Dripping with wealth, the home of BMW and capital city of Bavaria no doubt has the architecture it deserves. But to see what is really special in 20th century Munich you need to head out to the 1972 Olympic Park, writes Owen Hatherley
Only yesterday, Germany was considered by élite opinion to be a fiscally conservative industrial dinosaur with an oversized public sector and lamentably unsexy architecture. Its capital was a chaotic squatland, and its big cities made stuff, as if it were the 19th century. Yet, since the financial crash of 2008, Germany has assumed its role as European hegemon with great ruthlessness. Its policies towards southern Europe expressly stop those countries from building the powerful industries, stable economies and large welfare state which makes German cities so pleasant and faintly dull. There are less pleasant secrets to German industry’s success, like stagnant wages and workfare, but neither is on a British scale. Within Germany itself, it works. As the sublimely sleek ICE train approaches Munich Hauptbahnhof, you pass a line of sensible, classical-modern apartment buildings, connected to smooth infrastructure via exceptionally well-made and elegant vehicles. It’s what those of us frustrated aesthetes condemned to Stratford, Leeds or Bristol all dream of, our path not taken.
The machine of German dominance is much better seen outside the capital – sprawling, depopulated, post-industrial Berlin, deep in East Germany, is much poorer than, say, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg – or Munich, which fairly drips with wealth. It’s a Social Democratic island in conservative Bavaria but, given the SPD and the Christian Democrats are two wings of the same governing coalition, the difference is barely relevant anymore. So Munich, regularly at or near the top of all those ‘liveable city’ polls, should be a good place to see what power and success look like.
There is more prominent Nazi architecture in Munich than in any other big German city
One aspect of Germany’s apparently retro economy must be the continued seediness around most of its railway stations, long expelled from King’s Cross, Piccadilly or, indeed, Berlin’s epically shiny new Hauptbahnhof. Munich’s station is a post-war box, shabby by German standards or when compared with the iron cathedrals of Hamburg and Cologne. There are some neat 1950s details in bronze and travertine underneath the adverts. Around about are hotels and hostels. At night, neon signs, kebab shops and gambling dens give the area a Fassbinderian unease. By day, walk round the corner and you’re at the Theresienwiese, the big park where the Oktoberfest takes place, looked upon by Wilhelmine neo-baroque villas and the distended dome-spire hybrid of St Paul’s church. In the other direction from the Hauptbahnhof is the historic city centre. While you still feel permanently hustled on the street, it’s because of the Christmas markets rather than the more cloak-and-dagger stuff around the station.
Towards the historic centre, a ring road is lined with hulks like the Palace of Justice, resembling a more graceless Vienna. Nearby is the best part of the post-RAF rebuilding, the New Maxburg, designed by Sep Ruf and Theo Pabst in 1954. Curtain-walled offices, with shops on the ground floor, form a square, and are enlivened with bright, semi-abstract mosaics. In a particularly neat gesture, the ruined corner of a renaissance palace is used as a stair tower. Pretty, unfussy and relaxed, it’s a great model for rebuilding, but Munich avoided both the multi-level experiments of Cologne or Coventry, and Dresden- or Warsaw-like reconstruction. Tenements and offices were rebuilt where they stood in the style of the day, often with applied medieval-cum-mid-century modern decorative details. The larger, more important buildings had their spires and domes pieced back together, with nothing new allowed to steal their prominence on the skyline, so from a distance the centre looks as it would have in 1939, dominated by the flamboyantly prickly neo-Gothic city hall, the two bulbs of the Dom and the tall plane of the Peterskirche. At the Christmas market that spreads interminably across the Marienplatz, people wait until the bells of the churches and the City Hall belfry all chime in together, and get their phones out to record the moment.
Portico with mosaic decoration at New Maxburg, by Sep Ruf and Theo Pabst (1954)
Source: Owen Hatherley
The relaxed nature of post-war Munich was praised by Ian Nairn as a counter to the era’s grand plans. I found it rather smug and cloying, but the streets leading out from the centre have more than enough stern authoritarianism. The eclectic 1850s Gothic rationalism of the Maximilianstrasse looks like a possible model for Berlin’s Stalinallee, a meticulously calculated axis ending over the river Isar at the Bavarian Parliament, encrusted with a whole V&A’s worth of imperial murals and statuary. Past one corner of the enormous Englischer Garten you can find a contrast in Gasteig, a large House of Culture cramming a library, cafés, concert halls and much else into a structure on the early 80s cusp between sensible red brick Aalto and mirrorglass PoMo. It’s on the site of the Beer Hall where Hitler attempted his first, famously abortive Putsch in 1923. The eventual result of that can be seen at the end of the other axial street, the stark brick march of Ludwigstrasse, which leads out to a half-destroyed Victory Arch. The side leading into the city is battered, but that facing the centre is half-bare but for the inscription: ‘Dedicated to victory, destroyed in war, urging peace’.
