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Magdeburg's Pink Palace of Hope

Jabeen Bhatti, DW-WORLD.DE
September 6, 2005

East German cities such as Magdeburg grapple with high unemployment and poor prospects and have been struggling since German reunification to turn themselves around, sometimes in creative ways.

Magdeburg hopes its Green Citadel will polish up the town's imageImage: Magdeburg Tourismus GmbH

It rises unexpectedly among the city’s few remaining historic buildings, all pink and curvy and whimsically ornamented, almost like a child’s drawing come to life.

Almost finished, the 11,000-square-meter Green Citadel of Madgeburg, which sits kitty-corner from the town’s main square, is full of greenery, with trees and gold balls on top. No two multi-colored columns or doors or even door handles are alike.

For Magdeburg officials, this fantastical concoction, the last design of Austrian artist and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is a symbol of the future. They hope that the 27 million euro ($33.8 million) project with its 55 apartments, hotel, shops and office space will create jobs and lure tourists to the 1200-year-old economically depressed town.

"It is an important project for us," said Ralf Steinmann of the town’s tourist office. "It helps our image as a city to visit."

Struggling to be different

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, German politicians swore to help the former East get on its feet. To date, the government has spent more than 1 trillion euros to renovate buildings, improve roads and upgrade factories. Most of the money for the massive redevelopment projects has been provided by West Germans.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser Modell Grüne Zitadelle
A model of the buiilding shows the standard motifs of the artistImage: Gruener Janura AG 2004

But even as new highways and buildings gleam, unemployment remains twice that of the West: One in five people in the east have no jobs and few prospects of getting one. Younger people are fleeing the smaller cities for new opportunities, often in the west. And per capita income is about one-third less in the eastern states than in their western counterparts.

Madgeburg is no exception. The city’s unemployment rate tops 20 percent. The city has lost about one-fifth of its current population of 230,000 in the past 15 years. The per capita income of Saxony-Anhalt, of which it is the capital, is still 17,500 euros. Berlin, the richest of the six Eastern states, has an average income per head of 22,786 euros, Germany as a whole, more than 36,000 euros, according to the World Bank.

Still not all is gloom and doom in the East: Leipzig and Dresden have managed to attract western investors and are creating jobs: BMW opened a plant this spring in Leipzig which brought thousands of new jobs; a new semiconductor factory in Dresden will open next year adding more jobs to the only town in East Germany that is gaining in population.

Madgeburg hopes to follow their lead.

A one-time jewel dusts itself off

It was the largest fortified town in Germany through the middle-ages with the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany, began by Emperor Otto I in 955. Six centuries later, Protestant reformer Martin Luther started preaching there. Despite a long and distinguished history, the town’s fortunes began to decline after the end of World War II. In 1945, more than 90 percent of the city’s center with its historic buildings were destroyed by allied bombings.

During the communist era, the town became an important center of heavy industry, particularly in heavy machine manufacturing. But hastily constructed buildings left the once-regal town with the typical eastern flavor of large, gloomy concrete structures with a few run-down gothic and baroque buildings mixed in.

Dom St. Mauritius und Katharina in Magdeburg
The city managed to repair some of its historic buildingsImage: AP/LMG

After reunification, the government began dismantling the factories and renovating and rebuilding the city, tearing down some communist buildings and erecting modern ones as well as renovating the historic structures. It turned Russian dumping ground for artillery and ammunition into a large park, which managed to attract a national garden festival. It established Otto-Von-Guericke University in 1993 to try to keep its young people home.

Now city officials hope that growing biotechnology and machine manufacturing sectors as well as Hundertwasser will help push the city forward.

The Green Citadel

The project began after the management of a communist-style apartment building wanted to renovate in the mid-1990s and asked the Austrian artist to design the building. Initially there was resistance, of a not-in-my-back-yard variety. Hundreds of residents protested the project because it sits so close to Dom Platz (Cathedral Square), with its historic gothic cathedral and baroque buildings. The Citadel would hardly fit in.

But in the end, the city gave the green light.

"I was opposed to the building because it wouldn’t be suitable in this location," said Gisela Opitz, who lived in the apartment building for years before it was torn down. "But now I can see how it can be a great thing for our city."

Friedensreich Hundertwasser mit Modell 1999
Friedensreich Hundertwasser wanted his design to lighten up the cityscape of MagdeburgImage: Gruener Janura AG 2004

It certainly will draw fans of the artist as it has all the features of a classic Hundertwasser work: no straight lines (he believed they were detrimental to the human soul); no symmetry or uniformity (he wanted people to be challenged with variety or they would stagnate); grass, plants, and trees everywhere throughout the building and on top (he thought people needed to live closer to nature). Hundertwasser died in 2000 at the age of 71.

Town officials say that they have commitments for most of the apartments and commercial space. They add that even though scaffolding still surrounds the incomplete building, 7,000 tourists since May have taken tours of the site and visited the information center. Tourists taking guided tours of the city also jumped 10 percent in the first six months of 2005.

The project has gotten off to a good start and business experts say that these types of projects can often lead to increased investment and commercial development.

"Our clients are interested in such "crazy" projects as the Green Citadel," said Marcus Tolle, managing director of WiSA GmbH, an agency that encourages investment in Saxony-Anhalt. "Soft factors" sometimes play a significant role in investment decisions."