Open-air cinema in the summer, ice skating rink in the winter, art along the escalators: once an area best avoided, Ebertplatz – located halfway between Agnesviertel and Eigelstein – has emerged in recent years as a flagship project for future urban development. Policymakers have now decided to green-light an elaborate plan for remodelling the square in the northern city centre and to decide on how it is to be used.
Since 2009, the masterplan for Cologne has involved raising Ebertplatz to ground level. However, officials are now looking at whether the striking underground concrete passage can also be retained – even though many people attribute the deterioration of the square to its Brutalist architecture.
Unveiled in 1977 as part of the ‘car-friendly city’ concept, the square was already falling into disrepair by the late 1990s and the city did next to nothing to stop the rot. It was only in autumn 2017, when a young man died in altercations between drug dealers, that a spotlight was shone on Ebertplatz again – revealing it as a ‘no-go area’ and an ‘eyesore’.
However, the square has gone from strength to strength ever since artists and gallery owners began to rent the vacant retail spaces in the mid-noughties. This marked the beginning of the ‘interim use concept’, with concerts being held, art installations displayed on the defective escalators and a shipping container serving up drinks and snacks on the square itself. But the most important move of all was having the fountain repaired. Now that water is flowing from the ‘water kinetic sculpture’ in the centre of the square again, Ebertplatz has become a popular meeting place, which attracts visitors from all over the city.
However, local people really needed to pull out all the stops to ensure that music, dancing and a café were returned to Ebertplatz. Various working groups focusing on greenery, participation and other issues came together under the banner ‘Unser Ebertplatz’ (Our Ebertplatz). This includes the art spaces in the underground passageway and the Alte Feuerwache community centre, which offers a wide range of activities for children and young people. The Cultural department sponsors music, art and literature, while representatives from social agencies, policymakers and the police come together in the Social working group.
The Labor gallery (which means laboratory, not labour!) has been located in the Ebertplatz passage since 2005. One of its exhibitions – ‘Nutzen und Putzen’ (Use & Clean) – presents various plans for the remodelling, including a ‘green archipelago’, a market hall in the middle of the square and a concept for using the passage as an art gallery. “After ten or fifteen years, you can’t call it ‘interim usage’ anymore – it’s usage, plain and simple,” says Meryem Erkus, whose Gold + Beton art gallery has been based there since 2013. The artists were always adamant about retaining the space – not only as a city-centre location for non-commercial art but also as a means of preserving Brutalist concrete architecture. They feel that the square has a truly unique quality and that its problems cannot be resolved by remodelling it, but only through social work.
“Needless to say, the square can’t stay the way it is – the disadvantages are plain to see,” says local architect Thomas Knüvener, who organised a series of discussions about Ebertplatz. He stresses that everyone was largely in agreement on one point: “the need to keep the current, two-level square and further develop its potential.” These days, simply tearing down a massive, intact concrete construction is a non-starter for environmental reasons. The ground-level variant now appears outdated for various reasons. With Ebertplatz, Cologne has the chance to create a unique landmark – a kind of three-dimensional square with an ‘underground’ building. As Thomas Knüvener points out: “It could be an ideal place for the local art scene to flourish”.
(by Anne Meyer and Christian Werthschulte)