Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

July 2002

Cultured Pearl

Gasteig–a Munich jewel

Perhaps you’d like to spend your evening listening to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra playing Sergei Prokoviev in a world-class concert hall. Or perhaps you are looking to improve your proficiency in conversational German, but don’t have the money for private lessons. Then again, maybe you are just looking for a good book to read. No problem. For residents of Munich, the fulfillment of these three wishes, along with hundreds more, can be found in one ingeniously designed, red-brick building on the banks of the Isar River: the Gasteig, Munich’s cultural center. Twenty-seven years old and home to many of Munich’s most important cultural and learning institutions, the Gasteig’s offerings range from concerts to philosophical lectures, from author readings to film festivals. According to communications director, Hartmut Dedert, there is something for everyone. The fact that, with its 6,000 visitors a day, the Gasteig is the most visited cultural center in all of Germany, lends credence to his claim. “We are proud,” says Dedert, “to be the cultural center in the city and to be the most visible one in Germany.” The sheer variety of Gasteig’s offerings is the key to its success. Thousands of visitors a month are attracted by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, whose hall, with its 2,400 seats, is among the largest in the country. Shaped like a giant sea shell and boasting acoustics that were state-of-the-art when it was completed in 1985, the hall is also used for guest concerts and, like all the auditoriums in the Gasteig, can be rented out for large presentations and even annual company meetings. The Volkshochschule, an adult educational center that rents office and classroom space on the upper floors of the Gasteig, attracts thousands more. It offers hundreds of courses, including language classes, painting, drawing and photography instruction and more. Because the Volkshochschule is subsidized by the city, course costs are kept to a minimum. Music training can likewise be had in the Gasteig, courtesy of the Richard Strauss Conservatory with its many training and practice rooms. The conservatory also holds concerts throughout the year, including regular freebies during the lunch hour and in the early evenings. Also a tenant in the Gasteig, the main branch of the Stadtbibliothek (municipal library) boasts a collection of over one million books, CDs, magazines and videos. The library also organizes author readings and discussion groups. With its numerous branches located throughout the city, it is one of the most frequently used public libraries in Germany. A full gamut of other offerings, such as experimental theater productions in the Black Box, lectures and dance festivals in the 600-seat Carl Orff Hall, film festivals and, in the foyer, art and photography exhibitions, complete the multi-purpose cultural center. The variety is an important part of the concept. “We want people to experience more than just what they came for,” says Dedert, “and we want them to discover something new each time they come.” The Gasteig, however, has not always been as popular as it is today. A nine-year gap between the approval of the plan in 1976 and the completion of the building in November 1985, along with a number of budget overruns and complicated design changes meant that in its early years, the DM 372 million Gasteig was, for many, synonymous with ineptitude. It was, in fact, the concert hall of the Munich Philharmonic that caused the most problems. Well into laying the foundations, the architects realized that the noise from the S-Bahn trains passing beneath was much louder than they had anticipated. The building’s foundations had to be redesigned —a modification that did not escape the attention of the press. Moreover, 1979 saw dramatic changes in other parts of the design as institutions to be housed within it rethought their requirements. Before this public embarrassment, the concept of a cultural center in Munich had undergone numerous drafts, proposals and modifications, the most difficult problem being where to put it. At first, city planners focused on the large piece of land on Briennerstrasse, where ruins of the Wittelsbach Palace, used during Nazi times as the headquarters of the Gestapo, stood. When the parcel was sold to the Hypovereinsbank in 1974, however, planners had to look further afield. Eventually, the city settled on a plot of land overlooking the Isar on Gachen Steig, which was occupied by a soon-to-be-moved retirement home. Early in the city’s history, the site had provided the material to make the bricks for the Frauenkirche in addition to the old city walls. More recently, it had been home to the notorious Bürgerbräukeller, the beer hall that had served as the jumping off point for Adolf Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in November of 1923. A memorial plaque in the courtyard of the Gasteig commemorates the Bürgerbräukeller’s finest and last hour, when much of the beer hall was blown up during Johann Georg Elser’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, on November 8, 1939. Now it is hard to imagine the site of the Gasteig as ever being home to anything else. Indeed the crystal shaped windows (or pipes from an organ, depending on who you talk to) perfectly complement the towers of the Müllersches Volksbad below. The history of the Volksbad? For that, you might want to do your research in the Gasteig. You are sure to be successful.

tell a friend