Interview with Alex Rühle “The city no longer belongs to us”

“A good city is a city of inclusion”: Alex Rühle in his rear courtyard in Munich
“A good city is a city of inclusion”: Alex Rühle in his rear courtyard in Munich | Photo: Lisa Demetz

There are times when Alex Rühle feels like an outsider in his own city. In our interview, the journalist, who draws attention to flawed housing policies with his Goldgrund Immobilien Organisation, explains why this sometimes involves making a monkey of yourself.

Mr Rühle, you are a co-founder of the Goldgrund Immobilien Organisation. Isn’t it unusual for an editor of a newspaper arts section to get into the big real estate business?

Why? A second mainstay could never hurt in this expensive city. But seriously, Goldgrund is, of course, just a fictional company. We created it to draw attention to the flawed housing policies in Munich. Not in the usual way, but using guerrilla actions, like pirates. You capture something and disappear before the police arrive. You catch the others off-guard with an action that is good and constructive. For example, wearing ape masks, we renovated a flat that the city wanted to demolish.

At present, Goldgrund is establishing the refugee project Bellevue di Monaco with other initiatives. What’s it all about?

We want to receive refugees who come to Munich as guests. More and more refugees will be coming to Germany in future and we are already faced with the question of how we will deal with these people. Just recently, the social affairs officer of the Munich City Council projected a chart on the wall containing the anticipated numbers of refugees for 2015 and the number of planned accommodations. Starting in March, the two curves deviate drastically. The city doesn’t know what to do. Bellevue di Monaco wants to convey the message that these refugees are our guests and we intend to take care of them. Bellevue is supposed to be built in the heart of the city on Müllerstrasse, the same street that we held our guerrilla action. It should be not only respectable refugee housing, but also a place for the people of Munich where there can be a dialogue about urgent topics such as flight, migration and the immigration society. There will be rooms for cultural activities, a day care centre and a carpentry workshop. Of course, it would also be nice to have a café where you can try a different national cuisine every day: Somalian, Afghan, etc. And the people who work there would get vocational training.

You lived and worked for six months without the Internet or a smart phone. Is civic involvement at all possible nowadays in offline mode?

What we are doing with Goldgrund and Bellevue is initially offline. Though we did have a widespread impact for Goldgrund, for instance, with the ape mask video that spread on the Internet. That made an impact in the city because it was funny and elegantly packed a week’s worth of hard work into three minutes. You have to skilfully take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Internet and combine them with offline actions. A friend of mine is looking after three Syrian families in Ebenhausen. At first, she tried to communicate with them using an online dictionary. The result was that the person she was speaking with broke out in tears when she said in Syrian, “Now we’re going to jail.” She meant to say, “Now we’re going to town hall.” This friend then asked me whether I know an interpreter. I tweeted her question, countless people shared my tweet, and we were able to find help very quickly.

Do you already have ideas for new Goldgrund actions?

We do have ideas for new actions but I can’t tell you about them or they wouldn’t be surprises.

With Goldgrund, you took speculators on a city bus tour to draw attention to the real estate madness in Munich. Who does a city like Munich belong to nowadays?

It should belong to us, its so-called citizens. The city ought to be a public space in which we can meet one another and that we shape together. But in reality, it no longer belongs to us, but more and more to investors. I live here in Munich near Roecklplatz where Rodenstock used to have its headquarters. They could have done lots of great things with the company site, but now a sort of apartment bunker is being built there, ugly and monotonous. The architecture is so forbidding and closed off that the effect is one of a gated community. Properties like this advertise using the special surroundings and flair, and tap the urban space without giving anything back to it. The Bavarian constitution states that profits from increased land value must belong to the general public. But they don’t.

For Urban Places – Public Spaces, a project by the Goethe-Institut and the Münchner Kammerspiele, representatives from Istanbul, São Paulo, Madrid, New York City, Rotterdam, Johannesburg and Munich are discussing cities via live streaming. You are on the podium in Munich. What are your hopes for the conference?

Of course, the aim would be to unite the cities in a discussion that would reveal parallels between them. Ultimately, these events centre around involvement: What can an individual do to bring about change? They all have similar frustrations. When apathy evolves in the population with the attitude, “I have a job and otherwise I go out now and then to play football or go to yoga class,” that’s simply fatal. For me, it’s very motivating to meet others who actually have far fewer options for growth and live in a far more repressive system and yet still manage to network with one another.

You and twelve other writers published a series of articles in the SZ called “Megacitys – the future of cities.” Reading the stories from São Paulo or Cairo do make one a bit uneasy. Do you really believe there is a future for cities?

Cities are not going to disappear; they will grow even bigger. The negative trends are even crasser in rural areas: people move to Mumbai because they would starve in the country. Agriculture is dominated by Monsanto with its monopoly on fertilizer and seeds; simple farmers don’t have a chance anymore. In developing countries, people don’t move to the cities voluntarily – just because it’s the latest fad – but because they see hope there of making ends meet for their families.

So, what would a good city be like?

A good city is a city of inclusion, where no group feels like outsiders. The attacks in Paris, for example, are basically stories of failure. For me, terrorism is a way of searching for acceptance. Of course, there are also psychological explanations for these incidents, but if we try to explain it based on the city, these attackers are outsiders. A city has to try and include all groups of the population.

When does a city become home for you personally?

I was born in Munich and have lived in Berlin and Paris. The most important thing to make me feel at home is having friends. Munich is definitely my home; my roots are here. I rode my bike down this street when I was twelve years old. But there are times when gentrification makes you feel like a stranger. More and more shops are opening that you don’t know what to do with. Of course, a city is always a sort of recirculation pump; it has to have amnesia, it has to renew itself. I felt very at home in Berlin of the 1990s, in a city that was completely reinventing itself. At that time, it suited my life as a student; a time when you are also reinventing yourself. I could never imagine living in a smaller town with little intercultural input. For me, this influx of otherness is important in a home.

The questions were asked by Lisa Demetz.
Alex Rühle, who was born in Munich in 1969, has been an editor of the arts and culture section of the Süddeutsche Zeitung since 2001. In the summer of 2012, he founded the Goldgrund Immobilien Organisation together with Till Hofmann from the Münchner Lustpielhaus and Christian Ganzer from the Lach- und Schießgesellschaft, two cabaret theatres. The fictional international prime property developer made headlines with a provoking gag, the luxury construction project L’Arche de Munich on the city square Münchner Freiheit. Alex Rühle is presently involved in the refugee project Bellevue di Monaco.