A short history of a cosmopolitan city: Offenbach

Thomas Thiel
Thanks to the Offenbach University of Art and Design, the city has a more fluid image while its graduates and professors have secured Offenbach worldwide fame.

© Heinrich Zimmermann

On January 15, 2015, the lettering “Offenbach Hills” was officially unveiled.

Maybe Haftbefehl would have become famous if he’d started out in Pforzheim, but in fact he was born in Offenbach. The city in Germany with the highest proportion of foreigners and the highest ratio of welfare support recipients in the State of Hessen is often described in the media as the German Bronx. Haftbe­fehl, Germany’s best-known street rapper, has done his bit to foster the cliché: “Offenbach bleibt hart / Hermann-Steinhäuser-Straße/Büsing-Park / Bruder, dieser Ort brennt.” (Offenbach stays hard / Hermann Steinhäuser Strasse/Büsing-Park / Bro this place is burning.) Is that true? Today everything is calm in the Büsing Park, and there’s a sleepy air about Hermann Steinhäuser street. Just a few blocks to the office of Kai Vöckler, Professor for Urbanity in the Creative Context (editor’s note.: now Professor for Urban Design) at the Offenbach University of Art and Design, or HfG for short. Vöckler examined the relationship between art, city, and rap in a monograph. “In this beautiful, peaceful city,” he says with relish and proceeds to dismantle the cliché until it evaporates into the cloudless June sky. Vöckler credits Offenbach with having a special talent for integration.

No Little Italy, no Little Istanbul, none of the 157 ethnic groups (in itself a record for Germany) dominates the city. The crime rate is somewhere between that of Freiburg and Bonn. So much for a burning Offenbach. Naturally, the city lends itself as a backdrop to gangster rapper posing. However, evidently it is also a good place for art, partly owing to the cheap rents that make Offenbach affordable for artists but also thanks to the ethnic mix, which according to Vöckler makes for a special laisser-faire atmosphere and attitude: What art and the city have in common is the heightened experience of being foreign. Having foreignness in common, writes Vöckler in a placatory manner, becomes the shared history of the small cosmopolitan city, Offenbach.

The HfG is located in the very center of Offenbach with its back to the city, but it makes its presence felt from a fair distance. If you approach it from the west along the banks of the River Main, the Universum lettering pops up between site hoardings, industrial wasteland, and upscale districts that are expanding into the city, but without you being able to see who it belongs to. The neon light installation was designed and installed by HfG graduates Wiebke Grösch and Frank Metzger in the Futura font. It’s actually a throwback to the Universum cinema that closed in the 1990s, and now the retro-futuristic lettering gives people the chance to experience themselves as part of a larger whole. The city has recognized its value and is being coquettish about it.

The HfG has written several pages of Offenbach’s short world history. You find traces of the university everywhere, at the industrial harbor where the crane of the Offenbach power station, (illuminated by HfG graduates Sebastian Herkner, Reinhard Dienes, and Peter Eckart and still in operation today) casts a changing color pattern of light over the city at night. Or in the Offenbach Hills, a green space in the city center where the famous Holly­wood lettering is reproduced using the letters for Offenbach, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the growing confidence of the underdog. (Editor’s note: 2016–2020, today at a new location in Berliner Strasse)

However, you need to have found out all about the place in advance because otherwise it is easy to overlook the work. The first thing that strikes you about what calls itself a market square is that it lacks the character of such a location. The ensemble of multi-story car park and street intersection surrounded by high-rise buildings is an urban planning atrocity that is only surpassed by the Kaiserlei roundabout, where you always wonder whether you really want to enter this city or simply go on round. The HfG also organizes specific activities that bring people together, such as a world barbecue championship launched by students that unites 157 nations around the grill. And the Robert Johnson, the legendary techno temple at the harbor, would not exist without the intellectual input of the university’s professor Heiner Blum, who still holds theory seminars here today.


