Monument to the Living



The people of Strasbourg have a strange love-hate relationship with the Place de la République. In the middle of it stands a monument: on a high pedestal sits a mother, who represents Alsace. She holds two dead sons in her arms, the one facing towards Germany, the other towards France. Even today, fresh flowers are still regularly placed on the steps of this “Monument to the Dead”. The square was originally called the “Kaiserplatz” (“Imperial Square”) and, like the whole surrounding area, was built by the Germans at the end of the 19th century, following their military conquest. It is on the site of the former ghetto, not far from the old medieval city centre. A footbridge links the square to the centre of the Old Town: it is called the Passerelle des Juifs (“Jews’ Footbridge”) and joins the Rue des Juifs, which leads to the cathedral. Every evening at ten o’clock, a cathedral bell rings for 15 minutes in remembrance of the time when this was the hour at which Jews had to leave the city centre. Following the establishment of the German university here, German-Jewish intellectuals came to Strasbourg, among them Georg Simmel as a professor, and Aby Warburg as a student. Warburg suffered greatly from the intense antisemitism in the area. In 1918, all symbols of the German Reich were removed and the Kaiser’s Palace was renamed the Palais du Rhin (“Palace of the Rhine”). Since then, the “Kaiserplatz” has been known as the Place de la République.

What can you do if you find the burden of the past almost crushing? Cut off an ear every day? Or, better, jettison some ballast?

In a letter from Chailly-sur-Clarens, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “I lie quietly nearby, letting the sun warm me, screwing up my eyes to watch a family working in the vineyard, chewing on a blade of grass, with not a thought in my head, but in my body one simple feeling: my God, how beautiful the world and life are!” Perhaps this quotation would be a good place to start. Inject some joie de vivre, a playful, dynamic element into the solemn austerity of the square. A spiral that looks as if a curly lock of hair has fallen on to the map of the city. At its centre, a Japanese banana tree.

Urban planners don’t use spirals, because spirals hinder the rapid flow of traffic and stop it circulating freely. Once you enter a spiral, sooner or later you reach a point where you can go no further and you have to retrace your steps. Spirals lead to time-wasting. Think of Oblomov and Paul Lafargue. The fight for the right to be lazy is still being fought.

On the other hand, new forms of spiral are constantly being created in the ever-changing landscapes of Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry. It would be interesting to inject the dynamism of the Mandelbrot set into the stately geometric severity of the Place de la République – make it undergo a kind of metamorphosis.

So: a 60 m long white wooden bench presents itself as a point of refuge for pedestrians and cyclists coming from the “Jews’ Footbridge” or the Avenue de la Marseillaise, and creates a visual dividing line, separating off the newly created pedestrian zone. Like the new tram, it is accessible for wheelchair users, cyclists, push-chairs, rollerbladers, etc. You can sit on it to wait for the next tram, or to have a rest, or think, or read, or watch the passers-by. It serves as a viewing point, because it is higher in the middle, offering different views of the surrounding area. The inner circle can be used as a meeting place for a group of people. You can lie down on the bench to while away some time, to dream and sun yourself … just like Rosa Luxemburg in Chailly-sur-Clarens.


Bert Theis  /  Place de la République, Strasbourg 2002