Nina Baum

On appearance and visibility – uncovering layers of the ordinary

Figure 1: The University square with the bus stop in the background; photo by Nina Baum

When it was announced that on our second day, we would meet Prof. Dr. Brigitte Sölch, (our guide and teacher for the following exercise), at the Universitätsplatz (university square), that was exactly what I took it for – just a good meeting point, from where we would move on. Being a place that I pass through multiple times a week, it never struck me as something particularly interesting, but rather as a place of departure and arrival, a place of transfer with the bus stop right on its side. Little had I known that the square itself was going to be our main subject that morning.

The tool

During the excursion week in the city of Heidelberg, we were exposed to new ways of exploring the city in different intellectual, affective, and sensatory ways. The usage of different tools – walking, mapping, curating, and sensing – helped us to detect different forms of knowledge of and in the city. These tools were of use for exploring the university square as well. Under the framework of Hannah Arendt’s “aesthetic-political character of appearance and judgement” (Tavani 2013, 467), not only were forms of knowledge a subject of research for us, but detaching from different forms of knowledge became a tool for research itself. Focusing on appearance and perception required a level of “un-knowing”, of detaching from preconceptions and returning to what is – based on the idea that “being and appearing coincide” (Arendt 1981). We focused on the appearance of the square to learn from what is visible. This exercise included practices of walking, sensing, observing, halting, reflecting, and exchanging. 

The square and its historical layers – walking, sensing, observing, halting

Focusing on the visible can bring awareness to what might otherwise not or only subconsciously be perceived. One goal of this shift of focus was to explore the historical layers of the city. Throughout the times I passed the square, the university building with its grandeur appeared to me as its dominant site – a statement of the significance of the university for the city, for which it is known. However, the exercise led me to notice something that has always been visible but that I had never paid attention to. A church tower, protruding from between the houses behind the square, subtly, but actually higher than the university building. This little detail brought forward new perspectives on the historical layers of the city: while the city’s image and branding centers on the university, the church continues to claim its role in it, maintaining its presence through time. 

Figure 2: University building “Neue Universität”; photo by Nina Baum

Figure 3:The view on the church tower of “Jesuitenkirche Heiliger Geist”, from the university square; photo by Nina Baum

The square through multiple eyes – exchanging and reflecting

Perceiving is always divided and shared at the same time” (Tavani 2013, 467, italics in original). Being a group of students with different origins and disciplines provided more enriching insights into the question of appearance and visibility. Our perception was shared due to the specific framework in which we approached the square. We explored the square collectively and exchanged our thoughts. This helped us trace overarching visibilities. The university building always struck me as intimidating and unwelcoming, even though I am a student myself. A professor who joined us from Delhi commented “It is a university but there are no students”. The question where the students are who would usually gather in front of lecture halls, confirmed my sensatory experience of the building – it described the image of something unapproachable, closed, lacking the social interactions representative of student life. The architectural insights about the design of the building, provided by Prof. Dr. Sölch, filled this sensatory experience with background knowledge. This interaction exemplified how perceptions can be shared in different forms and contribute to forming one’s knowledge.

Figure 4: Memorial plaque on University square, remembering the book burnings of 1933; photo by Nina Baum

However, not all perceptions are shared – as in the quote, perception is also divided.  Not all that is visible can be seen by everyone. One example for this division is the memorial plaque that remembers the burning of books by the national-socialist regime in 1933. It usually is a site frequented by groups of tourists; me as a university student never crossed it before since I pass the square mainly for taking the bus. Only parts of what is visible are actually seen, depending on who is the viewer (- a citizen, visitor, architect, tour guide, etc.). Memorials, for instance, can serve as sites of storytelling for visitors, by conveying an image of the city that is mostly perceived when being guided towards it, and otherwise often missed. What meaning does this division in perceiving have for a place that is considered public?

Public, private, open? Urban place-making

While appearing to be public at first, closer observation reveals that the people on and around the square mostly move within private spheres: they are sitting in one of the cafes and restaurants or are part of a guided city walk, while some are also on the way to the university or the bus. The square only offers a few benches on the side to sit down and spend time. The square is a good example for the way in which the planning of public places through governments involves cooperation with the private (e.g. cafes, restaurants), which serves the economy as well as the branding of the city’s culture (e.g. memorial plaque as a site to visit on guided walks for tourists) (Özkan and Büyüksaraç 2020, 4). The way the public place is constructed therefore defines what parts of it are actually public and accessible to whom. 

What role then do people play in place-making and, by taking over Arendt’s (1981) approach, in shaping a space through their performances? Özkan and Büyüksaraç (2020) highlight the idea of the space as something that is not static but in constant movement and transformation, that never is but is “always becoming” (Özkan 2008, as cited in Özkan and Büyüksaraç 2020). In the same way, they suggest that, rather than defining a commons as something static, one can think of commoning as a continuous practice by which people keep shaping a place through their actions (Özkan and Büyüksaraç 2020, 5). However, the idea of commoning implies a collective and intentional act, while on the university square, people often move without any conscious agenda for transformation. Instead, we can think of people as contributing to the social production of the square by embodying the structures that are offered by the public and the private, the historical layers, and forms of knowledges through their movements. These performances can be seen as part of the way in which the space appears, and therefore is. The public space is not an innocent space. The tools of the exercise provided enriching ways to learn from it.  


Arendt, Hannah. 1981. The life of the mind: The groundbreaking investigation on how we think. San Diego: Harcourt Inc.

Tavani, Elena. 2013. “Hannah Arendt—Aesthetics and politics of appearance.” Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics 5: 466-475.

Özkan, Derya and Güldem Baykal Büyüksaraç. 2020. “Introduction: towards an ethos for commoning the city.” In Commoning the City. Empirical Perspectives on Urban Ecology, Economics and Ethics, edited by Derya Özkan and Güldem Baykal Büyüksaraç, 1-23. Oxon: Routledge. 


Participants Bio

Nina Baum, currently pursuing her Master’s degree in M.A. DESH (South Asian Studies), with a major in Anthropology and minor in Political Science. She is strongly interested in intersections of Anthropology with questions of class and political economy. Regarding urban studies, her interests include social and symbolic boundaries within the city, demarcating economic differences and marginalization, and how perceptions and experiences of proximity and distance shape people’s connection to the city they live in. Besides, she is working as a research assistant at Heidelberg Institute of Global Health, where she is involved in conducting qualitative research with children. Therefore, she is also particularly interested in the field of Medical Anthropology as well as in qualitative research methods for doing research with children.