German Word of the Week: Zwingburg

Zwingburg (g) is a German word made out of the root of the verb zwingen (to force or coerce) and Burg (fortress).

It is a fortress or castle or citadel erected in a prominent place in areas in which (to quote the German Wikipedia article), the local residents were considered 'insufficiently loyal' to whatever feudal lord owned the country. The design is purposely menacing, the building says 'I am your Lord. This ugly-ass fortress is full of lust-crazed Swabian mercenaries who will stream through your defenseless villages and daughters unless you show me unswerving obedience, reechy-necked lickspittles.'

It's a very Tscherman thing.

I thought of this word when I took a short bicycle ride through the Hafen (harbor) area in Düsseldorf last weekend. Back in the 90s, the city fathers decided to raze most of the existing port infrastructure on the Rhine as it fell into disuse and create a sexy, stylish area full of trendy boutiques, fashion houses, lux hotels, hip bars, and other hangouts for lawyers, lobbyists, advertising executives and other wan, dead-eyed parasites pillars of the local economy. They called it the Medienhafen (Media Harbor).

On a huge promontory in the middle of the Medienhafen stands the Düsseldorf Hyatt Regency Hotel (g), glowering menacingly at the rest of the city:

Hyatt in the Clouds

Hyatt. We're watching you

Youtube Lectures on Medieval English History

I've recently moved offices, so as I set up my new crucible of habitual effectiveness (ha!) I've been looking for something to edutain me in the background. That's when I stumbled upon Gresham College's free lecture series, which started in 1597 and has been online since 1721.

Here are two most edifying lectures, one on the medieval hospital, one on the creation of illuminated manuscripts. Both are delivered in flawless received pronunciation by immaculately-coiffed English -- well, I want to say MILFs, but that's just the Yank crudeness in me. Let's call them gentlewomen.


By the Shark-Filled Rivers of Schwabylon


Berlin, they say, is being overrun by Swabians. 'Swabian', one of the most amusing words in English, denotes people from Swabia, a region in South Germany. According to native Berliners, the Swabians are  industrious, conformist yuppies. Above, you see the work of extremist Swabians, who have changed street signs into their (IMHO totally awesome) regional dialect. Under their baleful influence, Berlin is rapidly changing from a place where cafes serve breakfast until 4 PM to unwashed, still-hungover 'creative types' into yet another safe, sanitized, mind-shatteringly expensive, tourist-friendly playground for the upper-middle classes and above (you know, like New York, Paris, and London).

Those parts of Berlin which have suffered an unusually heavy infestation of Swabians are often referred to as Schwabylon, derived from the short-a German word for Swabians. Which brings me to the subject of this post. There once was an actual Schwabylon! The Voices of East Anglia describes it thus:

The colourful Schwabylon shopping and leisure centre had one hundred shops, a cinema, twelve restaurants, a beer garden, sports facilities, Roman spa, sauna, solarium, swimming pool and a skating rink. Located next door was a Holiday Inn which contained a three-story nightclub named after The Beatles song Yellow Submarine, which was surrounded by a 600,000 litre water tank with more than 30 sharks – What could possibly go wrong?

Schwabylon is a portmanteau word that blended together the name of the district in Munich, Germany and the word Babylon. The pyramid shaped shopping centre with it’s bright red, yellow and orange rising sun paint work was designed by architect Justus Dahinde and opened for business on November 9th in 1973.

Although the centre had many attractions it was (almost) windowless and had ramps instead of stairs, and just fourteen months later the retailers “shut up shop” and the Schwabylon closed. Parts of the building  were demolished in 1979, however the Holiday Inn and night club remained – Minus the sharks.


With Niemeyer, Another Part of Le Corbusier's Baleful Legacy Dies

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is dead at 104. He was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, who I hold to be one of the most sinister intellectual frauds of the 20th century. Le Corbusier was principally responsible for the mid-century fad of brutalism, which encouraged architects to compose buildings from giant, prefabricated slabs of untreated reinforced concrete. No attempt would be made integrate the buildings into existing city or landscapes. They would be plopped down like the used, soiled Legos of a race of alien giants.

In the hands of talented architects, brutalist buildings might occasionally display deeply obscured hints of elegance or wit. In the hands of hordes of epigones (and budget-conscious city planners), brutalism resulted in a plague of anonymous, inhuman bunkers that quickly crusted over with mold and rust stains. In other words, Brutalism brought the charm and elegance of Stalinist industrial encampments to Western capitals. Here's a quick quiz: Is this sad, stained, crumbling structure the Great Hall of the Democratic People's Assembly in some Eastern European country, or is it a priory in France?


