Sunday, 23 August 2009

Magdeburg Unplanned

Today we travelled to the ancient mediaeval city of Magdeburg, about 160km WSW of Berlin, capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, situated on the river Elbe.

We weren't supposed to be going there, but to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where legend has it Martin Luther nailed his 'The Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences' to the door of the cathedral there and thereby set off The Reformation.

We had agreed to meet up with two friends on platform 2 of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, for a Regional Express train to Lutherstadt Wittenburg. We bought our Schönes Wochenende tickets, one of our friends arrived on time, and we phoned the other to see where he had got to. "I'm on platform two," he said. So were we. We looked up and down the platform. He wasn't there. "Yes I am," he phoned back, "at Friedrichstraße station like we said." No, we said the main station. "That is Friedrichstraße, yes?" No actually, the main station is Berlin Hauptbahnhof. That's why it is called Hauptbahnhof. "Ah, ok, I'll get the next train over there." But of course by the time he had arrived the train for Lutherstadt had already been and gone, and we still had our Schönes Wochenende tickets to use. Our other friend suggested Magdeburg as she had been there before and could give us a guided tour, so that's how we ended up at Magdeburg instead. And as it turned out, we enjoyed our ersatz Tagesausflug ('replacement day trip'), so Ende gut, alles gut ('all's well that ends well')!

My first impression of Magdeburg was of another former East German town which had suffered heavy bombing in the war and had been rebuilt in Soviet Realist style with lots of Plattenbau. The grand buildings lining the wide Ernst-Reuter-Allee (below) in particular were reminiscent of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee, though on a smaller scale.

Whilst Moscow-style buildings look to me a bit out of place in a German city, they are as nothing to the Grüne Zitadelle (Green Citadel) just around the corner. This apartment and gallery complex looks like it has been transplanted from Epsilon Zeta 9 (a very nice planet actually, in the Megliathlon star system). But no, it is of Earth, and was designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist with a somewhat unique and individualist style. In fact, it was his last piece of architecture, completed in 2005 (Hundertwasser died in February 2000).

The first thing that strikes you about the Green Citadel is how it very clearly isn't green, it is bright pink!

The second, third, and fourth things to strike you are also that it is bright pink!

You wonder what kind of person would live in a place like this?

And you wonder if they continue the colour scheme inside their own apartments, or is their internal décor minimalistic and all black and white to give their eyes a rest?

Or do they fill their rooms with aceeed stuff like they had on sale in the courtyard downstairs?

It is called the Green Citadel not because of its Mediterranean pink wall colours, but because it has been designed to be ecologically green. For example, the roof is actually turfed for insulation, and has a garden up there sloping down and around the top of the complex. We were working out which would be the best ski run down in Winter!

Whoever lives there, I bet they couldn't help but go through the day with a smile on their face. You couldn't help it could you? It would be like living in The Beatle's Yellow Submarine. Either that or you could be stressed out by hundreds of people taking photos of your house everyday, peering in the windows, writing blogs about you ... oops!

The obvious question is, how on earth did they get planning permission to plonk a totally incongruous style of building in the middle of the town centre. But then you look around Magdeburg and you realise how unplanned any of it is: the Green Citadel sits on the opposite side of Breiter Weg to a madly neo-Gothic former main Post Office, whilst further back along Breiter Weg are baroque town-houses reconstructed in DDR Plattenbau. We've just been seeing monumental scale buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Petrograd, and just across a Plaza from the Citadel, edged by modern glass and steel buildings, stands the impressively tall and imposing medieval Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice.

This is yer actual Gothic, none of that mock-Gothik Romantisch revival stuff of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact this cathedral was the first Gothic church building in Germany, taking three hundred years to build and finally completed in 1520. It even has genuine original-feature gargoyles!

Okay, so it's not Notre Dame and doesn't soar elegantly up on flying buttresses and frankly it could do with a clean, but it does feel at least authentically German rather than the alien styles imposed elsewhere in Magdeburg. No doubt at the time when it was first conceived, local Burghers tutted when they saw the plans and complained that they didn't want any of that modern lah-dee-dah French architecture in the town. "This Gothic style will never catch on round here, you know."

