Ugliness is just one aspect (and by no means a model for Germany)

Christian Welzbacher
Rehabilitating Offenbach. Everyone has an opinion on Offenbach, but most people have got it wrong: This easy-going, laid-back city with a love of progress is a role model because it has learned to live with its problems.

Timon Osche

Offenbach is avant-garde. Anyone who makes such a claim about this much praised, much maligned city on the banks of the River Main runs the risk of alienating readers. Asserting that Offenbach is a a real trailblazer, in whatever respect, seems much too far removed from what people think they know about this place. That said, is it not a truly remarkable phenomenon that everybody seems to have an opinion on Offenbach? It’s remarkable on account of the city’s size alone: After decades when it looked as if Offenbach, first mentioned in an historical document in 977, might lose its status as a city altogether, today it is home to a good 130,000 people even if you exclude the vast surrounding area with its dormitory towns. In terms of statistics the city is on a par with Pforzheim, Heilbronn, Fürth, or Ingolstadt. However, as far as popular opinion is concerned Offenbach is far superior to these places, indeed it is world class. Before we deal in greater detail with this mythical place at the eastern edge of the Rhine-Main region, suffice it to say that Offenbach has undeniably itself contributed to people’s poor opinion of it. However, for every platitude the very opposite also exists. And since clichés are just that, it goes without saying that Offenbach is better than it’s reputation would have it. Or at least different. So let us return to the seemingly unorthodox idea stated at the beginning of this article: Not only is Offenbach truly avant-garde, it has always been that way, and in many different respects into the bargain. This is exemplified by its architectural development, which has produced a monumental and incomparable patchwork of urbanism; or the “foreigner issue”, which a look at the city’s history reveals to be nothing more than a recent chapter of multi-ethnic and multi-religious cohabitation, or by local politics, which have not always been handled well since deindustrialization began.


It’s a familiar phenomenon with people that no matter what their physiognomy is like their outer appearance only provides us with a limited insight into their souls. It is no different with cities. And so it might be correct to say that Offenbach has no face, no attractive side worth featuring on postcards, and even the assertion that the city is ugly may be true. However, this says little about its character. Instead it should seem appealing rather than anything else that the cityscape presents itself to visitors with undisguised honesty. Offenbach does not hide behind a prettified backdrop. Even where the city has something to offer, it seems unpretentious, almost self-effacing. Almost all of the traditional landmarks that would have provided historical context were lost during World War II and the subsequent efforts at reconstruction. What remains is a Neo-Baroque town palace called Büsing-Palais (today it’s a hotel, the Klingspor Museum für Schriftkunst, and municipal library all rolled into one) and a gem of the German Renaissance made from local sandstone, the Isenburg Palace, with its ornate loggia named after the Hessen aristocrats who once resided here.

The inner city is also characterized by modernity: concrete as far as the eye can see. And this is where the avant-garde comes into play. In fact, Offenbach’s planning policy was much in keeping with the times, initially at least. In view of the destruction caused by the war, the city opted for renewal and redevelopment more consistently than anywhere else. Given the compact nature of the city, whose thoroughfares can be walked from one end to the other in half an hour, these measures seemed more extreme than in comparable cities. Between 1950 and 1970, in line with the prevailing planning doctrine, Offenbach acquired office blocks and residential towers, four-lane downtown high streets, pedestrian zones, and a bizarre conglomeration of bridges, which, as an elevated promenade zone called “Second Level”, seemed to link nothing with nothing.

Word has since got around that modernity has always been first and foremost a promise. Even before the “new” city had been completed, nobody in Offenbach truly believed in this promise any more, anyway. Consequently, the half-finished city was subjected to an abrupt U-turn. Instead of efficiently choreographed flows of traffic (escape routes into the sprawl that awaited on the city limits) quality of life became the big issue. The plan was to reduce the city’s scale and make it cozier once again. From 1980 onwards work began on removing the bridge sections of the “Second Level” as far as possible, and the stumps have since acted as admonishing reminders of an ill-guided belief in the wonders of progress. And as if that wasn’t enough, motor traffic was restricted, the tramlines ripped out, and benches and tables were installed “in the middle of the road” – as urban furniture. Sadly, once again the authorities ran out of steam and money, and the efforts to rectify the mistakes of the past came to a halt. Which is why Offenbach’s city center became the only downtown area in Europe that resembles a Brazilian interstate junction with its spaghetti-esque confusion.


