Locating a city in Space and Time
The urban landscape of Heidelberg becomes visibly allochronous as one walks from Weststadt to Bergheim, Altstadt, or Bahnstadt. The spectre of the Second World War continues to haunt the city, simultaneously, an imagined future emerges on the horizon, while the present lingers suspended somewhere in between. The persistence or “haunting” within this transforming cityscape intrigues me. How does the city navigate its present and future against this historical backdrop? How does it engage with time on a political plane?
I propose dividing the city into three distinct temporal zones, each dealing with the city differently: The Romantics’ City, the Conversion Site, and the Sustainable City. I refer to the Altstadt as the Romantics’ City, as it embodies several elements that resonate with the Romantic ideals of medieval aesthetics, connection to the natural landscape, and a sense of timelessness. Its strategically-preserved architectural aesthetic where the ‘old-city’, remains within pre-war Germany, yet invites post-globalisation consumer capital- a Janus-faced engagement with time, which once again echoes the logics of Romanticism.
The notion of the Conversion Site, in itself, appears to be a Derridan ‘hauntological’ space- its existence is contingent on the persistence as well as the absence of the past. It is actively curated through the contestations between both memory and imagination. The three conversion sites I would like to consider in this write-up are Collegium Academicum, Hagebutze, and the Patrick Henry Village. Each of these sites has been converted from old US Army stations into spaces of contemporary urban life in Heidelberg. These spaces actively engage with the memory of WW2 by preserving elements of the military occupation, such as barrack numbers on buildings while simultaneously forging contemporary commons.
Lastly, the Sustainable City refers to Bahnstadt—a term encompassing ecological sustainability aspirations. Bahnstadt, which was once an abandoned freight yard, is now a passive-housing residential complex. As a member of the C40 cities network, Bahnstadt engages with notions of environmentally sustainable urban futures. Given its affiliation with a network of cities, its interaction with the landscape and time extends to a planetary scale.
I wonder if from these politico-temporal imaginaries, also emerge notions of centres and peripheries and by extension the social conditions of the people that inhabit these spaces- bureaucratically as well as within the social consciousness of urban populations?
Over the course of the week-long excursion in Heidelberg, we encountered several centers and peripheries. These appeared to be mutually constituted- the center was so, only through the existence of a periphery, yet this relationship was intricate, complex, and non-uniform. That is to say that although there isn’t a single, definitive center, and certain peripheral areas are considered ‘alternative’ centers of urban activity, there are undisputed peripheries that are never classified as alternative centers. These tend to always remain on the urban margin. As a result, a hierarchy exists among these peripheries.
Consider Heidelberg’s Altstadt. It serves as an unquestionable centre, walkable, well-lit, and seamlessly connected by public transportation. Its medieval aesthetic is symbolic of the entire city, often gracing tourist postcards. Moreover, the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) swiftly emerges as the first image in a Google Images search when one seeks to visualise the city from within or afar. This is the canonical city-centre
Screengrab from google searching “heidelberg”
However, there are also spaces, that may not be so centrally located or well connected and may be newly inhabited- yet invite footfall, visitors, and an engagement with their spatiality, as well as its acceptance into the urban landscape of Heidelberg. Spaces such as Bahnstadt, Karlstor Bahnhof, or the Metropolink headquarters. These enjoy the status of centres of counter-cultures and commons despite their oftentimes geographically peripheral locations. Those who inhabit these spaces are both visible as well as legible (Das and Poole 2006, 3-34). Alternative centres of Heidelberg, may or may not be visible, but they are always legible, sheltered from the threat of the city’s gaze might find these bodies too alien to integrate.
Patrick Henry Village, as an internment camp, however, despite housing the Metropolink headquarters, remains an absolute periphery- as a conversion site it is unique- that is to say that not much of the old army barracks has been architecturally transformed. The conversion is limited to the use of the space. Refugees are marked by the state, violence lies latent in the bureaucratic processes of registration and deportation. Isolated from the activities at Metropolink as well as the other centres of the city at large…I wonder if the refugees can hear the DJs at Metropolink events on some nights? Are events planned around there not being any refugees in PHV? It appears as though the lack of spatial transformation in this conversion site points towards the liminality of the space as well as the bodies that inhabit this space. Those who inhabit this space are deemed both invisible and illegible.
The essence of transformation lies in the emergence of new spaces, captivating attention through the liminal interplay between shifting forms. It’s within the visibility-legibility nexus that a city’s trifold temporal narrative, connecting past, present, and future, is woven. To Draw a parallel with renaming practices in cities, and buildings in my own home country of India, the act of memory curation becomes inherently political, with its nuances demanding a critical reconsideration of the ambivalence in these processes.
Kattyayani Joag, a MATS student, presently in her 4th semester, with a focus in Visual and Material Cultures. She is interested in the informal waste management sector in Bombay, Dharavi, and had been working in Dharavi for 2 years before joining the program in Heidelberg. She intend to work on the changing landscape of the 13th Compound in Dharavi owing to demolitions and its effect on livelihoods and systems of social support for her master’s thesis. The 13th Compound happens to be the locality that deals with the various processes of plastic waste management. She is also presently in the process of setting up a Transcultural design thinking collective with some of my peers, hoping to incorporate the transcultural paradigm into modes of real-world problem solving.