Building in Germany
Deeply bewildering the world sends out sounds
A column by Christian Holl
May 24, 2015

A pity that tunnels cost so much money. And involve so much work. Because actually they are perfect problem-solvers. What you’re not supposed to see simply disappears. Above them flowers bloom, trees grow, sometimes new “urban” districts arise, at others existing quarters grow together. But sometimes they also collapse and among other things take down the illusion of a perfect world with them.

Cities come to rivers, nature reserves get protected. And somewhere deep below, cars, trains, trams drive past. And there’s even more to tunnels. A myth. The Alpine tunnels were part of a trip to the land of dreams in the 1950s and 1960s. And without the tunnels in mines, without the miners and coal mining the German forests would now be what they have long since become along the Med, namely disappeared. Without these tunnels, back in the 19th century the German Romanticists would soon have had to do without their beloved dark woods. Even if the days of the poetry of Eichendorff, with his odes to the forests, “Who has made you, you beautiful forest, built so high up there?” are long past, we’ve long since adopted his attitude: Up there, albeit not necessarily high up, the world spreads out before us free of contradictions and confusion, and above all free of the unpleasant consequences of our comfy lifestyles. And down below: gridlock, tracks, railway and highway cuttings.

At some point between the 19th century and today there was a period of devout belief in technology, in that we believe that the people then believed even more firmly in technology than we do today. It was a period when cities were designed to enhance the flow of traffic, and people were sent underground through tunnels to ensure cars could move without interruption above. In such cases, the cars went over-ground on overpasses, but not to enable people to walk about at ground level, and instead to keep cars moving without having to cross intersections, which now happens underground. Not that much has changed in other words. Not even that tunnels are really practical when things start to go pear-shaped. Even before the Berlin Airport opens, there’ll be a tunnel under the apron to connect the satellites with the main terminal; the satellites will be needed as the airport as built will otherwise be too small even the moment it opens.

The denser the cities become, the more goods are moved because everything has to be available all the time, the more, for whatever reasons, we head out on journeys to ever more remote destinations, the harder it becomes to maintain the image of the intact world high up. And then there are the places intended to represent that intact world. At the Humboldt Forum, the rebuilt Berlin Town Palace, the educational ideals of the man who gave it its name are to be staged as edutainment, as a kind of bouncy castle for the educated middle classes. The idea is also to “realize a library service there” as the bureaucrats would have it. The books to be included in the services will be ordered, then transported 50 meters as the crow flies beneath the ground to the palace. A grotesque waste of effort.

The effort required to build tunnels is generally great. Depending on what stratum of rock you hit, more effort may be required than expected. The Engelbergtunnel for the A81 autobahn cost 850 million deutschmarks instead of the 604 million originally planned owing to the reinforcements required to keep out the swelling anhydrite. Since opening in 1999 it has had to be repaired thrice.

Tunnels cost. For maintenance, ventilation and fire escape routes, and, as we all know from using pedestrian tunnels, for regular cleaning. Then there are tunnels for toads, frogs, newts, all those animals that we hope will persuade us the world is still nature, they all need cleaning, as the dear amphibians (which other words could not care two hoots about our good will and would otherwise defy us and simply try hopping or crawling across the road. Which may also be because foxes too fit down such tubes, and if in doubt they might eat a frog if there aren’t any geese at hand. At Schorndorf the Stuttgart Regional Authority has had six such tunnels built along across a length of 400 meters of road, at a total price of 650,000 euros, even if a prior report from the financial watchdog stated that “even the nature protection authority concedes that the animals tend to avoid the tunnel crossing.”

And then there are all the stories of the sudden holes in the garden, houses subsiding, not to mention Cologne’s Municipal Archive, which disappeared altogether. Tunnels are the dark and dirty side to the dream of reconciling history and nature, of a world without contradictions which we feel we can have so easily. They are the equivalent of the highly-technological and highly-sensitive facades in front of which a few strips of clinker are then stuck because someone thinks great-granddad built that way, durable if not eternal. But our great-granddads probably knew what Eichendorff wrote in one of his famous songs: “Deeply bewildering, the world sends out sounds.” You just need to listen to them. And not even all that carefully.
An infamous tunnel under construction: Stuttgart 21. The hole will be even greater.
The Dippemess is a folk festival. It is not celebrated in the tunnel.
All photos © Christian Holl
Christian Holl