding buildings; there’s St Bonifatius at centre left, looking south down an enfilade of narrow and wider streets, and there’s the triangular Rathaus or town hall a little to the north east of St B’s, surrounded by the market place. Most of the rest of the left side is made up of an unknown number of individual buildings grouped together into blocks between which lie the streets and occasional squares within which the Wiesbadeners presumably went about their business.

Figure-ground plan of Wiesbaden, circa 1910

On the right side, in complete contrast, there are no traditional or enclosed streets at all, simply a plethora of isolated buildings, many of them apparently distributed in random order. Apart from the Staatstheater of 1894 and the Kurhaus or thermal baths of 1907 (just right of centre, near the top) most of the rest are private villas built in the second half of the nineteenth century. Of course, those villas were, and still are, distributed along roads and, as far as one can tell from Google Earth, many of those roads look as if they might be quite pleasant; at least there seem to be plenty of trees, which usually helps. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that there has been a fundamental shift in the spatial experience, between the left and right sides of the city.

I will not go so far as to say that the building of large free standing villas was wrong but I will say that I am fairly certain that anyone, rich or poor, walking in the streets and squares of the west side of the city would experience a sense of being within something to which they belonged, in some sense a ‘nest’. I am equally certain that anyone, apart perhaps from the owners of the villas themselves, would not experience the same sense of belonging in the east side of the city. I think most of us would there feel ourselves in some sort of ‘no man’s land’.

Of course, we’re beginning to touch on fundamental questions of what a city is and who it is for. That, naturally, is a political question but it is not one where it is necessary to side with either the rich or the poor, a point well made a few years later in Paris.

Sponsored, significantly, by the luxury Automobile brand Avions Voisin, Le Corbusier drew up, in 1925, his Plan Voisin for the centre of Paris.

Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin for Paris, 1925

You can see the Ile de la Cite and the Ile St Louis at the bottom. For the rest, the stark contrasts in the arrangements of buildings and spaces are rather similar to those of Wiesbaden, but with two crucial differences. Firstly, Corb’s plan to rip the centre out of Paris and replace it with a series of sixty storey cruciform tower blocks set in open park land was not, mercifully, built. And, secondly, his intention was, at least in part, to find an answer to some of the appalling slums and provide clean, light homes and offices for working Parisian citizens. So you see that this change in the way we think about cities is not always something which the rich do at the expense of the poor. It is far more fundamental than that.

In coming posts, I expect to explore some of the reasons why this shift has taken place, reasons including the rise of the automobile (why not just say “car”?), the advent of Town Planning, different ways in which architects are educated, the dissemination of architectural ideas through photography, tourism and the rise of ‘celebrity culture’.

For the moment, I only want to make the point that this issue is not just one of passing historical interest. It seems to me that how we make our cities is genuinely important for all citizens now and, even more important, it is something which, for the first time in history, citizens can do something about, thanks to the internet.

It is no longer necessary for all citizens to be the victims of politicians, planners, highways engineers, architects, developers or big businesses. It is quite within the power of the internet and a few tens of thousands of followers to effect genuine change, a sort of ‘Place Spring’. Oh come off it!, you may think. But how often do you walk through your own city or town and feel that sense of contentment and belonging that you feel wandering through the streets of an old city? This is not about style, it is not about what buildings look like. It is just about how we allow buildings to be placed relative to one another on the surface of our earth, about whether a city should be a collection of objects or a sequence of places.

And, admitting, unshamefacedly, to my ambition for this blog, if I can persuade enough intelligent interested citizens to see their city for what it has become and to imagine how it might be, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t make a huge difference. Of course, there are many individuals and organisations who are already committed to improving our cities. There are conferences and courses, books and White Papers, initiatives and charities which attempt to address the plight and pleasures of cities in all their complexity. So far, though, I have yet to meet anyone with the sole aim of encouraging such a simple change of mindset as I am attempting here to achieve, to perceive the place created (or more often just left) between buildings, rather than the buildings themselves, to ask whether that place is more like a nest or a no man’s land, and, whenever the opportunity arises to expect better. People need Places!

