Building in Germany
The same only in green
A column by Christian Holl
Feb 12, 2015

The country is something fundamentally different from the city. It is a different type of settlement, there is social control, people have more space, but shopping opportunities are not as good. In one respect though, the country is thoroughly urbanized, namely in the way we perceive it. In the country too people are viewing it the way previously only city dwellers did. And they build things the same way.

The dirndl is a 19th century invention. It was invented for city dwellers who wanted to feel as if they were farmers. But it was also a form of ennoblement: The House of Wittelsbach made this form of traditional dress a symbol that everyone understood: anybody wearing it was part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. Though apparent, its connection with the reality of country life ultimately tended to be loose. The reality of country life was harsh. It was idyllic only for those who could escape it, if they so wished. All this still applies today. Even now, the country is a sacrosanct place, control over which must be maintained. That extends as far as to absurd investment subsidies, which entice those companies that elsewhere would have gone bankrupt had they not received the subsidies. That is the one thing. The other is that people go over the top in idealizing things. In the country people make jam and put it in jars with a red and white striped piece of cloth over the lid. In the country people have cute animals, which they know by name. Instead of watching TV in the evening they embroider or crochet or carve wood or preserve fruit or dance the “schuhplattler”. They blank out how the cute animals are turned into sausages. And the fact that most of them are kept in factories.

Life is indeed perfect in the country – this idealization is an expression of the permanent bad conscience people have who avail themselves of all the blessings we have been favored with since industrialization and destroy precisely what they think they can still find in the country. Plastic packaging and clothes dryers, SUVs and the mass machine-production of pieces of checkered cloth with a jagged edge for putting over the jam jars. Not only people living in the city have a bad conscience, but those living in the country as well, because hardly any of them are farmers.

You can see that in the architecture. Building in the country is a permanent balancing act between reality and the idealization of a supposedly more authentic, more natural way of life. At worst we find balconies with geraniums, with balustrades made of yodeling manufactured carving. And across the nation: half-hip roofs – incidentally the best example of an unfortunate name having no influence at all on the success of what it is referring to. At best, people resort to a straightforward Monopoly-style house which they have correctly clad with, for example, dark wood. So that people can see that as a genre the country house is not being disfigured by yodeling, there is no roof overhang. It’s nice to look at but it also nurtures the very image of the country with an autochthonous culture that for the most part is constructed. There are cases of a new civic center being clad with a particular dark wood, even though there is not a single building in the surroundings with a similar façade. And the roof overhang makes sense, especially when you’re using wood to build with. The context of rural building used here is not real, but mental. It is one of longing.

This mental context does not, perhaps, have anything to do with reality, but it creates it. An additional form. This additional reality is one intended to no longer have anything to do with the world around it. Neither with the agricultural industry nor with globalization, which often hits urban regions harder than it does cities. Idylls are nurtured in cities as well, though. People there act as if they could go back to the 19th century. And so that they believe it, not only are structures being built as they were in the 19th century, they are also being reconstructed. From the transfigured country and cities a world is created in which the city, like in an engraving by Merian, provides an image of a civic community with a functioning society while the farmers, tending their goats, and sheep, meditate amidst the greenery. It all has yet to become a whole. In order for the country not to become alien.

Admittedly, things are seldom reconstructed in the country. After all, barns and farmers’ cottages were not unmistakable, prestigious buildings, but rather functional, everyday culture, supposed primeval huts people trace, empathize with, however successfully. This gives rise to the architectural equivalents of the twee jars of jam with checkered doilies, whose reflection of paradise still seems to shine in the most grotesque form of mutilation. As does the countryside full of hedgerows, in which recently wind turbines have become an eyesore, because they do not fit in with the image of a perfect world, on account of them being unable to be disguised as wind mills. But we’ll get used to them as well. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, people have more imagination than you think.
The country is reproduced as a backdrop. And behind that, there is the pragmatism that would actually be much more typical for the rural areas.
All over the country it is meant half-hip roofs and heavy wooden balconies are typical for those sites. All photos © Christian Holl
Christian Holl