Amrita Mukherjee

A city, too beautiful… 

As the tram left Hauptbahnhof and went towards my new home for the next few years I saw an immaculate little town; no litter to be found, no noise around and soft sunrays brushing by the old houses with tilted roofs. My introduction to Heidelberg was exploring through the old university buildings, taking a tram, seeing the castles and spending time around the river Necker. I thought this city was too beautiful and comfortable in her skin. 

Our relationship with the city is interactive. It is almost like an arranged marriage. You have a preconceived idea about your soon-to-be spouse but haven’t had the chance to know the person entirely. Similarly, we arrive in the city with hope and wishes of how she is but only with time we can fully recognise her. Heidelberg in my imagination was a picturesque small university town with a castle and serene riverside Perhaps it is the prejudice of a historian that I felt I didn’t know her enough. What is the skeleton inside the closet she is waiting to show me? If we attempt to know the layer beneath what postcards sell us, Heidelberg will present deep anxiety to her dwellers. The summer school days helped me to understand this urban space better especially her insecurities, fears, and self-conscious attempt to look beautiful. Looking beyond the Hauptstrasse, the Schloss and Philosophenweg the city that is known as Knowledge Pearl whispered to me, that she is yet to be ready for the transition to the future. A city is a prism that reflects on ideas like shared space, collective memory, and agency. Exploring Heidelberg through walking, through interacting with her people is indicative of ideas like change, authenticity, belonging and centre-periphery. She is an ideal example of how the city deals with the transition – both temporal and visual and the anxiety that is associated with urban placemaking. 

Fig 1: Shifting gaze on the aesthetics of Heidelberg. From the newly developed Bahnstadt to the Patrick Henry Village. (Source: photographs taken by the author)

Fig 2: Welcome Board at Collegium Academicum. (Source: photograph taken by the author)

Claiming to fight against the capitalist trends where migrant labourers working on construction, or vegan food coming from an expensive supermarket CA runs on majoritarianism. Moreover, CA having only ten or eleven international students in this ‘Knowledge Pearl’ which has a high number of foreign students raises some eyebrows indeed. Perhaps language and fluency in German is an issue but the choice of committing to a time laborious project can also be the case in my observation. But what was striking to me was the comfort that the resident students showed in claiming the space. A weekend noise didn’t matter much because it was within in boundary of the property. Though Heidelberg is a university town knowledge and access to spaces are unequal, especially where student space often comes with city regulations CA has created a place that belongs to the students unequivocally. It provides an experimental living choice, perhaps a small utopian bubble for young students who can freely exercise their wills without being portrayed as ‘too radical’. 

Contrastingly to CA, Hagebutze provided a much more realistic aspect of co-housing. What was noticeable was that within the big co-housing, the flexibility in terms of how they visualise sharing and living together. Moreover, the uncombed garden with all the toys and the walls painted by children Hagebutze took me back to the cooperative housing quarters in Kolkata. Unlike the CA it provides multigenerational interaction and individualism in shaping the space, and personal time within the co-housing. Unlike the neighbouring co-housing projects which focus on sustainability, green energy Hagebutze has been unapologetically frugal. The primary purpose for them is to keep the rent as minimal as possible in this rent-race market. While having a conversation, even one resident was encouraging to the neighbours being energy- sufficient by using solar panels because the excess electricity can also help the Hagebutze residents. 

Fig 3: The voting options presented by Hagabutze. (Source: photograph taken by the author) 

Fig 4: Painted wall by children at Hagabutze. (Source: photograph taken by the author) 

There is a saying in Calcutta that you can choose your friends but not your neighbours. In both projects, the selection procedure indicates how the community living in Heidelberg is carefully constructed and consciously maintained. Justifiably, these spaces reflect ideas like sharing, democracy, and agency. A miniature democratic space Hagebutze’s elaborate voting system astonished me but also made me curious If majoritarian rules follow then does it belong to everybody? There will be always some active participants and decision-makers and passive and reluctant residents. With the option of veto available to both residents and the primary Co- housing collective association to which Hagebutze belongs that can outvote any imminent task, shared living, and the anxiety of commoning were visible. However in South Asia, where nuclear family living in apartments is increasingly becoming the norm and organic community living obscure, both CA and Hagebutze provide fresh perspectives on co-housing efforts and even make it a desirable option for future Heidelberg residents.

A Bengali from Calcutta studying in Heidelberg, my association with urban life is deeply rooted in transitional moments of histories and negotiating my space within a chaotic and crowded cityscape. Nevertheless, I can claim the urban territoriality of Calcutta as mine. I wonder if can I do the same to Heidelberg. However, an urban creature of me leading a mobile life in various cities has realised literal and metaphorical ownership of urban space has a cycle of anxiety between retaining the past and transitioning to the future, accepting, negotiating and adapting to changes, and above all conflict and conciliation among majority and minority communities within the urban sphere.

Though it has been a year the few days of summer school helped knowing the Heidelberg better. It would not have been possible without Professors, and colleagues from Delhi and Kathmandu. Moreover, I am forever thankful to the residents of communities who open their most private spaces to us.

Participants Bio

Amrita Mukherjee, a second-semester student in MA in South Asian Studies at the University of Heidelberg. She is studying the history and anthropology of South Asia. Apart from studying the colonial and post-colonial history of violence and emotions of the subcontinent, she is interested in exploring heritage practices of minorities and public history practices of urban Calcutta. As a former UNESCO-Sahapedia fellow, She is an Odissi dancer and eager cook in her spare time.