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April 2001

Constructive Criticism

High fives for Munich's architectural fecision makers

Crime writer Raymond Chandler called L.A. “a city of no more personality than a paper cup.” It was up to Chandler’s P.I. Philip Marlowe to save the modern metropolis. Like the pulp fiction hero, Munich is fighting the battle against the ugliness that plagues cities like L.A. and, closer to home, Frankfurt. Three recent projects show that the city can stay beautiful and functional despite pressure to expand — one reason why it’s among Europe’s most popular places to live.

Every city makes mistakes. While Munich hasn’t built a monumental blunder like the Millennium Dome in London, the debate surrounding the Olympic Stadium is a sobering reminder that mad cow disease has reached the Continent. The idea that Munich should host soccer’s World Cup opener in 2006 is a good one, but a rigorous redesign of the landmark sports complex is clearly no answer. The city, the state of Bavaria as well as Munich’s two soccer teams were about to proceed with the 400-million mark makeover when architect Günter Behnisch backed out. Uwe Kiessler, a vocal opponent of the proposed changes, summed up what was on many people’s minds: “We’ll be getting the most expensive and by far the worst stadium the world has ever seen.”

Fortunately, in the meantime, the idea has been shelved in favor of a new stadium at the Zentral Hochschulsportanlage (ZHS). While this proposal poses its own set of problems — complaints of Olympic Village residents about the noise and the traffic that the 66,000-seat stadium will bring with it — at least one thing is clear: FC Bayern President and Soccer World Championship Committee Chair Franz Beckenbauer is calling all the shots. The notoriously outspoken sportsman has opposed the renovation and insisted on a new building all along. If the city continues to protect the award-winning structure built for the 1972 Olympics, it will be doing the right thing. The stadium has become a symbol of Munich, almost as important as the twin onion domes of the Frauenkirche.

History has brought Munich a parade of important people, from poets and authors to composers and kings, artists, architects and even a few anarchists. Each era has left its mark on the city, and the result is a feast for the naked eye. A walk between Isartor and Odeonsplatz, or any quarter once surrounded by the old city wall, is pure visual pleasure. Beauty is something Munich has in abundance, and architecture — which Goethe rightly called “frozen music” — is no exception. The HypoVereinsbank’s initiative to promote civic beauty through its Fünf Höfe or “five courts” shopping center is quite simply a stroke of genius.

Instead of building gargantuan shopping malls on the city periphery, Munich chose to shed its gloomy postwar facades and rehabilitate the historic downtown. Fünf Höfe is an intricate network of shop-lined passages located in the long block of buildings between Theatinerstrasse and Kardinal-Faulhaber-Strasse. Although the 100-million mark project is not yet finished, one section of it opened in mid-February to the delight of all Munich. It is not a new idea — Milan did it with the famous Galleria, as did Paris with its rabbit warren of small shopping streets. Sometimes old solutions are the best answer to modern needs.

Life isn’t only about sports and business, although many might beg to differ. Formula 1 fans would especially appreciate Neuhausen’s new Herz-Jesu-Kirche, a small building that its priest calls “a Ferrari of a church.” The shoebox-shaped basilica near Rotkreuzplatz is a glass-and-steel delight. It provides Lachnerstrasse with a stunning blue facade: two 14-meter-high hydraulic doors designed by London glass artist Alexander Beleschenko. The interior reveals a dreamy Nordic quality, soft iridescent light floods the open space as from a distant winter sun. Numerous contemporary artworks — ranging from the startling Five Wounds of Christ to the clever Stations of the Cross — show that old beliefs can thrive in new form while remaining meaningful.

The Munich firm of Allmann Sattler Wappner has done more than just replace the church that burned down here six years ago. Despite local protests — some of which even reached the Vatican — the archbishop took a chance by choosing architects he knew would design a modern building for an old neighborhood. The result says a lot about Munich. Even conservative institutions know when to look to the future and produce beautiful buildings in step with the times.

It doesn’t take a detective like Philip Marlowe to realize that neither the mayor nor the soccer world is entirely responsible for this state of affairs. Luck has a lot to do with it, as do people’s attitudes. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to live in L.A. or Frankfurt, despite their reputed charms. But as long as Kaiser Beckenbauer’s in charge, I won’t worry too much about skyscrapers, either. One project at a time, and, with the way the city has been looking of late, a few more points for the home team.

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