The biggest cliché regarding Cologne – i.e. that it is an ugly city with a big church at its centre, but that its people are warm and friendly – is not all that far from the truth. Anyone who comes here expecting to see quaint half-timbered houses or the kind of wide roads built during the great economic upswing of the mid-19th century will be sorely disappointed to find tiled houses and narrow streets filled with parked cars. Having said that, the tiles do have a certain charm and, in their own way, can be said to be little architectural works of art. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it turns out you can judge a house by its façade! If you’re still in two minds, take a look at the @kachelsofkoeln (tiles of Cologne) Instagram profile and marvel at all the mix-and-match colours, façades and street art. And if you travel on the underground in Cologne, you will appreciate the sheer variety of tile patterns in the various tram stations – to the point that each one can be recognised even before its name comes into view.
So it’s often worth taking a closer look. Not just at the walls of Cologne’s buildings but at many areas of the city, which still has its own endearing aesthetic. And after all, this “closer look” is what our magazine is all about.
Take the art scene, for instance. Cologne has been one of the epicentres of the international art world since the 1950s. And no one embodies this better than Gerhard Richter, who lives in the south of the city. With his photo-paintings and collaborations, he shaped post-war German art as well as being hugely successful on a commercial level, his works fetching some of the highest prices of any of this period. Art Cologne, for instance, is still committed to this legacy, focusing as it does on the modern art trade. However, a young scene has been developing in the shadow of this longstanding art tradition for quite some time now – a scene that is interested in a different approach to art. It comes together in small art rooms and galleries, which themselves are every bit as interesting as the artists who exhibit there.
Broad access to art, from collages to music videos, is the order of the day here. And the scene is also involved in city politics, organising anti-racist events or lending its voice to urban planning debates, for example.
In other words, the art scene is a prime example of something that affects Cologne as a whole. In many cases, the city is associated so strongly with one thing that it obscures everything else that is happening. For instance, the electronic music scene is afforded far less media coverage than it was during the “Sound of Cologne” era in the 1990s, even though it covers a broader stylistic palette today. And director Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay’s take on Cologne is every bit as interesting as what Rainer Werner Fassbinder captured on celluloid back in the 1970s.
And then there is Cologne’s start-up scene and its growing influence on the local economy. While the tech giants prefer to base their headquarters in Berlin or Hamburg, many start-ups have set up in Cologne with a view to serving mid-size companies or the local insurance scene, right in the heart of Rhineland capitalism – hardly a glamorous claim to fame. This is only half the story, though. After all, a new start-up centre – The Ship – also serves as a hub for New Work and tech, something that you really wouldn’t expect to find in the unassuming surroundings of Cologne-Bickendorf.
And how about the famous warmth and friendliness of the locals? This is one cliché that can actually be taken at face value. In a place where people in their 30s and 40s are still addressed as “young man” or “young lady”, it’s hard to imagine anything else!