Luckily, however, Offenbach is many cities. It is not just the blighted inner city, not only Berlin’s Neukölln district with which it is often compared because of the many foreigners living there. It is also the Berlin districts of Lichtenberg, Reinickendorf, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, Charlottenburg, and even Zehlendorf, which here go by the names of Nordend, Bieber, Waldheim, Gemaa, Lauterborn, and Bürgel, respectively. Incidentally, Offenbach itself invites people to draw a comparison with Germany’s capital: The central traffic artery through the middle of the city is called Berliner Strasse, and directly outside the town hall – a spectacularly beautiful piece of concrete brutalism dating from 1971 – a sculpture of the Berlin Bear was erected, with the distance to that city indicated on the pedestal, namely 544 kilometers. That might seem a long way, but locals identify much more easily with the capital than with their next-door neighbor Frankfurt.

One might even venture to say that Offen­bach is a short-shot version of Berlin, “Berlino ristretto”, if you will. After all, what is spread over 900 square kilometers on the Spree and Havel is found on the Main in the same social complexity, but as a compact, highly dense structure. It takes only ten minutes to cycle from a run-down old building in what was once the working-class quarter to an idyllic terraced house on the outskirts of the city. And as it’s virtually impossible to avoid each other in such a small area, it follows that every group of residents is confronted with the day-to-day life of the other Offenbach residents. There is simply no space for segregation or the formation of ghettos. The rest is determined by the tight housing market and the high rental and purchase prices. And ultimately all the city’s residents are united by the noise generated by planes as they descend into Frankfurt Airport.

As a resident of Offenbach, you learn to come to terms with things. This might involve a certain benevolence, patience, and even a good deal of ignorance, as well as the facility to drown one’s sorrows with coffee (käffsche), beer (biersche), or cider (stoffsche). However, as the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennial revealed, there is much more to Offenbach’s typical “mayhem” than multi-cultural folklore. In Venice, the city was presented as a model example of a new arrivals and redistribution hub within the global economic and migration structure. Since the 1980s, Offenbach has acted as an unofficial transit zone of sorts for many people from the former Yugoslavia. As a result and by the same token cars with the infamous OF number plate could be found in the mountains around Sarajevo, and Offenbach was something like an outpost of the Balkans.

Timon Osche


These days, with people arriving here from all parts of the world – and in this respect Germany’s most international city is truly unique – the situation has become more complex, not least of all regarding the likelihood of them staying. The data that experts at the Offenbach University of Art and Design collected from new residents when preparing the Biennial show highlight that the city is by no means struggling with the diversity of its migrants. Rather, what it is battling with is the fact that new arrivals tend to leave again once they have begun to fit into German society. Those who are reasonably well integrated linguistically, culturally, financially, and in professional terms pack their bags and move to another city. Offenbach is a city where the costs of population throughput are a huge drain on its resources: Local authorities are left to shoulder the burden. This latter aspect is arguably where we see the biggest deviation from the integration achievements that for many years shaped Offenbach’s history. Up until the 1980s it was still possible to persuade new residents to stay in the city and become active taxpayers.

Offenbach has been defined by working-class people for over 200 years: The residence of the Counts of Isenburg began to develop into an industrial city from the end of the 18th century onwards. The local leather goods industry needed thousands of simple skilled laborers to help with slaughtering and then the tanning, dyeing, and processing of the hides. There was scarcely a family that didn’t have “Babbscher”, those pompously named Portefeuilleur” – pronounced: Boddefellé – paupers who worked from home or in shifts at the factory glueing and sewing the cuts of leather to make purses, handbags, and suitcases.

While laborers came from the countryside, burghers from all over the world also flocked to Offen­bach. In the early 19th century, the city grew rapidly and, albeit on a small scale, became a melting pot of the kind otherwise only known from the New World: It was also avant-garde regarding its social make-up. This is still evident in the cityscape in the irritatingly high number of different places of worship. In addition to Catholic churches there are Protestant, buildings both Lutheran and Calvinist. The Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia was not the only one to respond to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685; the Counts of Isenburg, who resided in Offenbach, did too. They systematically recruited religious refugees and offered them a new home, and as a result of their efforts the French element became part of the Offenbach culture. The pretty Huguenot church in the city is still marketed with pride by the tourist board.


