Tenants Turning into Trees, or: The Leaves Are on Fire
KIOSK commissioned a text to the Brussels & Hamburg-based artist Christiane Blattmann.
I was an age when I wanted anything but to spend Sunday afternoons joining my parents on their free-time activities—around thirteen or fourteen years old—when one Sunday they decided I should be shown the place where they were living when I was born. My teenage self could not have cared less. We drove to the east of Stuttgart, a neighborhood called Ostheim—"east home,” literally translated. It was built as a worker’s housing estate in the late nineteenth century, at the height of the area’s industrialization. Similar to a city such as London, for example, the proletarian neighborhoods were located in the east of the city, as the west wind would generally take the fumes of the new factories eastwards.
My parents walked me through the site, completely built from bricks of various shades of rusty red, burnt sienna, and flaming orange to dark coral. The two of them started to indulge in nostalgia. The whole neighborhood was created through the repetition of only three or four modular types, but every single house, they explained, has slightly different features: a variation in the brick pattern or different types of roof or window shape. These lowest-income tenants were, in this way, supposed to feel that their house was unique. They were not supposed to feel treated like a mass, but as individuals. My stubborn teenage resistance melted and I felt a sense of pride. This did indeed seem special. Besides, the houses looked pretty much like city mansions, but in tiny form – promising much more prosperity from the outside than would likely be found inside.
Making no secret out of their economic situation were Philemon and Baucis, a mythological couple described by Ovid. Let’s actually call them Baucis and Philemon—old ladies first. In shedding light on their humble lives, the story begins when they are already quite advanced in age. All during their happy marriage they have lived in the same modest hut, bearing their poverty with a light heart and without grumbling. Ovid describes the household thus: For master, or for servant here to call / Was all alike, where only two were all. But late one day their routine cracks, when the gods Jupiter and Mercury appear in the area, on the road rather late in the day. They knock on every door they come to, asking for shelter for the night. Everybody sends them away except for old Baucis and Philemon. They are generous and gentle hosts, as kind with strangers as they are with each other. While all they can offer is a meager meal, the elderly couple are shocked to realize that gods are their guests when they see the wine jug refilling itself again and again.
After dinner they are led to the top of a nearby hill and realize that not only the houses but the whole area has sunk into mud; only their tiny hut has been spared. And now, in front of their eyes, it transforms into a splendid temple. Asked for a wish that would be granted to them, Baucis and Philemon choose to serve as priests to both gods in the new temple. And after a little consulting with each other, they request in addition: since they have spent their whole life in unity, they would like to die at the same hour. Neither wants to be looking into the other’s grave. The wish is granted.
One day Baucis, very weak from age and standing on the steps outside the temple, saw that leaves were growing from her husband’s fingers; looking down at her own hands, she saw that the same was happening to her too. As they both turned into trees, they bid each other farewell.
If it wasn’t for the tree part, it seems to me that this myth could well belong to the story-realm of the Christian Bible, for the values represented in it. But why do Baucis and Philemon have to live in a temple at the end? I agree that the reward is more than deserved, but its type seems to suggest another moral: wealth as an ultimate goal. Why not offer the old couple—and others—a home that’s moderate in size and comfortable in style?
I am reminded of the “–heim” in Ostheim, and of how that suffix is used when talking about Altersheim (retirement home), Asylbewerberheim (refugee center), Studentenwohnheim (student’s dormitory), and Kinderheim (children’s home). All of these make my stomach uneasy. Most of these xxx-homes are places in which people are simultaneously put to dwell and handily stored a little out of sight, in special containers. The label signifies the home of a family—family in the classic ideal of the nineteenth and twentieth century—but this is a euphemism, because all these places are home to residents who are a rupture in the perfect image of a family. I look up “Asylbewerberheim,” thinking it’s probably already an outdated term, as it makes me think of the 1990s. Wiktionary gives me as the only example sentence: “ Es war jene Zeit in Deutschland, in der zuerst Asylbewerberheime und später Menschen brannten.” ‘ (It was the time when in Germany, refugee centers were burning first, and then humans.) ??? I am shocked—and not shocked, as I had a similar association; but still, what a brutal explanation for a dictionary page. I agree with Wiktionary—the word makes me think of fires and violent devastation. I am checking other online dictionaries. They agree too.