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About Paul Vonberg

Paul Vonberg is an architect. During five years as an architectural photographer, seven at university, twenty-two in practice and dozens living in old buildings, he has developed a strong feeling for the qualities which make good and bad places. Paul believes strongly that the design of 'iconic' buildings is only a small part of what architects should be doing. Far more important is the creation of functional, meaningful and enjoyable places in which people can dwell. Rooms inside buildings are still getting made but what happened to the 'rooms' which make up a city, to the streets, squares, courtyards and all those other outside places which we all enjoy? Of every bit of man-made space on earth, one could ask, "Is it a nest or a no man's land?" Paul suspects that the number of places which even approach the qualities of a nest (enclosure, comfort, warmth, a threshold, views out) is diminishing rapidly and that although architects know better, they are not helping. The solution? To try to encourage everybody to understand what is happening and to expect better. That is the simple purpose of this blog. Enjoy it!
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8 Responses to I’ve never been to Wiesbaden

  1. Jeremy says:

    Very interesting. At the moment i am taking an urbanism cousrse at uni and many architects focus a lot of their attension on life within a building but so much the life between buildings.

    • Paul Vonberg says:

      Jeremy, Thanks for this. The point is that most citizens spend huge amounts of time between buildings so it’s hard to see why those places get so little attention. Keep following! Kind regards, Paul

  2. Jeremy says:

    Meanwhile, I also believe architect must possess a vision for our built environment ( what if ….) which i think clearly demonstrated in Le Corb’s proposal. (Thanks goodness it didnt get build!)

  3. adrian says:

    Some interesting thoughts on place and the spaces between them, but I’d like to make 2 slightly off topic observations.

    I’m struck most by the Wiesbaden city plan. Like some strange QR code, it really is an extraordinary image, and I think not just for what it says about the history of Weisbaden, or for what it might illustrate about town planning more widely. It’s just a really striking image.

    The second observation is this. I was reading recently (where?) about cities migrating to the west, their eastern sides being left behind and falling into decay, while they expanded and renewed themselves westwards. Rightly or wrongly this was being suggested as some general rule of more or less universal applicability. But unless this plan is upside down, south over north, Wiesbaden seems to have developed in precisely the opposite direction, moving and developing to the east rather than the west. Whether this amounts to much, I have no idea.

    Looking forward to more posts Paul.

    • Paul Vonberg says:

      Adrian, I too have read somewhere about the westward migration of cities but Wiesbaden was shown conventionally with North at the top and so it breaks the pattern, as indeed London may yet! Kind regards, Paul

  4. Some marvelous pictures here and Paul can write too, so a really interesting blog. I’m not an architect, but I am very much drawn to trying to engage with it, and I’m hoping Paul and the other architects here may indulge me a bit.

    I’m drawn first to the idea that (at least from a streetscape perspective) it’s not so much the buildings that matter as the spaces in between them. To see the city as a “sequence of spaces”, rather than a “collection of things” – ie buildings – seems to me a good starting point. Among other things it represents a greater focus on the public realm.

    But I hesitate slightly over the “nest or a no man’s land” formulation. I’m not sure it really captures what public space is about. I also wonder whether the pleasure we take in places may (for non architects at least) often be less about the spaces that make them up per se, and more to do with the sort of experiences those spaces set up for us.

    On the formulation first, the phrase “no man’s land” sounds pejorative. But it seems to me that this is exactly what streets are: they’re places that belong to no one. It seems to me this is actually rather a good thing.

    I’m not sure either how useful it is that to suggest that the spaces between buildings can be nests. It may make sense to describe a home as a nest. But, if we like streets, isn’t one of the things we like about them precisely the fact that those bits between the buildings are not like the home? They’re not cosy or homely or private places. The street is different from the home, and, I’d suggest, we probably enjoy moving from home to street and back again precisely because they are different and they offer us different experiences.

    This isn’t at all to say that I don’t like enclosed public spaces, or that I wouldn’t wish to see more of them. I would. It’s just to ask whether the metaphors are right, and to worry whether, if they’re not, we could end up going off in slightly the wrong direction.

    I also think Paul’s approach here may still be too narrowly architectural. One senses an architect thinking visually. He may not be thinking particularly about “object buildings”, because he’s thinking more about the spaces between buildings. But he’s still thinking first and foremost about spaces and volumes and so on.

    Now all of this is good, but buildings also have social functions, and my untutored sense is that one of the main things they do for us is to establish private space, and to distinguish it from public space.

    And to me this also suggests something else: that what separates a good place from a bad one may be only partly, and indirectly, about the particular form that buildings (and the spaces between them) take. It may, in fact, be more about how that place treats the public and private, and about how well, or badly, it both links and separates the two.

    I could develop this idea, but probably not within a sensible length, so I’ll limit myself to a suggestion.

    Perhaps what makes somewhere interesting, or comfortable, or just a nice place to be, may actually be something to do with the way that place defines public spaces and private spaces, and, even more, about the complexity of the interactions it sets up between the public and the private. My sense is that the more complex, diverse and nuanced those interactions, the more layered and interesting our experience of a place will be.

