The first steps on the road to Gomorrah
A brutalist welcome. The almost impressive public spaces of yesteryear.
Neue Duetsche Welle and its consequences.
Not without a shudder may the human hand reach into the mysterious urn of destiny.
– Friedrich Schiller
I was traveling on our tour bus through Europe and I was thinking I want to have long blonde hair.
– Nina Hagen
As the unsuspecting visitor steps out of the blustery darkness of Bonn railway station, he or she is slapped in the face with one of the ugliest hotels in the Western world, a lump of concrete deposited opposite the station entrance while good taste hibernated through the 1970s.
Architects and town planners at the time must have been in the grip of a reactionary frenzy against beauty and harmony, their creative vision reduced to nothing more than blocks of raw concrete. The style is called “Brutalism”, and while it made its mark in eastern Europe out of necessity, the style proliferated in the western world as an architectural statement, sometimes carried off with considerable flair. Some of the finest examples include Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and the government buildings erected in Brasilia in the mid-1960s. The building which greets the traveller emerging at Bonn’s Hauptbahnhof does not rank among the great works of the genre.
This particular building was created to say “Halt! Stehen Bleiben!” “Stop! Do not proceed beyond this point!” It has the air of a squad of riot police waiting for a trainload of football hooligans; and, if the hooligans don’t show, they’ll happily assault a bedraggled troupe of dreadlocked vegans beating African drums and carrying dangerous placards.
In a bizarre way it could be regarded as Bonn’s answer to Cologne’s cathedral, the way that the sheer grey bulk of the thing glowers at the disembarking train traveller and the way it’s placed smack in the middle of what used to be a large open square in front of the station. (Although in Cologne’s case it was the railway station that was dumped smack in front of the cathedral.) Bonn’s gateway building, the Hotel Continental, was designed mainly to create numerous choke-points on all sides for traffic and pedestrians. Cleverly integrated into the structure are myriad corners for windswept litter to collect. The overall impression leaves one with a claustrophobic, unwelcomed and dirty feeling.
“This depression is in fact one of Bonn’s landmarks, the Bonner Loch.”
This grey eminence may have been a half-hearted response to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, complete with external plumbing and what were once bright red plastic panels, but it is now so covered in diesel dust and pigeon poo that they’re mainly greyish brown, with streaks of now-faded plastic poking through here and there. It congests the entire Bahnhof forecourt and cuts off the view of the once attractive 19th Century buildings which line the eastern edge of what may have been, once upon a time, an almost-impressive public space. It also cuts the station off from the streets leading into Bonn’s medieval core.
The ground floor of the building is home to a few seedy-looking takeaway stores, the world’s worst take-away pizza joint (which is very popular with the town’s university students), a few grubby mobile phone shops and an internet kiosk where anti-social youths and middle aged men in leatherish jackets go to watch porn. Flanking the southern face of this charming example of German post-war architecture is a rambling open-air bus terminal as filthy, chaotic and crumbling as any in Fiji, Paraguay or Bangladesh.
Clouds of black diesel smoke belch from creaking buses run by half a dozen different companies all fighting for space as they thread their way between the squealing trams. Just next to the hotel, on the northern side, barely visible through the haze of diesel fumes and the smoke of a couple of hundred hurried fags sucked down between connections, is a huge hole in the ground, its sides held back by steeply terraced concrete embankments. From the colour of the concrete and the size of the hole one could be forgiven for thinking the hotel had simply been scooped out and deposited on the crater rim. This large depression is in fact another of Bonn’s more dubious landmarks, the Bonner Loch; and this haven for the homeless separates the hotel from the barren wasteland of cracked asphalt which forms the commuter car-park.
It all makes a powerful first impression.
Over the next few years I was to become well-acquainted with that excavation that typifies so much of the character of central Bonn.
Many a travel-writer or polyester-suited tourism-marketing-type in the service of the German government must have climbed out of one train and straight back onto the next without ever getting beyond the station steps, not even bothering to thread their way between the pools of festering liquid collecting in low points between piles of decaying bicycles, the billowing clouds of discarded fast-food packaging, and the carpet of cigarette butts and broken bottles underfoot. I had somehow imagined that Germany would be a clean country, where the people and the streets were quiet and orderly. I hadn’t been there five minutes, and the first myth-bubble had already been popped.
Kommissar Rex is probably not an accurate source of information about Germany. It was made in Austria, for starters. The dog is pretty cool though!
I frittered away the better part of the next decade in Germany, and spent the bulk of that time in Bonn. That gave me plenty of time to mull over the many myths and contradictory stories about Germany that I had heard before arriving, from both Germanic folk and foreigners (most of whom had never set foot in the country). The reality was often far stranger and usually much more interesting than the fictions, stereotypes and clichés.
What did I know about Germany? Not much beyond the usual superficialities imparted in high school language classes and mainstream cinema. I was a big fan of the Monty Python sketches in which they poked fun at the Gerries. I had watched Derrick, Tatort and Inspector Rex on TV in Australia, in German with subtitles, so I knew something about how modern German justice functioned – although Kommissar Rex is actually an Austrian show and probably isn’t an accurate source of information. That hasn’t stopped countless Australian old ladies and stoners becoming addicted to the show and thinking that the dog is pretty cool.
In high-school history we had looked in some limited way at the first and second world wars; and in German classes we had studied a bit of German culture, so I knew that young Germans wore Korkensolen (cork soled shoes) to parties, where they ate Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and listened to Schallplatten (LP records). Sometimes one or two would bring guitars and they would sit around in brightly-coloured nylon clothes, studiously avoiding any mention of the war.
I knew a bit about German music, and had been regarded as a bit of a freak through my high school years for listening to groups like Falco (also Austrian), Kraftwerk and Einsturzendeneubauten, and Die Toten Hosen, as well as the mother of German punk, Nina Hagen.
I also knew about East Germany, the German Democratic Republic and I knew something about the Wall.
Nina Hagen had fled the DDR, like her father (the folk singer and political dissident Wolf Biermann) and thousands of others who had gone over the wall at great risk to their lives. When I was 19 years old I had watched on live television as Berliners from both sides tore the hated Wall apart with their bare hands. I had wanted desperately to be there to take part in what I knew was a great moment in history unfolding before my eyes.
Aside from a few war films in which the German officers all spoke Oxford accented English, I had watched “Das Boot”, and “Stalingrad” in German with subtitles. Neither film imparts a sense of Germans being a laughter-loving folk of sunny disposition; but that’s the “old” Germany. That was before “Stunde Null”, before the Allies hit the reset button in 1945 and the clocks started again from zero.
My impressions of modern Germany were a mixture of the Neue Deutsche Welle music scene, lewd stories of drunken debauchery from Munich’s Oktoberfest, Boris Becker, Stefi Graf, and Nico, the model who sang with Velvet Underground. I was ready for a modern, progressive and permissive society, a people who were able to have good solid fun at the drop of a hat, without hangups or self-consciousness, unencumbered by the kind of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant shackles I had grown up with in Australia.
I was to be both surprised, disappointed and horrified, in approximately equal measure.