The Story of the Evil Landlord and the Good Landlord

The Krahestraße in Düsseldorf is in a working-class area near the main train station. For years it's been known for something vicious and ugly: An apartment house owner, Heinz Nieder, wanted to flush out some inconvenient tenants who opposed a renovation, so he hired a workman to open a gas pipeline in the basement of his own apartment building at night.

Six people died in the resulting blast (g), two others were severely injured. The series of resulting trials of the home owner, Heinz Nieder, must count as one of the most humiliating debacles in post-war German justice: he was forced to languish in 'investigative custody' for so long (eventually eight years in total) that the Federal Constitutional Court set him free. Then  two trials against him were overturned on appeal (g) by the German High Court. During much of this judicial odyssey, he was often seen (g) in Düsseldorf's trendy Oberkassel neighborhood, taking walks or sipping espresso.

He was finally sentenced and the verdict upheld on appeal only in 2009. The sentence was life imprisonment (actually a 15-year minimum sentence). The prosecutor's office -- believe it or not -- sent him a letter asking him to show up for his life prison sentence, please. The letter was sent to his last registered address. Shockingly, it turns out that Mr. Nieder hadn't lived there for at least 3 months (g). He had gone underground and remained on the run for much of mid-2009, working as a renovator. He was picked up only with the help of 'Detective Serendipity' (Kommisar Zufall), as the Germans say -- he was found outside a hotel in Marburg Germany full of pills and confused, apparently the result of a suicide attempt. He said he was Ralf Möller from Cologne, but police at the hospital recognized his face (g) from the wanted poster. As of 2011, he was serving his sentence as a cook in a prison hospital (g).

So much for the story of the despicably greedy landlord. Now to the story of the enlightened, art-loving landlord, which also takes place in the Krahestrasse, next to where Heinz Nieder murdered six people. I was biking by there recently and came upon the freshly-completed series of apartment houses forming the 'Mosaic Facade':

Traumfassade Krahestr. (Mosaic Facade) Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View. ('Traumfassade' Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View Mosaic Facade Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) Peacock Dorrway Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Detail of Entrance with Birds. Detail of Entrance with Birds Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Window . Window

The project was the brainchild of landlord Hans-Rainer Jonas, who has a 'social vein' and prides himself on charging reasonable rents and providing communal space for his tenants. He originally thought of Hundertwasser to decorate the facades of his houses, but then chose the Düsseldorf artist Josipa Horvat. She involved a team of other artists and also residents (g). Sometimes children would come by with fragments of mirror or crockery which would be mosaiced right in next to everything else.

I have my doubts about some urban public art projects, but I love this one. Cheerful without being saccharine, whimsical, and beguilingly curvy. Makes me want to move...

Freiburg and the Black Forest

I spent the weekend in Freiburg courtesy of the German-American Lawyers' Association (thanks!) and got to enjoy that delightful city again. The people are friendly and laid-back (Freiburg gets more sun than any other place in Germany), the food is outstanding (Freiburg is right on the border with France), and the small old city is filled with artificial rectilinear 'brooks' (Baechle), about a half-meter wide and deep, through which cool, clear water courses rapidly. Kids float boats down them, people cool their feet on hot summer days, and the sound fills the narrow streets. These little brooks aren't covered, so one of the most amusing pastimes is listening for the agonized shrieks of tourists who, gawking at old buildings, have wrenched their ankle into one of these Baechle. You can't sue, because it's tradition. Besides, the locals say if you trip into one of the Baechle, you'll marry someone from Freiburg. I so far have managed to step over every one of these Baechle.

A hilly chunk of the Black Forest thrusts directly into Freiburg from the East like a giant arrow. This means that you can walk 10 minutes from the city center and literally be inside the Black Forest --especially if you take the mountainside railcar, which lifts you about 300 meters to the main hillside trail. In most other places in the world, this hillside would be covered with the mansions of the rich, but not in Freiburg. I hiked about 4 km into the Black Forest to the forest shrine of St. Odile of Alsace, a small baroque church housing a spring whose water is supposed to heal eye problems. According to this church website, the water has tons of radon in it, but that didn't stop a few pilgrims from washing their eyes with it (!) while I was there. Odile was born blind in the 7th century but her vision was restored through prayer, so one of her typical iconographies is a book with human eyeballs projecting from it, as in this Baroque sculpture from the church. There was also a group of young Germans who recited the Ave Maria in German in a monotone over and over, interspersed with some prayers sung in Latin. I wonder what this devotional exercise is called.