    • Paul Vonberg says:

      Adrian, Thanks for your compliments and thoughtful analysis; to get the non-architect thinking about these issues (as well as the architect) is exactly my aim! To respond:

      1. I agree that the pleasure we can all take from the best public spaces is more about “the sort of experiences those places set up for us” than about the spaces per se. But, the problem we are facing is simply that very few good public spaces are being created. The idea of a city as “a sequence of spaces” implies that we should be aiming for a continuous matrix, not an occasional event. My aim is thus to do what I can towards the creation of such places; the good experiences will then hopefully follow. The ‘end game’ would be that the need for analysis or even conscious awareness of the places would largely evaporate.

      2. Taking that point a little further, the art of creating magnificent cities is like any other art; when successful, the results appeal at several levels. So, just as the trained mind will appreciate intellectually the finer subtleties of, say, a great painting or a musical composition, the rest of us enjoy those subtleties but without necessarily having the tools to analyse them. That is as it should be. Equally, it would be ghastly if everyone who walked into, say, St Mark’s Square in Venice (surely one of the most finely nuanced sequences of places ever created) then immediately launched into an erudite dissection of how those nuances had been achieved. The architect may feel the need to do that (as my family might tell you!) but most people will merely enjoy the experience, finding perhaps only that they feel happier there. And that is how it should be too. Nevertheless, both levels of enjoyment stem from precisely the same qualities in the place.

      3. Regarding my selection of the question, “Is it a nest or a no man’s land?”, it is deliberately simplistic, aimed at highlighting the opposite ends of the scale. So, “no man’s land” is intended to be extremely pejorative and, for me at least, describes well the worst sort of ‘out of town’ retail parks where all attempt at creating places has been completely abandoned in favour of the speediest possible exchange of goods for money. Wilfred Owen’s description of a ‘no man’s land’, “like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness…hideous landscapes, vile noises….everything unnatural, broken, blasted… the most execrable sights on earth” is powerful and of course describes something far more wrong than we are discussing here. But it was also much more short-lived. I also hope it goes without saying that I would not have considered using such hyperbole while any of those who had experienced the 1914-18 war first hand were still alive.

      4. At the other end of the scale, I do consider that a good street is in some senses a nest. Of course, it is not, and never should be, as well feathered as the inside of a house but I can’t agree with you that streets are “places that belong to no one”. On the contrary, they are places that belong to everyone who uses or lives in them. I can’t help being reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s famous, and I believe totally misguided, utterance of 1987, “There is no such thing as society”. In fact I find myself wondering whether she contributed to the very world I am arguing against, a world in which no one cares about anywhere much apart from the inside of their house and the inside of their car!

      5. One further thought about my selection of the concept of a nest to describe a place where one can feel comfortable…contemplate for a moment the word ‘cosy’. My observation has for years been that it is a word reviled by almost all architects but cherished by everyone else. That on its own highlights an alarming discrepancy between what is being created and what, albeit often at an unconscious level, is longed for. And if you need convincing that the use of words reveals a great deal about our underlying patterns of thought, then I recommend reading Martin Heidegger’s “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” and other essays in “Poetry, Language, Thought” (Used copies from £2.62 on Amazon)

      6. I agree with everything you say about social functions, about the role of buildings in distinguishing public from private space, and about the benefits of complex interactions between the two. But, unless we can regain a perception of our most basic need for coherent, legible, enclosed public space (in other words for streets and squares, or at least for places with most of the qualities held by those familiar concepts), then we will be leaving future generations with a world where social functions become seriously dysfunctional….

  5. adrian says:

    Paul, thanks for your comments which you’d obviously spent some time on.

    I’ll make just a few points in reply, if I may.

    I agree that very few good public spaces are being created. I also tend to think that if, as you suggest, we created more enclosed public spaces, and saw the city as a sequence of such spaces, we’d create rather more of them than we do now. I’m pretty sure that’s the case.

    You were kind enough to agree with my comments “about social functions, about the role of buildings in distinguishing public and private space, and about the benefits of complex interactions between them”. I suppose, if there’s a difference of emphasis between us, it may be that my instinct is to begin with those considerations. I think if you do you’ll come to value enclosed public space, but you may discover other things as well, and you may end up with something richer as a consequence.

    In saying this I realise I’m arguing for more complexity, and I understand, if you’re writing a kind of manifesto, that’s a difficult thing to encompass. As you say people understand things on different levels, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying or being inspired by pictures of Somerset House, the Salk Institute or the Uffizi (and the spaces around them) either!

    There are also perhaps two questions here though: on the one hand a political project around what planning policy should look like, and on the other (which may be rather more complicated) the question of how architects should approach what they do.

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