The Multihalle – in conversation with photographer Horst Hamann

Tatjana Dürr, Sally Below

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SB       Mr Hamann, you were born and grew up here in Mannheim, spent many years in New York – and keep coming back to your hometown. In 1986 you published the book “Mannheim – Einblicke in eine Stadt” (Mannheim – Insights into a City) and in 2007, a second book on Mannheim. What changed for you in the time between those two books and since, and what has stayed the same?

HH      For the first book I spent two years walking through the city, taking photos. The Multihalle was already one of my themes at the time, and I was discovering the culture, museums, sports events, the full diversity of my home town. Then came the vertical “shots” of New York, this different viewpoint, my new way of taking pictures; and then I revisited the city from that angle.
What has remained is the long axis and that feeling of returning to the fold of Mannheim: the Wasserturm [sandstone tower + city landmark], Friedrichsplatz, these entranceways to the city – it’s almost like walking through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris: I know I’m home. Then there’s the Rosengarten congress centre, the Kunsthalle art museum, the railway station, the northern banks of the Neckar and the Feuerwache [historical building, former fire station, now a cultural centre]; then on towards Herzogenried and the Multihalle: a diamond still, as always. The raw diamond that has always fascinated me.

TD       The Wasserturm and the Multihalle exist because of Garden Shows. Garden Shows have been very important for this city. Mannheim still has these two parks that require entrance fees. Local residents are very willing to pay, also because the parks are associated with the image change “from an industrial city to a green city”. And it is not without reason that my colleagues from urban development are now working on guidelines for a green corridor. Climate change no doubt also plays a role, but ‘green’ is a constant topic for Mannheim above and beyond that.

HH      Green areas have always been important to me. Quite a few times, walking to school along the Rhine with my camera, I never got there, because I was distracted along the way. No harm was done in the long run, as that’s when I took my first successful photographs. I discovered the Multihalle at the National Garden Show. When I published that first book, everything was still fresh – the structure, the organic elements, that creature – it was breathtaking. Walkable architecture, experienceable architecture. Not like a house – where you go to the elevator, press a button, then go up or down somewhere – rather, you walk through and into it, and are in a living space. And you can feel and smell the wood. The Multihalle has always been present to me. There are photos that go right back to the time of its origin; reinterpreting the Multihalle time and again.

SB       The 1970s, when the Multihalle was built, was a time when people still believed in the future. Nowadays, everything is engineered. But that isn’t the future, that’s only media, just like photography is a medium to see something. How do you see the future of cities?

HH      Cities are important living spaces. But people are different – some want to live in the country, they need their woodlands and long walks. I’m more of an urban person, I need the ‘urban jungle’. Yet one has to maintain the ability of sensory perception. The question is how willing we still are to perceive. Some people no longer see anything. A city offers all kinds of impulses – but you need to deal with them, and you need to be able to switch off. That’s not easy, even if you’ve lived there for 20 years; you automatically soak up everything all day long. That’s why a city needs open spaces, especially New York and Mannheim, for an international society.

TD       Mannheim is a melting pot, it has a very heterogeneous population structure. It’s not made up of 50% settled citizens – no, everyone is different. Also because of its history as an industrial city.

SB       The international aspect was also noticeable during the so-called migrant crisis, where many more people were accommodated here than the quota required – with an obviousness that greatly impressed me.

HH      Yes, me too. But I knew that it would work out in Mannheim. If it can work anywhere, then here. That’s also a kind of role model. Each time I’ve come back after being away, I’ve noticed how Mannheim has changed in a positive way. Nowadays, Mannheim represents more of a sub-culture to me than Frankfurt, where I’ve lived for a few years, or Hamburg. Mannheim can even hold its own against Berlin.

TD       This openness can be an opportunity for our approach to current international affairs and the questions of our time. The city has faced many challenges in its history; it is practised in tackling them. Right now, topics that are being discussed around the world are falling on fertile ground in Mannheim. And the Multihalle can be a space for debating social issues.

TD      We have been to the Multihalle with so many people now. The first encounters are all cathedral moments, even though the hall is in such a poor state and you soon get cold feet. If you go in there with students, though, they all say: “Oh, Frei Otto, he’s right here!”
How can we transport this into the future, what meaning can that have? ‘Rescuing’ the icons is of huge significance above and beyond the buildings and their listed heritage status – for urban society, for education, for cultural issues. This is the context of our current debate. And not only the architecture is important to us, but also always the meaning attached to such icons. We are facing a huge task, of course. We now have to do the right thing and be courageous.

HH      Yes, but it also calls for bright minds and thought leaders – and people who support these visionaries by saying: even if I can’t do the actual job, I can still get involved by donating money or time or ideas. I believe that every citizen needs to be aware of this jewel in Mannheim that is worth maintaining and that is as significant as the Eiffel Tower or Brooklyn Bridge. Regardless of whether everyone likes it or not. There is simply this significance in the overall context of architecture and location – that’s for sure.
The spirit comes across straight away. You need to venture a look into the future. What can you do with these spaces? They need to be given new content, new tasks. And if that is statically and technically possible, I believe you then have some excellent possibilities.

SB       I actually believe that the new content has to be something that doesn’t exist yet. Because the Multihalle symbolises ‘thinking further’.

HH      Exactly, it calls for the future, for visions. It’s an open space, and with every step you take, you get new perspectives, are sheltered in a different way, have a new sky above. That opens up so many options. If the Multihalle was located in Central Park, it would probably be its highlight. People would flock there.

TD       There’s this theory by Colin Rowe that the more dense a city is, the more relevant or the more positive pressure it exercises on the available free space. In a city as densely populated as New York, Central Park, as a central open and public space, perfectly exemplifies this. Of course, that also means it is an extremely highly frequented place.

HH      That’s much less the case in Herzogenried, but the developments in Turley, Franklin, and Spinelli [former US army barracks] and this entire shift generate new impulses, new relationships, and provide openings for urban development. It’s a question of public access. There are no great distances to cover. This also represents new opportunities, and one of the tasks is to communicate that it is not far away – neither visually nor notionally – but really in the direct vicinity.

SB       That is the next step. There are so many pictures of its ‘Sleeping Beauty’ state. And everybody says: Oh, what and where is that? That was the beginning of the story. Now we need to say: Look, it’s so close to you. And for non-resident visitors, too: it’s right in the city, in an interesting part of the city, in fact. I believe this shift, this positioning and association with the city is an important aspect. Then it will become clearer that the Multihalle can be used.

HH      Yes, exactly. What I can imagine next is some kind of visual staging: with dancers, with plays of light, projections, photo workshops – a lot has happened already. It can be realised with just a few means – progressing from the outside or from the inside, because it is transparent. And its organic character is emphasized even more by the light.

TD       Light is definitely an issue we are working on; the whole experimental aura of the space. We still have a problem with the acoustics. But more and more people are coming to us saying “your problem is our opportunity – we want to work with the acoustics”.

HH      That is what’s needed now – this sense of self-confidence to take what’s there and make more of it. And the pride that goes with having such an icon in the city. The name “Multihalle” is a concept as such, and we should be guided by that: think multiculturally – think Multihalle.

Horst Hamann, born in Mannheim in 1958, is an autodidact who has been taking photographs since the age of eleven. He has spent half of his life in New York and in the state of Maine. Time and again, he is described as the “inventor” of vertical photography. The New York Times called him a “genius of composition”. The Museum of the City of New York honoured him as the first German photographer with a six-month solo exhibition. Hamann is the author of more than 34 books. His photo book “New York Vertical” quickly turned into a modern classic and bestseller, selling over 300,000 copies worldwide.