Ambitious plans to redevelop Stuttgart station have triggered a protest that is escalating beyond issues of conservation
This being Germany - the land of dialectics - a middle-class-led demonstration, hand in hand with a top-heavy bureaucracy
of rubber-stampers, is bringing Deutsche Bahn’s ambitious plans for the partial privatisation and development of the national rail network to a halt.
The focus is Stuttgart’s 1928 Central Station, designed by Paul Bonatz and Friedrich Eugen Scholer on a wave of nationalistic feeling, in which the beginnings of modernism morphed into patriotic fascism. Executed in heavy, rusticated limestone, Bonatz and Scholer’s modern version of a renaissance palazzo is due to be partially demolished to make way for a space-age underground interchange designed by Christoph Ingenhoven.
Along with Ingenhoven, several architects were commissioned to redesign key rail nodes shortly after German reunification in 1990, including Norman Foster (Dresden), Hadi Teherani (Frankfurt), and von Gerkan, Marg und Partner (Berlin). By 1997, an exhibition of this 21st-century vision had appeared at Hamburg Architecture Summer and the Venice Biennale. Deutsche Bahn wanted to join up West and East Germany, create and improve connections with the rest of Europe, streamline the network, and upgrade design and technology to modern standards.
In this billion-euro programme for 26 stations over several decades, Stuttgart will become the ‘new heart of Europe’, linking to Paris, Vienna and ultimately Budapest. It will be transformed from a terminus into an interchange, with its tracks buried and platforms submerged below ground to release 100 hectares of inner-city land for parks and buildings. Original estimates forecasted 24,000 new long-term jobs and five million car owners abandoning their vehicles.
Hanover, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Cologne and Frankfurt have been completed, or are in progress. Construction in Stuttgart should start this year. However, Stuttgart Central Station is still intact and the vigorous protest movement against its redevelopment is growing in scale and intensity.
Since last autumn there have been weekly demonstrations, recently attracting crowds of over 15,000. An internet campaign is supported by some strange international bedfellows, from the late Günter Behnisch to Ricardo Bofill, David Chipperfield, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, the New York Times and the German Green Party. Paradoxically, support seems to come mainly from the wealthy car-owning classes, few of whom use trains on a regular basis.
Though initially emblematic of public dissatisfaction with the German government’s railway policies, the Stuttgart saga is fast becoming a wider symbol of disaffection with chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership.
But as is often the case in German life, the left hand has no idea what the right is doing. On one hand, UNESCO urged Stuttgart to apply for World Heritage Site status for its station, and on the other, the German government’s national railway company has been planning to mutilate the historic building, which they previously placed under a conservation order.
Mixed up in the debate are demonstrations against the federal government’s cost-cutting package. For many people, this seems starkly at odds with the stratospherically costly redevelopment of the rail network. The cost of Stuttgart station is currently put at seven billion euros (£5.8 billion).
Is railway privatisation ultimately a profitable strategy, or is it just about fleecing taxpayers? Is railway modernisation an investment in the future, or a costly folie de grandeur? Add to this the German love of complaining about a public transport system that still is the envy of most nations, and you see that, yet again, this is a dispute with very little to do with architectural quality, fitness for ecological purpose, or the convenience of the vast majority of German travellers who don’t want to drive or fly.