Loving Twisted Düsseldorf

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Well, wouldn’t you know, we went off to see some new (to us) corners of the world, and came home in love again.

With what city or garden or sculpture, you may ask? The Parthenon? St. Peter’s Basilica? The winding rivers and canals of France?

None of the above, although we certainly drank deeply of the wonders of Europe. No, this time I sing the virtues of Düsseldorf, one of Germany’s most interesting cities.

“Dorf” means village and “Düssel” was the name of an insignificant river that flows into the mighty Rhine. Today that small tributary is essentially ornamental, while the Rhine carries the lifeblood of a continent.

Like falling in love with Pittsburgh, a lot of environmental sins must be forgiven and a brave new energy poured into what can be truly described as rebirth. And while Pittsburgh’s past may be due to industrial exploitation, the German city’s was war. Approximately 82 percent of Düsseldorf’s buildings, parks, industry, technology was destroyed by 1945. But in typical Deutsche fashion, the city set to rebuilding and today boasts a charming mix of modern, traditional, even startling.

Quirky, that’s the word. Keep your eyes moving when you stroll Düsseldorf’s streets. A man stands on an advertising pillar taking pictures of the railroad station. Elsewhere a woman, hands clasped behind her, looks out into the sunset.

There are 10 of these colorful, life-sized installations scattered around mid-town and as we wandered, we found ourselves watching for the next, not always in an obvious place.

Our fascination with Düsseldorf, I believe, is that it doesn’t trade on superlatives. It has several attractive churches, a few spectacular office buildings, some Victorians, and a really fine television tower that is not really as tall as it appears, rising above lawn and low bushes.

Düsseldorf’s population is about 600,000; Atlanta’s about 528,000.

If you’ve read some of what I’ve written before, you know that we are both passionate about rivers. The most obvious natural feature of many German cities is the River Rhine. We spent many an hour just sitting on the manicured promenade, watching the barges go by. The fact that this panorama is only about five blocks from where our Mary lives is a major plus.

Besides their economic importance – coal, gas, and wood chips go by in seemingly incalculable amounts – the barges represent a way of life. The Rhine is very serpentine at Düsseldorf, doubling back on itself under eight massive bridges, so the barges are not quite so large as we’ve seen on the Mississippi and the Cumberland, but they are agile and know how to thread their way through the traffic of this busy watery highway.

Flower pots and white curtains in the window, not to mention a small car on the tugboat (correctly, the pusher), testify to the fact that there is a family living on board their livelihood. Most of the pushers and the barges themselves are brightly painted and show their owners’ pride.

I’ll get back to the Rhine and her traffic another time, but you wonder, don’t you? What is the best of all that Düsseldorf has to visit? This will be hard to contain.

A complex tangle of little docks and bays took over a snarly swamp that sailors good and bad used to gain access to the city many years ago. It is now an extensive renaissance of boating and all things nautical, including apartments and office buildings, restaurants and bars.

Instead of ordinary straight-up-and-down rectangular buildings, there is what appears to be a plethora of architectural competitors. Several appear to be skyscrapers made entirely of glass – and one of these is said to be absolutely independent of heating and air conditioning costs. There is another building that has ant-like human figures (or human-like ants?) crawling all over the outside of the building and over the roof. Another building looks like the kind of construction our grandchildren do: Stacking plastic blocks in primary colors from the deck to the roof – and the roof then got put on off-center.

Over all this the shadow of the Rhine Tower sweeps every day, while at night colors show the time in lights on the tower and the platform on top.

I saved the best for last. A trio of apartments built near the harbor by American architect Frank Gehry looks like no one consulted a tape measure or plum bob in their construction. One is brick, another some sort of concrete, and the third looks as though thousands of rolls of aluminum foil were pressed against the twisted building inside. Have they sagged under an uncommonly hot sun? Is there a straight line in the frame? What keeps the windows on? They appear simply pushed into place, even if the window is straight and the building curves behind it.

Walls are absolutely unadorned on the outside: No flowers, no signs, no numbers that I could see. And it appeared that these twisted sisters were plunked down on a world of brick pavers. There they are, clean, sagging, unmarked, looking different as the sunlight changes minute by minute. I never saw anyone exit or enter – but they’ve been lived in for at least 10 years.

The funniest thing was to watch Dave react to them when we walked by. “I hate those things,” he bellowed. “They have no redeeming value at all. They’re so ugly.” You wouldn’t believe the uproar those simple little buildings raised in him.

I kinda like them myself.

Pictures of the Rhine Tower: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozan_d/226039764/

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