Imagining present-day places in past-tense times can be fascinating. One way to do so is by “reading the landscape,” as my former environmental history professor, Bill Cronon, puts it. And “landscape” refers not only to picturesque countrysides and wildlands, but also to urban spaces and other human settlements.
Reading the landscape entails asking questions like what does today’s landscape tell us about past land uses; what social forces were behind those past land uses; and why was this street named after a king who rarely set foot there and not the blacksmith whose shop was on the corner.
Perhaps because my senses are generally more open in a new place, I’ve become an avid reader of landscapes here in Munich (granted, doing proper landscape readings requires in-depth historical research, so my readings have been more like skims). One “landscape” I have recently become smitten with is Odeonsplatz, a public square in the city’s Altstadt, or the old city center.
Historically, Odeonsplatz has been a place for pomp and circumstance. It is situated at the end of the traditional parade route that stretches the length of Ludwigstrasse (named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who also commissioned the construction of the square), down which ceremonies of all sorts still march today. When parades arrive at the square, they are greeted by three grandiose structures: on the left is the former royal residence; on the right is the ornate Theatinerkirche (a catholic church), and straight ahead is Feldherrnhalle (loosely meaning “commanders’ hall”).
Historical accounts highlight Odeonsplatz’ tainted past. It was here that Hitler staged his first, but failed coup in 1923. When Hitler had finally succeeded in taking over Germany, the square became a favored Nazi ceremonial and procession grounds.
But this tainted past is juxtaposed with its more cheerful present. Odeonsplatz now hosts happier, more inclusive festivities, such as the annual St. Patty’s Day street party, which I recently attended. (Factoid: Munich has one of the largest populations of Irish people outside of Ireland). A mix of Germans, Irish, and at least two Americans (me and a friend) celebrated with an assortment of traditions from both Germany and Ireland: Guinness, Bratwurst, Irish song and dance, and, of course, a parade down Ludwigstrasse.
Another juxtaposition of Odeonsplatz is its stateliness and its more pedestrian side. It was commissioned by royalty, designed by a prominent neoclassicist architect, but built by commoners (although none of their names made it into the history books). Its namesake was Odeon, a nearby building that was formerly a concert hall for “commoners” and now houses the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior, a conversion that took place when the building was rebuilt after WWII. (This link has before and after pictures of the building; beware, the text is in German).
But even though the original music hall is gone, Odeonsplatz is still a musical venue for the common folk. The square is regularly host to musical acts ranging from street performers, such as the pianist I saw the other day (don’t ask me how he got a grand piano there), to Munich’s annual open-air classical music festival.
Odeonsplatz’ pedestrian significance can also be read in its present-day orientation: it is one entrance to the Altstadt’s pedestrian zone. On a typical stroll through the square, you’ll encounter a myriad of folk: from tourists to bike commuters, and from people drinking coffee at the square’s historic cafe to protestors demonstrating against [insert social/political cause]. A new, favored ritual of mine has been walking home from work, just so I can pass through the square to see what is happening there that day.
And, if I could go back in time, back to Odeonplatz’ early years, I wonder what a normal day on the square would have been like…
p.s. Check out this 360 degree panorama of Odeonsplatz (although it is usually not as empty as this picture shows it to be).