The third Christian denomination is the free religious community (Freireligiösen) with their place of worship. Though they are little known outside the city, they played a decisive role in Offenbach as almost the entire bourgeois elite – nationalist Catholics, Protestants, and Jews – joined the movement when it was founded in the Vormärz period of revolutionary upheaval in Germany between 1830 and 1848. When, at the end of the 19th century, the “Old Catholics” broke with Rome because they could not accept the infallibility of the Pope and the immaculacy of Mary, they were also given their own church not far from the railway station; its imposing size reflected its members’ confidence. The same can be said of the Jews and their place of worship. Erected during World War I, the synagogue was one of the most striking buildings of its kind, an expression of the hope for liberal equality that was all too soon to be dashed. In 1938, the building, which is at least still standing, was converted into a theater; today, the Jewish community holds its services in a new synagogue located opposite.

For all the ups and downs in the city’s religious history, it must be said that accommodating orthodox churches, mosques, and temples is absolutely in keeping with the Offenbach tradition of tolerance. There is no denying that tolerance was already practiced here before the word had even been invented elsewhere. It is possible that the people of Offenbach were so preoccupied with themselves that they forgot to take a closer look at their politicians. The latter were too hesitant in responding to the structural changes that had been emerging since 1960. When leather production stopped and factories like the famous Rowenta plant closed, this blasted a huge hole in the labor market that even the city’s repositioning as an administrative center could not fill. A lack of new companies settling in the city, vacant properties, and public debt gradually turned Offenbach into the ugly duckling of the Rhine-Main region. The situation worsened because there was no uniform strategy in place for the urban conglomerate and everyone was competing with everyone else – it was not until 2011 that the regional government created a “regional association”: With each area vying to offer the lowest corporation tax, one business park after another was created in the Taunus suburbs in the 1990s, while Offenbach gradually bled dry. As a result the city was once again in the vanguard: Offenbach was Germany’s first municipality to officially declare its insolvency.


The so-called “Offenbach Model” was supposed to help overcome this dilemma. It was well suited to the neo-liberal zeitgeist and it didn’t take long before the concept was also championed by Berlin, another city that constantly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The model hinged on restructuring the budget by selling off public property, dissolving the city’s administration, and promoting public-private partnerships. Consequently, Offenbach offered rich pickings for bargain-basement, asset-stripping investors. After the swimming pools had been closed down, public sector employees dismissed, and the final historic streets demolished, the city council could not fail to realize that its assets had gone while the city was nonetheless still bankrupt. So anyone who visits Offenbach today to validate an opinion they have picked up somewhere or other should consider that over the past decade urban development has been a creative form of mismanagement and essentially amounted to a redistribution of debt.

Bearing all this in mind, it might not seem all that difficult to make a better job of things: Certainly, at the moment there is still plenty of scope for desired improvement in Offenbach. The one or other current initiative from shopping malls to loft-life seems more like the sort of mainstream concepts that can be found elsewhere in the same or a similar form – but they are given a distinctive Offenbach twist. For example, the conversion of the onetime harbor area into a riverside hub for creative people – Offenbach’s version of Prenzlauer Berg that goes by the name of “Hafen 2” – had not even been completed when longstanding residents from across the way came to see who exactly had moved in. People got to know each other – Offenbach style, with the help of constant parties, piles of rubbish, and illegal drag races on the strip. Now the district’s new little park can be considered to have been fully incorporated.

The fact that today cities are marketed by advertising agencies who ascribe identities to them is arguably down to their altered role in the age of globalization. It’s a trend that will not leave Offenbach unscathed over the long term. So far, however, both the city and its inhabitants have been beyond reproach: They have come to terms with the ugliness without seeking to derive a hip principle from it. The city’s financial misery is viewed through a dialectic lens as it affords protection from outsiders wishing to swallow it up. And thanks to a centuries-old culture of tolerance, even the inevitable influx from Frankfurt is regarded with disinterested benevolence. And then there is football: football, ah, yes football, Offenbach’s avant-garde – that means putting up with a city’s fate which is in no way inferior to many a metropolis of millions. And anyone who lives here can proudly proclaim to their glass of Apfelwein or cider: “Isch bin en Offebaché.”