In the early 1990s, Germany saw a dreadful series of arson attacks on refugee homes. Accumulating between 1991 and 1996, direct verbal and physical crimes against refugees, refugee accommodations, and facilities for asylum seekers revealed brazen xenophobic, anti-foreign, right-wing extremist, fascist, and racist motives. The fact that usage of the word “Asylbewerberheim” evokes the 1990s by no means indicates that in later years there were no more attacks. Just in the way Wiktionary has its particular associations, the names of cities where these fires took place still have the sound of violence to them today, rather than that of a geographical site. Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Solingen. Mölln. Hoyerswerda—and many, many more. The attacks were committed during an icy political climate in Germany, and chancellor Helmut Kohl refused to attend any of the victims’ funerals—the government spokesperson stated he did not want to lapse into “pity tourism.”
It’s clear now that many places that have a “-heim” in their name suggest anything but a home. Not the case with Ostheim. Like many other state-subsidized estates built before World War II for social groups that cannot meet their housing needs on the free market, much of it has become private property—it’s a very popular area and the architecture itself is thought of as attractive. It was no longer too precarious when my parents lived there as students, but now it is expensive.
I have taken some walks in recent months, as this story kept roaming around in my head. I was curious to see what affordable housing would look like today; examples where low-income tenants would tell their kids later they are really proud to have lived there. For a while I really couldn’t find any happy affordable housing around where I live or work. It made me question whether the current political practice of failing to provide housing for everyone is in line with the Christian worldview that arguably shaped Europe's foundations, in which the poor are supposed to count as the richest in terms of credits in the face of God. Why, I wondered, would we not turn the case on its head and commission the best architects and planners, who at the moment are busy with football stadiums and high rises, to create subsidized apartments where a lot of people can grow with the quality of design that shelters them, or simply feel good in there. With a bigger part of demographics shifting into precariousness at full speed, or rather with the institutionalization of precarity, the housing situation of many does not look all that bright. So why not make small to medium-sized apartments amazing?
While I was walking around, the first thing that caught my eye was in Schaerbeek, one of the municipalities of Brussels: an Art Nouveau building, that, I later found out, was built as social housing in 1899 by architect Henri Jacobs. Four horizontal fields divide the brick facade in line with the stories behind them, carrying sgraffiti of bold letters translating from French as: “BE ACTIVE,” “BE CLEAN,” “BE ECONOMIC,” “FOR ALL.” This left me baffled, and I couldn’t help imagining a luxurious mansion decorated with enormous letters spelling “BE GENEROUS” on its walls. Mirrored here on its right-hand side, so the building stretches out over four vertically divided facades, the same advice is offered in Flemish.
In my conception of public homes, it is odd that they would come with a moral. While gazing at the sgraffiti on the facade and pondering the idea of amazing architecture for precarious inhabitants, I slowly realized that I was standing in a place where people once were busy working on this very idea. In the beginnings of Art Nouveau architecture, here in Schaerbeek, in the early 1900s, a socialist government was fostering Art Nouveau as new style for public buildings—schools, kindergartens, tenements—that would contribute to the education of the public, similar to ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement. The floral ornaments that decorated facades and interiors were thought to be accessible regardless of one’s level of education—nature being of equal interest to all parts of society. Employing new materials and techniques, planners sought to use industrial progress for the benefit of workers who otherwise suffered from such developments and who were living in unspeakably inhumane conditions. Nonetheless, this alleged care has to be considered also as a means of increasing the presence of healthy, clean and diligent bodies to raise the productiveness of labor—a very straightforward goal for the industrialized system itself.
The Art Nouveau examples are comparable, for instance, to later Bauhaus attempts to use innovations in design and technology to create affordable housing, which coincided in Germany with an effort by the state to fund public domiciles during the late 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. While most Art Nouveau architects turned toward clients who could offer commissions for private mansions, the use of intelligent design to solve the tough challenge of how to create housing for everyone was at the core of the Bauhaus movement.