You really don’t need any more evidence to prove that the marriage of Offenbach and the HfG is a happy one. Founded in 1832 as an arts and crafts college, it repeatedly produced skilled artisans for local industry such as the fine bag-makers, the producers of leather goods. In turn, indust­ry brought new sectors to the school, which, according to the former Rector Hugo Eberhardt, saw itself as a training center for “down-to-earth, prudent, and sound craftspeople”. Then, in 1970, the college was granted university status, and art and the new media were added as areas of learning.

Building on the tradition of the Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design (to which, so HfG President Bernd Kracke, the university still feels a bond), it has developed into a style-defining design workshop. The Offenbach product seman­tics created by Jochen Gross, which shift the focus to a product’s communications potential, are well known in design circles worldwide. Meaning it could be argued that the first brand ambassador is an Offenbacher. The Dept. of Design has produced such renowned graduates as Sebastian Herkner, a well-known contemporary furniture designer, who has his studio in a downtown courtyard that seems frozen in time. Evidently, the West German idyll untouched by progress and with slightly morbid characteristics, which Frank Witzel, honorary professor at HfG this semester, described in his novel “Die Erfindung der RAF durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager” (The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager) persists here to this day.

At the latest since its graduates Anne Imhof and Franz Erhardt Walther won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year, the HfG no longer has to look up to anyone in the artistic field, not even the Städelschule further down the River Main.

The HfG also has a completely different mission, namely to combine what is purely beautiful but without purpose with the useful. Anyone who enrolls at the HfG does not necessarily become an artist, but rather a photographer, furniture designer, set designer, illustrator, or typographer. Design benefits from the general anesthetization of society in which everything is a world of experience and an interface. Today, designers sit on the boards of large companies, says HfG President Bernd Kracke, and their career opportunities are increasing as a result.


Initially, students at the HfG have to do everything, ranging from drawing nudes, painting, sculpting, or paper workshop, “unplugged”, as Kracke puts it – which takes some getting used to for digital natives. The course is designed to cross boundaries and has a strong focus on theory in both art and design. According to Bernd Kracke, this approach culminates, if you will, in artists like the new star Anne Imhof. As Kracke points out, her art combines the disciplines of painting, video, experimental spatial design, performance, film, photography, music, and theater to create a gesamtkunst­werk. Without wanting to overstate her individuality, Imhof, who studied in Offenbach and Frankfurt, is clearly a product of the HfG.

There is no doubt at all that the city owes some of its global fame to the HfG. When Canadian journalist Doug Saunders coined the term “arrival city” in 2011 with his eponymous book, Kai Vöckler instantly had a specific image in mind. Peter Schmal, Director of the German Architecture Mu­seum downriver, took up the idea and made Arrival City Offenbach the German submission to the Venice Biennale.

Offenbach was now a brand. Teams of reporters from the BBC and the New York Times descended on the city, and the local residents, still unfamiliar with their new role, couldn’t really put their finger on what made them so irresistible. However, Offenbach also shares the fate of the arrival cities described by Saunders in his book. The high-flyers move elsewhere; the people with problems tend to stay. The Germans by origin, who now only make up a minority, feel alienated and abandoned in the city. Potential newcomers are put off by its bad reputation. The ghetto image might be a lucrative source of income for rappers, but it continues to be a problem for Offenbach.

Offenbach is an old industrial city, which has not handled its transition to a service society well. Recently, attempts have been made to reposition it as a creative hub, efforts that have met with only moderate success to date: The creative class prefers to celebrate its cosmopolitism within a small circle, and the city’s demographic structure acts as an obstacle to rapid gentrification. According to this plan, the HfG is assigned the role of a creative motor, something that is naturally at odds with its claim to creative autonomy. Some see the planned relocation of the HfG to a central campus in the chic harbor district, which is advancing into the city like a virus, as a step towards commodification. This is borne out by protest slogans on the university’s main building. There are rational reasons for the move, but it is also undeniable that the HfG is growing out of the city and moving to its intellectual outskirts. This will make it more difficult for art to maintain its close symbiosis with Offenbach. “Smooching is preferable to gentrification,” states a graffito in the inner city, and you don’t realize immediately what the one has to do with the other. Until you recall how, in his book, Vöckler names the love of touching and contact as a special virtue of Offenbach.