Friday, June 3, 2011

Resilient, Renovated Bonn

Wall St. Journal, Nov 12, 2010

Harald Wagener

In the 1980s, with the two separate German states in what seemed like permanent disunity, Chancellor Helmut Kohl hoped to make Bonn a cultural showpiece. Above, Bonn's skyline

The Former West German Capital Steps Out From its Cold War Shadow, Emerging as a Cultural Hub by J. S. Marcus

Known for its idyllic setting and laid-back lifestyle, the western German city of Bonn has had a dramatic ride in recent years. Elevated from a sleepy college campus to West Germany's capital in the decade after World War II, the town, once a symbol of timeless German provincialism, became an international hub, home to diplomats, bureaucrats and, it was generally assumed, an A-list cast of Cold War spies.

With the collapse of communism in 1989 and the official move of reunified Germany's capital to Berlin, Bonn seemed poised to lose its prestige, left with little but a location on the Rhine River, a stable of students and a heady case of nostalgia.

The spies and the limousines may have moved on, but the former capital is in many ways doing better than its successor. Now home to two of the country's larger employers, Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post, Bonn has a lower unemployment rate and a higher standard of living than Berlin. And, with a cluster of thriving first-class museums, it can compete with many of its eastern rival's artistic offerings. A decade after losing its official political status, Bonn has managed to press the reset button again, emerging as one of Germany's newest, and most prosperous, cultural capitals.

Nothing symbolizes the city's latest incarnation better than the Kameha Grand Bonn, a new luxury hotel built right on the river, with an outrageous neo-baroque interior by Dutch design superstar Marcel Wanders. At lunchtime, you can find international yuppies eating on the terrace, chatting into cellphones as they gaze out over the Rhine. Since opening to the general public in February 2010, the hotel, Germany's leading example of eco-inspired luxury, has racked up a number of accolades, including being named one of the year's best new business hotels by Wallpaper magazine.

Bonn owed its status as West Germany's capital to the country's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967). Cologne's long-time mayor, Adenauer had studied at Bonn's university and, after the rise of the Nazis forced him out of politics, he sought refuge in Rhöndorf, a village just outside of town. For most of his postwar career, he was also a local Bundestag deputy and was the driving force behind installing the new country's political center within easy reach of his own Rhöndorf house and Cologne, some 30 kilometers away.

However, Bonn arguably owes its current resilience to Helmut Kohl, the Federal Republic's longest-serving chancellor. In the 1980s, with the two separate German states in what seemed like permanent disunity, Mr. Kohl hoped to make Bonn a cultural showpiece. Over the following decade, he helped initiate the construction of 3 major museums, which now serve as the center of Bonn's artistic scene:
1. Bundeskunsthalle: offers a broad range of temporary exhibitions;
2. Kunstmuseum Bonn: unique collection of Expressionist works by native son August Macke; an important collection of postwar German art;
3. Haus der Geschichte (House of History), the country's pre-eminent museum of contemporary German history.

The three museums are the centerpieces of Bonn's so-called Museum Mile.

But perhaps the best place to start a visit these days is Mr. Kohl's former residence, the Kanzlerbungalow (Kanzler = Chancellor), West Germany's version of the White House. This high-modernist masterpiece was designed in the early 1960s by German architect Sep Ruf. After extensive renovations, it opened up to public tours last year.

Ludwig Erhard, the economics minister under Adenauer (who also ultimately followed him as chancellor), commissioned Ruf to design what is an austere steel-and-glass pavilion, one which stands in stark contrast to other public buildings of the time, which still aspired to Bavarian charm or Prussian pomp.

The residence, says Mr. Nerdinger, "was something special." Unlike the American president or the British prime minister, Germany's chancellor didn't live in a "historical building" but one that amounted to a "declaration of modernity."

The Kanzlerbungalow, the chancellors' official residence from 1964–99, was "an enormous step forward," says Mr. Nerdinger, in making architectural modernism acceptable in a country which, before the rise of Nazism, had been home to the Bauhaus movement.

Fanciful postmodernist architecture of the 1980s marks both the Bundeskunsthalle and the Kunstmuseum buildings, which surround a piazza, the Museumsplatz, where concerts are held in the summer and ice-skating goes on in winter.

Bonn "has a museum landscape that is far bigger and more prosperous than other cities," says Stephan Berg, the director of the Kunstmuseum Bonn. Its most popular museum remains the Haus der Geschichte, a user-friendly institution devoted to telling the story of Germany's occupation, division and reunification. A brainchild of the end of the Cold War, the museum didn't open until 1994, when the organizers were compelled to tell recent German history from the new perspective of a single German state.

The permanent collection manages to convey an epic sense of postwar German life. Using a variety of styles and techniques, recalling everything from a science museum to a theme park, the museum aspires "to make the themes of history understandable," says Jürgen Reiche, director of exhibitions since the museum's early days.

Bonn's recent makeover extends to Carnival, which officially begins at 11 minutes after 11 on Nov. 11, when the city is introduced to that season's Carnival "royalty," a select group of locals who preside over the season's costumed festivities. Until this past decade, the ceremony was a private one, but it has now opened up into a public party, with thousands of Bonners joining in.

Bonn now has some 300,000 residents, and is closely connected to Cologne, which you can reach by streetcar as well as commuter train. But it can have a serene, rustic feel, due in large part to the way it straddles the Rhine without overdeveloping the actual riverfront.

"The brilliant thing about Bonn is the River Rhine," says Mr. Berg, who admits that one of his favorite local pastimes since moving here is going for regular swims in the river. "The water quality is really good now," he says. "And as long as you stay on the beaches," which help to keep swimmers clear of dangerous currents and boat traffic, "it's all good."

Bonn "still shows the old dream of Konrad Adenauer," says Mr. Berg, when asked to compare Bonn's cultural offerings with other German cities, "that a village could become the center of the world."

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