Henri Jacob’s complex—Rue Victor Hugo 53–59, where I am currently standing—was completed as one of the first projects of Le Foyer Schaerbekois, a society for the creation and management of decent housing for the underprivileged populations of the commune. Today every commune of Brussels has its “foyer.” I am confused about the meaning of this word. It makes me think of a fireplace or hotel lobby. Linked to a society that creates shelter, I imagine standing around a burn barrel at night, everyone in the circle wearing gloves with fingers cut off. I consult a native speaker. My friend Simon tells me that “foyer” is indeed a very multifaceted term. It can mean hearth, it can be combined with other words to indicate the epicenter of something that’s smoldering, like “foyer d’incendie”—literally the fire pit, the place where a fire begins, but also “foyer d’infection” for example—the epicenter of an infection. Besides, the word describes any place of gathering, possibly with a social connotation, so in a way it is very close to “-home.” Only if you carry the word to a wealthy house, Simon says, would it only designate the fireplace.
In a parallel street behind the “BE CLEAN” building, I found a contemporary complex that looks like it offers affordable housing—but no aesthetic pleasure. Only some splashes of color hiding behind a fence at the entrance where someone painted a huge graffiti of animals piled on each other’s backs: giraffe on rhino, rhino on elephant, elephant on crocodile—trying to reach the top of a hill, on which a monkey is already comfortably seated. Next to him the sentence: “TOUT EN HAUT”—“EVERYONE TO THE TOP.”
This animal pyramid reminded me of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the Town Musicians of Bremen. In this fable, a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster come together because, having served their masters for a lifetime, each of them had discovered that their humans intended to kill them as they aged so that they would be no extra burden or eater in the household. “Something better than death we can find anywhere,” they tell themselves, and in their new-gained independence the band of outcasts finds a better life indeed.
In a different German tale, the second volume of Goethe’s Faust, the mythological Baucis and Philemon make a brief but very, very sad appearance. Here we encounter the two through the eyes, not of gods, but of a wanderer who comes to their small run-down hut, this time placed on a coast. Again, shelter is being sought and it is generously granted by the old couple. They tell their guest that a landowner and entrepreneur (into whom the scholar Faust turns in the second volume) has bought all property as far as they eye can see, then reclaimed land from the sea all around their house—an activity not unlike that which the Dutch were already practicing when Goethe was writing, and currently undertaken by China or Dubai as they sculpt artificial landscapes won over from the water. Now that he has expanded his ownership of existing and newly created land, Faust tries to make Baucis and Philemon leave their lifelong home, as their hut blocks the tiny piece of land that he reckons would make the cherry on his pie. As he has already “mastered” the elements of the sea, two linden trees growing on Baucis’ and Philemon’s land seem to tease Faust extraordinarily to wage war here against these (natural) forces and subdue them. If the couple, resolutely defending their piece of land, their house and two trees, weren’t fictional, they could have been among the countryside people who found themselves on city streets at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, having lost common ground to enclosures like Faust’s and now forced to work in factories and needing a bed in the city. They probably would have been happy to move into a place like Ostheim.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t given up my search and still wondered why it was so hard to find any positive examples of budget dwelling that don’t date back to one hundred years ago or more, so I asked Olaf, an architecture journalist who has a studio close to mine. He was initially a bit clueless when I asked about contemporary public housing and then told me to not look for entire tenements, but instead for “mixed-use” projects, where subsidized apartments are sprinkled in between private property and middle-class tenants, possibly supplemented by kindergartens, doctors, or workshops. He mentioned such a new quarter nearby, one that has won numerous prizes. So I set out for another walk. I was greeted by a promising banner at the gate of the neighborhood, which was still under construction, but inside the few streets that form the estate, I saw a lot of fences, boring white-painted concrete, and very little green. Another disappointment. I took some walks to other recent apartment blocks, pointed out to me, but what I found was always very similar. The reality has nothing to do yet with the dystopian city planning of algorithm-based neighborhoods, but also no resemblance to utopic visions of living together. In the end I feel that my explorations may have failed simply because there might not be much to see: in countries like Germany and Belgium, state-subsidized apartments disappear from the market and hardly any are newly constructed. In Germany, the number of such apartments has halved over the past fifteen years. Affordable housing doesn’t always stay affordable; after a specific time period, subsidized apartments can often be freely rented or sold. It is different in Austria, Vienna in particular, where historically social housing is a high value of society and up to 60 percent of the population live in affordable residences that always stay property of the city. But Ostheim, for example, is now full of middle-class tenants.
