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Friday18 August 2017

Redesigning Stuttgart with vuvuzelas

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Noisy protests over its railway station scheme are helping to redefine a changing city

I’ve spent the last week in Stuttgart – not on holiday, of course. Stuttgart isn’t that sort of place.

That’s not to say it’s not a nice place to be: there’s a marketplace, and a schloss, an opera house and even some modern architecture – not just Stirling’s Staatsgalerie, but iconitectural museums for Porsche and Mercedes-Benz and even Ritter Sport. It’s all very nice. So nice, in fact, that you can get ticked off for walking down the wrong side of the pavement, and that is precisely Stuttgart’s problem: it all works. Other Germans regard it as little more than a bourgeois market town.

But Stuttgart isn’t as nice as it used to be. Every week thousands of protesters crowd the park next to the main railway station. They festoon trees with messages, listen to revolutionary rhetoric, and sing Lutheran hymns. At seven o’ clock, wherever they are, they sound whistles and vuvuzelas, pots and pans in distinctly un-teutonic cacophony. It all looked good-natured to me, but that’s not how it seems to Stuttgarters. The dean of the university I was visiting referred to the protests, with a glint in his eye, as “a revolution”.

There are plans afoot to transform the railway station. It was built in the 1920s as a terminus; and this means that journeys to Stuttgart by rail are slow and inconvenient, and also that a huge swathe of the city centre is a desert of railway tracks. The plan is to turn the terminus into a through station, burying the tracks underground, and retaining the original building as an honorific entrance. This will liberate land for development; and will also halve journey times to the suburbs. But the stakes are much higher than that. The new station will sit right halfway along the line from Paris to Budapest. Stuttgart, the industrial powerhouse of Europe, will take its rightful place at the heart of the continent.

What’s not to like? A few trees will have to be felled, and the backside of a 1920s building will be demolished. There will be disruption, but these are small prices to pay to keep millions of cars off the road and to improve the city centre beyond all recognition. All the funding is in place, and work is just starting on site.

But the burghers of Stuttgart aren’t really interested in the merits of the scheme. They are angry because, despite their protests, the politicians have decided to go ahead anyway. A democratic deficit has been spotted, and no amount of technocratic persuasion can make that disappear. Protest by protest, Stuttgarters are becoming politicised.

As great public works wither on the vine, the new Stuttgart station may seem like a fantasy the citizens of Stuttgart are incomprehensibly churlish to protest against. But in the process, Stuttgart is becoming a city, and sometimes that means more than having opera houses and museums, or even a new railway station. To live in a city is to embrace politics and people, and a blowing whistle or protesting crowd are quite as much a part of city life as great buildings.

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