“Cologne is not like other German cities. It is less formal and more rebellious, but in a very accessible manner. Everyone is welcome here, as long as you keep it cosy.” Jesse, our city guide on duty, does not bother to hide his praise for his city. You can see that rebelliousness here, in particular when looking at new art initiatives, the creative sector, and architecture. The latter may be born from necessity, however.
Germany’s fourth largest city, Cologne has existed for more than two millennia. Its strategic location has given it an incredibly rich history. It was the home of one of Europe’s first universities, the Celts, the Eburones, the Franks, and the Romans ruled here, and the beautiful cathedral towers have been rising above the city for more than 700 years. There is not much left of the old industry, but the creative and eclectic parts are still alive and thriving.
The city centre of Cologne was nearly entirely destroyed in World War II, with only the cathedral surviving thanks to the steel construction in its roof. Urban planning clearly followed no rules here, turning Cologne into a Mecca for architecture fans. Join guide Jesse on a walk past Roman walls, medieval towers, and ultra-modern residential areas where the occasional static baroque mansion appears somewhat out of place. With 15 different architectural styles in a single street at times, it’s unsurprising that this city is a regular study trip destination for architecture students. The iconic television tower exceeds even the monstrous buildings from the Bauhaus style, now often housing companies and media houses, in height.
Underground art in Ebertplatz
Reconstruction did not go smoothly everywhere in the city. Ebertplatz behind the station, for example, was not exactly the place to be in the Nineties, before some local artists had enough of that and turned it into their new headquarters. Meryem Erkus, one of the initiators of that project, explains: “This square, once a forgotten part of Cologne, is now gradually turning into a meeting place for creatives, artists, and local residents.”
The metro station has been converted into a number of art galleries, the escalators have been reworked into pieces of art, water is running in the fountain again, and there is space for events and parties. Architecture and urban design students come to take classes here on Tuesdays, while the location is used for exhibitions at other times. It’s also nice to see how the locals adore Meryem: “That’s because they feel that I believe in the neighbourhood, and in them. We do not want them to leave. Quite to the contrary: We are going to ensure that their neighbourhood is made even more theirs, with art and urban interventions.”
Did you know that Cologne even has a Little Belgium? It contains a Brussels, an Antwerp, and of course – the most beautiful place in all of Belgium – a Ghent street. Anyone looking for Chinatown vibes and hoping for a chip shop, waffle stand, or brown pub on every corner will be disappointed, however. The district is only called the Belgian district because it is facing Belgium. And yet, we can be quite proud of it, since it is probably the trendiest district in Cologne.
Cosy coffee houses and bakeries are spread everywhere, while shoppers can spend all their energy and money in the countless boutiques. People reading books, lounging in hammocks, and enjoying the playgrounds are relaxing in the city park, while the partygoers can dash down to the station that has been converted into a club at night. The unrestrained atmosphere Jesse mentioned initially is certainly tangible here.
Cologne isn’t far from Big Belgium (ahem), so get on that train or in your car, and discover the creative side of this eclectic German city.
Pictures by Niel van Herck