On a sunny afternoon on my way home from the studio, I make a detour and come across a square named “Place de la Querelle.” Querelle means argument, quarrel, dispute. And I could definitely see a lot of querelle in progress in the square. The kids seemed not to like me getting my phone out and taking a picture, and I thought they were absolutely right. It’s pretty dense in these tiny streets of the Marolles district, a social hotspot since its beginnings. In medieval times, a quarter of weavers, it was deliberately excluded from the city walls, because the patricians feared riots from its poor population; one day the bourgeois neighbors, hearing rumors about a weavers’ plot, took arms and set the whole area on fire. Eventually the city walls moved and enclosed the Marolles, and in the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the area and made it home to factory workers. Last year in fall, when the impacts of the pandemic ruptured the social fabric and hit families’ living rooms, Querelle was boiling, especially its teenaged residents. Police were harsh and aggressive, and terrible tensions ensued that culminated in the kindergarten here in the square being set ablaze.
Unlike the Ovid version of the Baucis and Philemon story, in Goethe it is not the old couple that gets the reward of living in a temple but Faust, who as part of his cultivation works had a palace built, from where he controls the events. Mephistopheles, the demon who is at his side as both helper and manipulator, is finally tasked with solving the problem of the elderly people’s opposition:
Such wilful, obstinate resistance
so blights the acme of success
that, with intense regret and pain,
one has to tire of being just.
Why let yourself be bothered so by this?
You surely know, by now, how best to colonize.
So be it! Go and rid me of their presence—
It is no surprise that things can get out of hand when working with satanic assistants. Lynceus, the watchman, who reports to the reader from his tower, sees monstrous horror down below: between the trees, he sees flashing fire and sparks explode. It is obvious now that the humble cottage has burst into flames and while the watchman still hopes that Baucis and Philemon have not fallen victims to the fire, it finally becomes clear that they could not escape. The terrible disaster does not stop in front of the old linden trees either, and we hear that coiling flames with serpent tongues are gripping the treetops, and that even the roots are blazing with a scarlet glow.
On the internet, I come across a paragraph of the United Nations’ website called “The human right to adequate housing.” Housing is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. The centre of our social, emotional and sometimes economic lives, a home should be a sanctuary—a place to live in peace, security and dignity. Increasingly viewed as a commodity, housing is most importantly a human right. Under international law, to be adequately housed means having secure tenure—not having to worry about being evicted or having your home or lands taken away. Too often violations of the right to housing occur with impunity. In part, this is because, at the domestic level, housing is rarely treated as a human right.
The mention of sanctuary sticks with me, and all of a sudden I wonder: have I been taking the temple in Ovid’s Baucis and Philomen tale too literally? Maybe it wasn’t so much about a physical temple, but more about the emotional value of calling something a temple—a place one can live in without worrying that one will become unwanted, and, more than that, turn into a tree on the steps and become part of the environment, after having spent a life of happy dwelling.
Thank you to Jannis Marwitz, Simon Asencio, Olaf Winkler, Sophia Holst, nick von kleist, Piero Bisello, CIVA library and Simon Delobel.
1+2: Siedlung Ostheim, Neuffenstraße, Stuttgart
3: Sinibaldo Scorza, Landscape with Philemon and Baucis, ca 1620, National Galleries Scotland
4: Adam Elsheimer, Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis, ca 1908, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
5: Bernard Salomon, Philémon et Baucis (Métamorphose Lyon), 1557
6: Anonymous German, Philemon and Baucis changed into trees, 1582
7: Jean de La Fontaine, Philémon et Baucis, 1688
9: Graffiti, Tour Brunfaut, Molenbeek, Brussels
10+11: Rue Victor Hugo 53-59, Schaerbeek, Brussels
12: Facade, school by Henri Jacobs, Rue Josaphat 229, Schaerbeek, Brussels
13: Interior sgraffiti, school by Henri Jacobs, Rue Josaphat 229, Schaerbeek, Brussels
14: Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf, Berlin by Bruno Taut
15: Facade with sgraffiti, Rue du Foyer Schaerbeekois 2, Schaerbeek, Brussels
16: Graffiti behind a fence, Rue Louis Scutenaire 13, Schaerbeek, Brussels
17: Gerhard Marcks, Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten, 1953
18: George Cruikshank, The Waits of Bremen and the Borders, 1823
19: Chongqing Nail House, China
20: Tivoli GreenCity, Rue de Tivoli 23, Brussels
21: Tivoli GreenCity, Rue Andrée de Jongh 15, Brussels
22-23: Place de la Querelle, Brussels