Ode to the SüdWest Stadt


Isidore Tillers considers the aesthetic, the smells (and the doors) of Karlsruhe’s SüdWest Stadt:

I’ve been living (on-and-off) in the South-Western German city of Karlsruhe for the best part of a year. Life as a musician is often one of constant changes of location regardless of one’s genre; as a Classical musician it is often par for the course to uproot oneself and head off to a new city (or country) for a year’s worth of work. That is until one wins the golden ticket in the lottery that is auditioning for a permanent orchestral position.

I moved to the Karlsruhe suburb of SüdWest Stadt in October last year in order to take a year long contract at the Badisches Staatstheatre. A five-minute stroll from the theatre, I initially found my current place through a share-house website, and was pleasantly surprised that the location had more benefits than merely its close proximity to my new work. It is an area with a distinctly gritty inner-city feel. Well, as much as that is possible in a city that in 2007 had less than 300,00 inhabitants and has leafy parks in abundance.

Founded in 1715, Karlsruhe (which literally translates as Karl’s repose or quietude) is a relatively young German city. Local legend tells us that it is named for its founder Charles III William of Baden-Durlach, who awoke from a dream (whilst on a hunting trip) with grand designs for a new city. His castle was built supposedly on the very spot where he dozed off, and the streets fan out accordingly from the Schloss.

Meanwhile, back in the SüdWest Stadt, it stinks of piss and dogshit. Cigarette smoke and pot intertwine in the air. Several-story apartment buildings crowd the narrow streets and tattoo-parlours sit opposite Turkish cafes, cheap barbers and boutique bike shops (and yes I really did see a tandem fixie in the window of one today). There is a fantastic art-house cinema Schauberg (literally “look! “, from the German word schauen – to see and Berg, meaning “mountain”, then again, perhaps it was just the founder’s surname…), an Italian greengrocer, an organic shop, a socialist youth organisation and a handful of bars. The drunks in Werderplatz yell at each other across the square regardless of the season. The reformed junkies wait anxiously for the General Practice across the way in order to score their methadone fix.

The demographic is mixed: young couples; students mingling in doorways; large families insistent on taking up the entire footpath; ancient inhabitants that stare out their open windows at you. Just last week I walked into my favourite hole-in-the-wall café, a tiny Italian-run place with very good coffee even for my previously spoilt Australian tastebuds, to find it swarming with no less than eight screaming babies. The Staatstheatre (whose orchestra incidentally celebrated its 350th anniversary last year), in its present 1960s concrete and steel incarnation looms above it all.

The apartment buildings, like their inhabitants, are distinctly idiosyncratic, differentiated not only by their height and girth, but also by their style and very substance. Some are still in their original Art Nouveau or Neoclassical states, while others have been rebuilt or altered without much thought of continuity. They somewhat resemble a motley group of young children lined-up, straining to stand at attention, aiming for perfection yet still noticeably bedraggled. Some have imposing double-doors that will invariably lead into the private sanctuary of a walled courtyard, whilst others have single narrow doorways set back from the street by a handful of steps.

As I prepare to move on once again I think that what I will miss most about the SüdWest Stadt are the charmingly unique doors. Oxford Dictionary tells us that a door is merely a hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier at the entrance to a building, room, or vehicle, or in the framework of a cupboard, yet images of doors and doorways are often used in metaphoric or allegorical contexts and have played a significant role in the folkloric, literary and artistic traditions of many different cultures for centuries. I simply find the vast array of doors here aesthetically pleasing. Each is totally individual, they are not always beautiful, or in perfect condition, but they are certainly interesting, and each one offers an entrance into someone else’s life.

And so, to paraphrase Garry Winograd (thanks to Susan Sontag), I began to photograph them in order “to find out what [the doors] would look like photographed.”



Words and pictures by Isidore Tillers.