From creation to construction : Aesthetics vs sustainability in the Bahnstadt
A gray veneer rests over Heidelberg’s Bahnstadt district, which has become recognizable as perhaps the largest passive house settlement in the world. Bahnstadt’s grayness, however, is not a result of decay and age. Instead, Bahnstadt’s grayness is intentional. It attempts to project neutrality and homogeneity. Built with the intention of supporting Heidelberg’s consistent need for living space, the Bahnstadt district has been consciously constructed to also serve as an energy neutral housing settlement.
Figure 1. The dull and gray houses of Bahnstadt. Image by author.
When we walked across Bahnstadt as part of the excursion, I was simultaneously wrapped in its beauty and dullness. On one hand, it exhibited its open spaces, sitting corners, playgrounds and communal arenas with pride. On the other hand, these spaces remained primarily vacant.
Spanning over 108.6 hectares, the Bahnstadt district of Heidelberg, is about the size of the city’s Alstadt or Old Town area. Constructed over a former railway site abandoned by Deutsche Bahn, Heidelberg’s Bahnstadt is a testing ground for the city’s Masterplan 100% Klimaschutz (100% Climate Protection Masterplan), which intends to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 95% by 2050.
As mentioned earlier, my first impression of Bahnstadt was surrounding its aesthetics. All the houses looked the same, lacking in color and individuality. Not a single window was found open, or no clothes were found drying under the sun in those sprawling balconies. For me, these mundane visuals indicate the sign of life, of family, and home. And because these remained invisible , somehow life in Bahnstadt seemed invisible too and its homes appeared lifeless. These perceptions, however, were merely a result of first impressions and as we continued on our walk, we were informed about how the Bahnstadt was uniquely constructed to remain energy neutral. Its building envelopes are thermally insulated, airtight and fitted with triple-glazed windows. The district’s street lighting functions on LED technology and is adjustable according to actual demand. Its energy demand is also fully met by a nearby wood-chip combined heat and power station, which is part of the local district heating network.
Knowing that on an average per inhabitant in Bahnstadt consumes 0.13 tonnes while residents in the old town consume about 2.0 tonnes of energy pushed me to reevaluate my views on Bahnstadt. I realized that I should move beyond aesthetics in architecture to account for utility and planning that was meant to service future needs.
Since work began in the district in 2010, Bahnstadt has created over 6,000 jobs and its build cost has also proven to be comparable with other non-passive housing projects of a similar scale. Yet, while this narrative of sustainability proved very attractive, the aspect of cost also rang a bell in my mind. Can the question of sustainability exist without considering who can afford to be sustainable? Since its completion in 2022, it has managed to accommodate between 5000 to 6000 residents but at the same time, the place has emerged as one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city making it suitable only for people from a particular class and income group. This limitation becomes particularly significant when we consider that Heidelberg is primarily a student town and it is students who particularly struggle to find housing in the city especially since they have a limited budget to expend. Alongside this, what also becomes evident is that the amount of attention devoted to reducing heating in winters has not been granted to facilitate cooling in summers.
Bahnstadt is at least 0.2 degrees warmer than Alstadt and its houses retain the heat also for a longer period. This has become a reason behind its residents opting for air conditioners to combat the heat wave that has become a recurring phenomenon in Heidelberg alongside most of Europe. Another reason why the heat is felt more intensely in Bahnstadt is because it is primarily concrete. Green corners are scarce to none and trees in the neighborhood are also rather small offering no respite in the form of shade.
Figure 2. The trees in Bahnstadt are small and scarce, leaving no room for shade or shelter from extreme heat. Collage compiled by author.
Thinking about it now I realize that we visited Bahnstadt on a particularly hot day which could have been responsible for our soured opinions surrounding its aesthetics and utility. Now I wonder how much these opinions would have been altered had we visited at another time when being outside on the streets of Bahnstadt would not have felt as harsh. Would we have enjoyed its sprawling center, would we have forgotten all about its grayness to find comfort and color in the abundance of space that it promises? Maybe these things turned out to be concerns since we were just visitors and not residents who could easily seek shade and color and comfort within their homes without having to look for it outside. But then again as a student, how could I get past the extent to which Bahnstadt would perhaps forever remain inaccessible for me.
In my opinion, sustainability, which has become a huge topic of concern in today’s world, treads a fine line between creation and construction. In a sense, all forms of creation that exist in nature are naturally sustainable and yet that is no longer enough. Hence, the constructed world too must change. But what happens when one is not equipped with the resources to change when change takes over. My time at the excursion left me with all these thoughts that I do not yet have answers to but am glad to be confronted with.
Paromita Roy a second semester MATS student focusing on Society, Economy and Governance. She belong to Kolkata, India and have a background in literature. She is interested in how food narratives change due to migration and mobility. She have worked as a writer and editor and hence find great comfort in books and movies. She love baking and believe that a long walk can solve most of life’s problems.