Inside, the cathedral has magnificent ribbed ceilings supported on a forest of slender columns decorated with lots of intricate carving (including some 'green man' heads). Amongst many well-crafted sculptures, there is one of St Maurice himself, an Egyptian (now would be Sudanese) saint from the 3rd Century. What is notable is that with his African features this sculpture is considered to be the oldest surviving depiction of a black man in Europe. There is also a matching sculpture of the cathedral's other dedicated saint, St Catherine, as well as lots of depictions of cart-wheels (she was martyred by being broken on a wheel - nowadays tastefully remembered in the UK by lighting Catherine wheels on bonfire night which never seem to spin properly).

Magdeburg has a number of other mediaeval church buildings, reflecting its importance as a seat of an Archbishop and the largest city of the Holy Roman Empire. My favourite is perhaps 'Unser Lieben Frauen' (Our Beloved Lady) Monastery, which looks like it should have a maiden letting down her long hair from one of the towers:

The strange thing is that if you turn to look the other way, this former monastery is in the middle of an ugly Plattenbau high-rise housing estate. You are reminded that in the time of the DDR, religious worship didn't sit well with materialist Marxism. Churches, no matter their age and historical significance, were often neglected through misuse and fell into disrepair or, as seems to be the case here, just totally ignored whilst modern Stalinist housing developments grew up around them. The Goddess knows I'm not a believer in Christianity myself, but I like to have solid reminders of the march of history and the skills and belief systems of those who went before.

The monastery buildings are now put to a good, albeit secular, use as a museum of Modern Art. I very much like this self-portrait statue by Käthe Kollwitz in front of the former cloisters.

Of course, one of the main reasons that Magdeburg grew into such an important town was its position on the river Elbe. So, here's a photo of the river Elbe at Magdeburg:

The boat is the MS Clara Schumann, which takes people on cruises up and down the length of the Elbe. Clara Schumann was a musician and composer who lived most of the nineteenth century. I don't know what she would think of having a cruise boat named after her, and I can't say I know any of her works, but she said of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' that it was "the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life", so, respect Clara!

Other evidence of Magdeburg's former trading importance (it was a member of the Hanseatic League) is its large market place outside the Rathaus, with its inevitable Roland statue. The construction of a new Roland is first recorded in 1419. The current statue isn't quite so old; it was created and erected in 2005! What is interesting about this one is that there is a Till Eulenspiegel figure carved on the back. He is a fool and prankster who has his own body of stories about his exploits, which were popular in the middle ages. This is a counterpoint to the noble stories of the Knight Roland's chivalric adventures.

The restored Rathaus ('town hall') was similarly reopened in 2005. You can see the Roland statue to the left of the entrance:

Just in front of the entrance is the Magdeburger Reiter, dating back to 1240 and, get this!, is supposed to be the first equestrian sculpture north of the alps. Well, who'd a thunked it? Sure looks pretty though.

Pssst, don't tell anyone, but the original statue is made of sandstone and is in the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg. This statue was made in 1966, and was only painted gold in 2000.

It is of course no coincidence that so much of the restoration work in Magdeburg has happened since German re-unification. Up until die Wende (the turning point), the city planners had to concentrate on providing housing for their desperate citizens rather than spend precious money on purposeless piles of old brick. This when the DDR was trying to keep up the appearance of a country able to bring about an economic miracle the equal of West Germany's. Since The Wall came down, a lot of money has poured into former East Germany to stop the economy and the infrastructure collapsing once the props of Soviet aid and creative accounting had been knocked away. A 'solidarity tax' surcharge of 5.5% on top of income tax helps to pay for this support. Many Wessie's (West Germans) resent having to pay this, perhaps not realising that the Ossie's have to pay the same tax, and that without this money a lot of restoration projects would go unfunded and the heritage common to all Germans (and Europeans) would crumble away.

Thankfully the planning is in the hands of people a lot more competent than our little group, who couldn't even plan a day trip to the right town. But we had a great day out never-the-less, and learnt a great deal about Germany, its history, and its future.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! My father's family are all from Magdeburg but I haven't been back there since 1980. I appreciated your well written up date.



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