After being the capital of a brief, violently suppressed Soviet Republic in 1919, headed by a motley succession of anarchists, Communists and expressionist playwrights, Bavaria became the unquestioned centre of the German right. Accordingly there’s very little of the Expressionism of Hamburg, the Sachlichkeit of Frankfurt or the streamlines of Berlin, but for a two or three minor efforts in the suburbs. The dominant pre-war architecture of Munich comes not from Weimar, but the Third Reich. There is more prominent Nazi architecture in Munich than in any other big German city, and it is a useful refutation of the popular myth that the architecture of German Fascism was awesome, powerful and seductive. Paul Ludwig Troost’s House of German Art is a stripped classical temple on the ring road; the cars pass through an underpass in front, as if to stop them looking at it. It sounds too facetious to say this about a building built for such patently evil purposes – to showcase German rather than Degenerate Art, and to make the same distinction in architecture – and, of a building which Hitler liked to claim a role in designing, but nonetheless: it’s quite boring. It’s nothing special. You will not be awed. You might admire the detailing, the red granite floors and art deco trimmings. It is like a Swedish classical building of 10 years earlier without the wit or imagination. The current management quite rightly draws attention to its true purpose with integral artworks – Mel Bochner has draped a canvas of Yiddish words in Latin script across the frieze, while Christian Boltanski pasted paper prints of the eyes of members of the Red Orchestra, the largely Communist World War II resistance network, all the way across the limestone colonnade.
The culmination of the Nazis’ attempt to redesign Munich as the ‘Capital of the Movement’, came in the redesign of Königsplatz, also at the hands of the talentless Troost, before his early death in 1934. This was already the monumental showcase of the Kingdom of Bavaria, as the large square flanked by the Glyptothek and the Antikensammlung culminate in the heavy twin towers of Klenze’s glowering Propylaea, which has far more real power and presence than Troost’s tasteful neo-Georgian contributions – the Führerbau and the Nazi Party headquarters, both of them cap-doffing, tight-arsed and basically forgettable, notable mainly for their sternly fluted columns. Ironically enough, the Propylaea was designed as a monument to Greek-German friendship.
Frei Otto’s work at the Olympic Park is genuinely utterly unlike anything else on earth
Both of these have long since been converted to civilised purposes. Adjacent, the white walls and slit windows of the Nazi Documentation Centre, opened this year to the designs of Georg Scheel Wetzel, take a minimal approach to tackling the Nazi legacy, far from 90s Sturm und Drang. There are plenty of other new monuments on the fringes of Königsplatz. The Pinakothek der Moderne, by the Bundestag’s architect, Stephan Braunfels, displays delicate, polite modernity, Sauerbruch Hutton’s Museum Brandshorst does the same but with a colour scheme resembling hundreds and thousands sprinkled over the facade, and at the Academy of Fine Arts extension, Coop Himmelb(l)au cram in as many angles and devices as they can while maintaining the scale and colour appropriate to its context next to a historic building. It’s an instructive selection of recent mainstream German architecture: Modernist but not too disruptive.
To see what is really special in 20th century Munich, you need to head out on the U-Bahn – eight lines, regular trains, beautiful stations, in a city smaller than Greater Manchester – to Olympiazentrum, a Brutalist station leading to the ensemble laid out for the 1972 Olympics, which just happens to be right next to the BMW factory complex and the car manufacturer’s world headquarters. Its reputation precedes it, but Frei Otto’s work at the Olympic Park is genuinely utterly unlike anything else on earth. Photographs don’t usually capture the almost casual way these sheets of steel and glass are thrown around the site, over and across the stadium and the smaller sports halls, and around the telecommunications tower. The combination of the organic sweep of these roofs – a glass cloth that has been suddenly frozen in the act of being draped over a strategically scattered series of poles – is combined with hard, brittle, totally modern materials. The imitations of this in Teflon and suchlike are more functionally sensible, as it gets hot under these glass canopies even in December, but they lose that tension entirely, feeling more like modernised tents. This is not from the same planet, the same dimension, as the Millennium Dome. To imagine this all ended in grimy Teflon is to insult one of the most beautiful structures of the 20th century.
Source: Owen Hatherley
Opposite there is the less sui generis, but also outstandingly impressive Olympic Village, most of which is now a social housing co-op, but the first part you come to from the park is low-rise student housing, concrete terraces in a De Stijl manner, often painted up attractively by their short-term residents. Above this, connected via walkways, is a series of monumental stepped-section housing blocks, with a shopping centre and public facilities on the upper level. It is indisputably successful, and an entirely ordinary – not poor, not rich – street life goes on underneath these enormous structures. Councils and housing associations should be compulsorily taken here to ascertain just how Munich managed to get it so right. One answer, conceivably, is the working car factory just down the steps of the walkways, its long, titanium-clad machine halls cleverly integrated with the linked circular towers of Karl Schwanzer’s BMW headquarters, one of the most futuristic of European skyscrapers.
It is here, not in the over-sweetened centre, where you can see just how much Britain screwed up. If the equivalent of the Munich U-Bahn, the Olympic Village and the Olympic Park is the Manchester Metrolink, grimy, half-destroyed Thamesmead and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the UK should just give up and apply to join the Bundesrepublik so they can sort our cities out for us. However, this impression of awe and shame is shaken a little when you look at the additions to the 1972 ensemble, and you realise Germany couldn’t maintain this level either. The autobahn that cuts between the Park and Village points perfectly straight at Ingenhoven Overdiek’s O2 headquarters but, in the other direction, underneath the BMW tower, is Coop Himmelb(l)au’s BMW-Welt, a ridiculous, pompous piece of overdesigned nonsense, a clumsy, fumbling, self-important deconstructivist car showroom, a building approximately as infuriating as the Olympic Park is uplifting.
Of course it’s cruel to compare anything to the Olympic Park. Yet near the end of the most recent U-Bahn extension is Herzog & de Meuron’s Allianz Arena, built for FC Bayern Munich, which rather begs for the comparison. Whereas the 1972 buildings are a landscape, this is an object, a monument, an ETFE balloon atop a walkway with car parks beneath. Unlike Coop Himmelb(l)au’s effort, it does not embarrass itself, but it is isolated, aloof, an image of power and modernity surrounded by emptiness.