Here's the answer. Sometimes only a British reactionary (in this case, Theodore Dalrymple) can do justice to a pompous, crypto-totalitarian twit like Le Corbusier:

Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.

André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.

    ...Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:

    A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
    A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many).

Now, Niemeyer's not in the same league. Although influenced by Le Corbusier, he was capable of designing buildings of beauty (the headquarters of the PCF, for example). But he has to take responsibility for the inhuman monstrosity that is Brasilia, a sprawling wasteland of rectilinear concrete slapped down in the middle of the jungle. Its residents scurry for cover amid its gigantic, broiling public squares. And Brasilia's here to stay, since it was quickly added to the UN's list of World Heritage Sites, which is a very good reason not to take that list very seriously.

Giant Serious Cheap Shiny Books

The other day, I was passing a bookstore and noticed a huge book on Gothic architecture, sculpture and painting (g) for only €10. Next to it was a similar book on Rome, and then one on Egypt. All were published by the h.f. ullmann (g) publishing house, and all cost only €10. I leafed through the Rome book: plenty of full-color illustrations, diagrams, and charts, plus text. 'Hmm', I thought, 'looks pretty solid. And even if I don't like it, it's only €10'. So I bought it, and spent a few hours dipping into it.

The next day, I returned and bought all the other €10 Ullman books I could lay my hands on. They're beautifully put together and laid out, with at least 2-3 illustrations on each page. But what's especially compelling for a Bildungsbürger like me is the text: richly detailed essays on every major aspect of the book's subject, reflecting the latest research. If you sit down and read one, you will be rewarded with a well-judged, thoughtful, comprehensive take on, say, tapestries or Roman canal building, replete with quotations from contemporary artists, authors and thinkers. German thoroughness and historical sophistication at its most inspiring!

Considering the thousands of hours of labor that went into these minor masterpieces of the bookmaker's art, I have no idea why they're being practically given away for only €10. But as long as that's the case, I can strongly recommend you snap them up.

Communists, Baby Extinct Animals, and Factory Explosions

What do they have in common? On Saturday, I saw them all. First I went to the Neander Valley (Neandertal in German), where the remains of Neanderthals were discovered in 1856. Most of this picturesque valley has been turned into a handsome nature preserve.

Large parts of it are off-limits, though, because they've been made into enclosures for the kind of Ice Age mammals the Neanderthals might have hunted or eaten: the Wisent, or European bison, the Tarpan, or European wild horse, and the Aurochs (German Auerochse), a kind of Eurasian ox that is the ancestor of all modern cattle. The wisent is not extinct, but vulnerable; there are colonies of them all over Europe. The last aurochs was killed in Poland in 1627, and the last Tarpan died in the early 20th century. The animals in the Neanderthal Valley are the product of selective back-breeding by German zoologists Heinz and Lutz Heck. In the 1920s, they attempted to re-create the aurochs and tarpan. The results are what we see today -- plausible, but of course not genetically identical with their deceased ancestors.

Here are a few photos of wisents, tarpans, and aurochses (including young'uns) in that order:

Wisent Sleeping

Curious Wisent

Tarpan Foal

Tarpan Mare and Foal 1

Aurochs with Medium Length Horns

Aurochs Calf 1

To see a few more baby animal photos and views of the Neandertal (as well as the majestic, Brueghel-esque Spring Landscape with Defecating Wisent), just drop by the online photo gallery

Now that the nature buffs are satisfied, we can move on to something a bit more sociological. If you went up to this pleasant-looking woman...

Christian Schura German Communist Party Poster

...grabbed her by the lapels, and yelled: "Why, you're a...a...a...Communist!", she would answer "Na, und?" ('Yeah, so what?'). She is the candidate for the DKP, or Deutsche Kommunistische Partei. She represented the party (g) in the local council of the working-class Duesseldorf neighborhood of Eller. She is now running for a position in the state government from District 41 in Duesseldorf's working-class east. Her slogan (Konsequent antikapitalistisch) means, roughly, 'Seriously anti-capitalist.' The vote is 9 May. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In case you're asking why communists would be fielding candidates in fashionable, wealthy Duesseldorf, the answer is that Duesseldorf is not all fashionable and wealthy! On the way back from the Neander Valley, you ride through Gerresheim*, a working-class suburb. Dominating the landscape is the former Gerresheimer Glassworks, a huge glassware factory (one of the biggest in the world) that once employed 8,000 people. After a storied history, the factory was shuttered in 2005 (g), and is now being carefully dismantled by a Dutch demolition concern. Here's one part of the remaining factory, which seems to have suffered some bizarre explosions:

Gerresheimer Glashuette 1

Gerresheimer Glashuette 2

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