Chemnitz as the new European Capital of Culture?


In December 2019, five German cities made it to the final round for the title of European Capital of Culture 2025 – including Chemnitz. Considering the negative headlines with which Chemnitz has caused quite a sensation in recent months, the application of the Saxon industrial city may be surprising. In doing so, Chemnitz placed the focus on the conflict: the city’s long search for identity, the contradictions in the city’s history, the change to industrial culture. With the application, the city wants to show that it is ready to stand by its breaches.

The former Schocken department store today / © Auer Weber Architekten

The changing industrial culture


Chemnitz owes the title “Saxon Manchester”, which is often added to the name of the city, to its industrial history; the old factory buildings and rich industrialists who settled in Chemnitz in the 19th century. The locomotive king Richard Hartmann or the engineer Jørgen Skafte, whose company was later to grow into the Zwickau engine factories and thus one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, are just two representatives of the large industrialists who left their mark on Chemnitz’s path to industrial culture. The houses of the well-heeled businessmen also came from the most famous architects of the time: the Schocken brothers’ department store, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, was a symbol of rising consumption. It is hardly surprising that Chemnitz had the highest tax revenue per capita at the time.

the Schocken brothers’ department store, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, was a symbol of rising consumption at this time.

Postwar East German architecture


Today Chemnitz is a city of contrasts. The few buildings that have survived after the destruction of World War II are framed by modern post-war architecture. The interaction is not always harmonious. Unlike most West German cities, which were reconstructed quickly and evenly after the end of the war, the reconstruction of the city center of Chemnitz has continued to this day – for more than 50 years. Chemnitz is thus a symbol of the constantly changing understanding of architecture in East German post-war times. The self-chosen slogan ‘City of Modernity’, which adorns the entrance signs to Chemnitz, therefore reads at first like a euphemism for prefabricated buildings and the last vestiges of the war. A bit away from the center of the city, however, there is no trace of gray concrete buildings: Kaßberg is one of the few districts that house the architectural heritage of the once rich industrial city. Magnificent Wilhelminian style villas make the district between Kappelbach and Schlossteich one of the largest Art Nouveau monuments in Europe, which may remind the flaneur of the classic architecture in Vienna or Paris.

Chemnitz between art nouveau district and start-up culture


On the other side of the city, old factory sites are becoming the setting for contemporary entrepreneurship. Despite its deep breaks, a modern start-up culture is emerging in Chemnitz that makes use of the remains of industrial culture. The so-called Wirkbau, a factory from the 1920s, was once Germany’s largest plant for textile machines. Today, the impressive clinker building houses various artist studios, galleries, shops, exhibition venues and offices. The Staffbase company, which sells an app for corporate communication and whose number of employees has more than doubled to 250 at the end of 2018, resides in one of the office spaces on 2000 square meters. Staffbase now operates seven locations worldwide – including New York, London and Amsterdam. The headquarters are still in Chemnitz. Because unlike large cities like Berlin, Chemnitz is still vacant. This makes it easier to be successful with new ideas.

The Wirkbau in Chemnitz / © MIB AG

And precisely because the city’s image has suffered for various reasons in recent years, investors and public institutions want to do something to fight for the city’s basic values. Applying to be the Capital of Culture is just another step towards a modern city, far from black and white, that shows the courage to stand up to its breaches.

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