Here is St. Odila with her chalice-book-eyes! The some pictures of Freiburg, greenery and forest views, a panorama of the valley in which Freiburg is locaged, a foxglove plant (which is called Fingerhut -- finger-hat! -- in German), the interior of the St. Ottilien church. Oh, and a hideous, gigantic Brutalist building (housing a Breuninger department store) excreted like a steaming pile of shit right into the middle of Freiburg's Old City. 

Sculpture of St. Odila in St. Ottilien Church
View of Karlssteg in Stadtgarten Brutalist Building in the Freiburger Altstadt

View of Path to St. Ottilien
Foxglove Plant on path to St. Ottilien
Panorama of Freiburg from the Burghaldering
Forest Clearing near Freiburg
Stand of Pine Trees on Path to St. Ottilien
View of Passionsweg near St. Ottilien
Interior of St. Ottilian Church

Kyrghyz Eyes

Susan Messer writes about The Magic Mountain:

One of the unforgettable details of the novel was the obsession of Hans Castorp (the main character) with the elusive Clavdia Chauchat, who Mann describes repeatedly as having Kyrgyz eyes. This is, indeed, one of her defining features. "Kyrgyz eyes" were also a feature of an earlier breathless obsession in Castorp's life--a young boy who had many years before loaned young Hans a pencil on the school playground. So Mann echoes these eyes and these obsessions (even the pencil) throughout the novel.

I also wondered exactly what Mann meant by Kyrgyz eyes (Kirgisenaugen). Messer provides us with this photo of actual Kyrgyznauts, or whatever one calls people from Kyrghyzstan:

Kyrghiz eyes
Cute and wholesome. But I prefer this version, courtesy of St. Petersburg-based photographer Daniil Kontorovich aka Tertius Alio:


If you ask me, she's got Kyrghyz-everything.

1884: A Chilling Vision of Surveillance

In Frankfurt yesterday I dropped by the Schirn Kunsthalle to see the exhibition on Gustave Caillebotte, perhaps the most interesting of the impressionists (if you ask me). The exhibit's called Gustave Caillebotte, Impressionist and Photography, and shows the give-and-take relationship between Caillebotte's work and the emerging art form of photography. The traditional notion is that artists in the 19th century realized that photography had rendered the pursuit of realistic painted reproduction superfluous, freeing artists to concentrate on a sort of refracted and distilled 'painterly' technique that focused on the act of seeing itself. Caillebotte had a different reaction: he used the emerging technology of photography to enrich his technique. The revolutionary motion studies of Muybridge, for instance, or the odd perspectives and hallucinatory detail of 'stereographic' 3-D panoramas of Parisian streets, or the ability to capture snapshots of laundry billowing in wind.

The actual documentation of the link between photography and Caillebotte's technique was thin, so the exchibit was just pioneering French photography side-by-side with a decent cross-section of Caillebottes (including the famous Floor-Scrapers, which sounds much better in French: Raboteurs de Parquet). But that's something else! Only one of his mesmerizing studies of white laundry, though. The Schirn Kunsthalle is, as always, a weird and uninviting space, and the structure of the exhibition is hard to follow. Plus, they're charging 10 Euros for just one exhibit, which is just too damn high.

One part of the exhibit struck my eye: this ad for the 'Photographic Secret Camera' made by the Stirn Company from Bremen, billed as the 'newest and most amazing invention in the area of photography for professional and amateur photographers.'


The camera is a metal disc about 14 cm across with an lens emerging near the top. The ad targets four groups. The last two are photographers and tourists, but the first two are more interesting. The first group is 'Officers of the Army and Marines' to take 'snapshots of positions and terrain of military importance'. The second group is 'Secret Police Officials', who can use the camera to copy (copieren) 'suspicious persons, street gatherings, etc.'

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's pretty sobering to know that there were so many 'secret police officials' skulking around Europe in the late 19th century that they constituted a major target group for camera marketers. It conjures up a Conradian world of malodorous anarchists gathering in seedy underground taverns while desperate informants secretly photograph their gaunt, feverish faces.

Memorial to Dutch War Dead

The weather on Sunday was so obscenely pleasant that the local park was crowded. So I veered off into the adjoining Stoffels cemetery (g) a large cemetery created in 1876 in the south of Duesseldorf. It's a minor masterpiece of cemetery design, with rolling hills and dales that create many small enclaves, and a huge variety of trees that keep it in autumn glory for months.

In addition to conventional graves, there's a field for urn burials and for ash-scattering. There's also a large memorial for 1,230 Dutch people who were killed in concentration and forced-labor camps during World War II, one of many such cemeteries in western Germany. The graves are located in a semi-circle around a central sandstone pillar listing the names of concentration camp in which many of the victims died.

A few photos:

Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial General View

Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial 1
Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial 4