Sunday, July 5, 2009

Real innovative progress took place in the small industrial towns of Germany, spreading from there to the larger cities, and then to the rest of the world. Stuttgart is one such town.

I headed to Stuttgart right after Dessau. Situated on a big hill, Stuttgart is home to the Weissenhof Housing Estate, a model neighborhood where several modernist architects were invited to design workers’ homes in the new International Style in 1927 under the supervision of Mies van der Rohe. It is home also of the little-known but extremely important Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste, a thriving force for Architecture and Industrial Design in Germany, as well as of the Porsche Museum which I had no idea existed.

I had spent a little more than 24 hours in Berlin. In those 24 hours I had visited and got to know my two main destinations in the city: the AEG Turbine Factory by Walter Gropius, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum. I had walked along the river, had a nice lunch, walked into the closing ceremony of a certain pride parade, saw much more of Berlin’s architecture at night, and ended up spending several hours of the night at a huge party called GMF which took place on three levels at the top of a Berlin skyscraper. I had had to take a cab home and had spent half the night at the bus stop right outside my hostel. I am glad it was Germany and not France or Italy. Finally I had passed out on my bed at 4am.

I was woken up at 10am because that was the check-out time at the hostel. I had missed my 7am train to Dessau and Stuttgart. I would have to renew all my reservations and contact my workplace to let them know I would be taking Monday off.

I arrived in Stuttgart at 11:30pm on the ICE train, which is Germany’s TGV and is much more impressive and comfortable than the TGV. I took a taxi to my hostel, and it pulled up on a mountain street overlooking the town below, with just a small entrance on the cliff. The rest of the building was on lower levels on the slope below.

I’ll go directly now to the three things I wanted to write about in Stuttgart. The first is the tram system. It was extremely impressive how these trams glided smoothly up sloping streets, through tunnels, on regular streets alongside cars, and down steep slopes. The map and guide was crystal clear and intuitive and it must have been the easiest train system to use that I have ever encountered.

The second is the Weissenhof Housing Estate. The Germans are not ashamed of Modernism like the French or Americans. The housing project was well maintained. The most remarkable thing was that these houses – most of them small and not luxurious – were occupied by real people living there. Each house had a small sign outside it, explaining the concept and displaying the plans. People parked their cars, got out with their groceries and walked into their home, even as others took pictures of the neighborhood.

Mies van der Rohe’s building was highly reminiscent of some of the dilapidated architecture I had seen in Clichy-sous-Bois. It made me realize that renovation and maintenance plays a very important role in the perception of architecture and, more importantly, that the same forms may have different symbolic value in different places.

Chair on display at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste

After walking around the Weissenhof Estate, I stumbled upon the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart. I reminded me of Harvard GSD and the Indus Valley School in Karachi and other places that seem to exude a spirit of creative energy. It is the Bauhaus of the 21st century. I was so excited to walk around inside that, for a moment, I seriously considered trying to learn German and applying here for grad school. Earlier that morning, I had met three German students from various parts of the country who had come to take an admissions test for the Industrial Design program at this school. They had had to send their portfolios earlier on for a preliminary selection process. They were super-impressed that I was a Pakistani studying architecture in the US here just to visit a housing project that they didn’t even know about.

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