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Klaus Töpfer talks with Flussbad

The former federal minister about the Flussbad as a concrete utopia

In July 2015, we had the oppurtunity to talk with Klaus Töpfer about the FLussbad. He likes the project and gave us the advice to lead the way.

Klaus Töpfer und Jan Edler, June 2015

Jan Edler: Mr. Töpfer, when we asked you to do this interview, you said you had read about the Flussbad in the media and that you were following the project with an increasing level of sympathy. I perked up at the word "increasing". It implies that you might have been sceptical at first. How has your attitude towards the project changed over time?

Klaus Töpfer: Well, I didn't have a Saul/Paul experience, but allow me to mention something else; as Federal Minister for Regional Planning in the 1990s, I was responsible for the government's move from Bonn to Berlin. One of our essential tasks was to accommodate the ministries in Berlin, including the combined renovation and new construction of the Federal Foreign Office directly on the Spree Canal. When we sent out the tender for the new wing in 1995, I expected many creative minds to include the canal in their suggestions. But not one of them did. They all thought strictly in terms of buildings, rather than about the city or the water. This is amazing considering the sheer wealth of water in Berlin and its importance for the development of the city. The waterways have always played a decisive role, both in terms of economics and society. In this respect, I find the basic idea of reclaiming urban space with the help of the Flussbad project very meaningful. And it extends far beyond the question of whether we need a swimming pool in the area. In my opinion, a project such as this is necessary even if nobody ever ended up swimming there. The Flussbad idea of replacing the current canal wall with steps is fantastic in that it opens up the city to the water. 

JE: When you were Federal Minister for Regional Planning in the 1990s, what concrete steps did you take to include the Spree in your concepts?

KT: First of all, we wanted to avoid creating a federally managed "District of Columbia" like in Washington. Our motto was: Stay in the city, integrate into it, try to take up and work with its history. And that's what we did, quite reasonably I would say. And that's why we didn't build any completely new government buildings, with the exception of the Chancellery. And yet, one question kept coming up: How can we better integrate and use the city's waters? How can we make them more open and accessible? Swimming was the last thing we thought about. But Berlin has a wealth of rivers and lakes, especially in contrast to other major cities. All you have to do is fly over the city and you'll see right away: It's covered in water. Back then, we thought more about using the water for transportation. The ministries in Paris, for example, all have stops on the water. You can't get through the city by car, so you just take a boat. We don't have that in Berlin; even today, we go by car. Fortunately, we also use bikes more and more – and, of course, public transport. We could do a lot more in this area.

Charlotte Hopf: And yet, the idea of the Spree Canal as a transport route actually gets in the way. One problem involved with our intention to use the Spree Canal and the Kupfergraben locally and give them other functions is the fact that this stretch of water is a so-called Bundeswasserstraße, a federal waterway. Ships don't sail through there anymore, but several individuals take recourse to the federal designation to argue against installing the Flussbad and a filter system there. 

KT: That surprises me. A federal waterway is not an exclusive thing. I grew up in Höxter on the Weser River. When I was a child, it was only natural to go swimming in the water, even though it was also a federal waterway. And back then, in contrast to the Spree Canal today, there really were boats and rafts. We jumped in right next to the ships. Surely we could rededicate a section of the Spree for that.

JE: We have to ask the question as to whether it wouldn't be time to generally rethink our approach. We should be able to question the exclusivity of shipping. Rivers are first and foremost lifelines that we need to protect for ecological reasons. 

KT: As far as I'm concerned, this is precisely where the key significance of your project lies. It's also why I find the term "Flussbad" slightly restrictive. When you use that name, you invite counterarguments that focus very strongly on the swimming element, which is only one aspect of the project. And when you read the criticism lobbied by the General Director of the Prussian Cultural Foundation Hermann Parzinger at the project, you see that he takes it quite literally. 

JE: This kind of criticism focuses strongly on the supposed contrast between high culture – as found in museums and at the Humboldt Forum – and the everyday culture of the Flussbad. We prefer to set our sights on creating a sense of synergy in which both areas can connect and maybe even grow closer together.

KT: Your idea of putting a swimming area right next to Museum Island, of all places, already proves that you're interested in connecting these two worlds. As the temporary chairman of the Board of Trustees of the forthcoming Humboldt Forum, I was somewhat involved in the programming process, and I believe there should be a greater level of openness here. In other words, my recommendation would be to "lead the way". Any current concerns about the Flussbad mistakenly interpret certain aspects as being extreme that will never be extreme. Your task then is to resolve these concerns.

CH: It's true, the Flussbad raises a number of issues that are much larger and more important than the question as to whether people are going to be able to swim or not. 

KT: The first time I heard about the Flussbad, I was drawn mentally more to the idea of swimming and less to the idea of cleaning up the Spree. And yet, cleaning the Spree is just as exciting as swimming in it. And you should emphasize that. If you do, you would get those multiplicative effects.

JE: Do you take into account the fact that the Flussbad could help to fulfil the European Water Directive, i.e. that it could transform the river into one in "good condition"?

KT: No, not really. Directives like those aren't the eleventh commandment. In this context, I can only recommend that everyone read Pope Francis's Encyclicals "On Care for Our Common Home". It forges fundamental connections. It's all about respect for diversity, respect for creation. If people start approaching nature in this way again, it probably won't be because of water directives. That's why I see the Flussbad project first and foremost as a creative mission.

JE: We couldn't have said it better ourselves. 

KT: The key point is that we start seeing cities not as ecological casualties, but instead as assets. Throughout all debates, we were forced to realize that nature conservation areas are always considered as areas that have no economic use. And this is why it's so hard to achieve victories for nature conservation in cities where economic uses dominate. In other words, it's a good thing when we say that we have to start converting nature into value in urban areas.

JE: The entire project has ecological but also urban-policy components: It's all about a new connection to the river. The proximity to the Spree was lost in Berlin. People have lived separately from the river for a while now, literally with their backs to the water. Our goal is to include the Spree in the city again. There's no doubt that it would strengthen our consciousness for the quality of this city space. In turn, it would allow policymakers to actually tackle head-on the problem of water pollution as a result of overflowing sewers during heavy rainfall. At the moment, it is still incredibly difficult to get authorities to spend money to change this system.

CH: We have yet to truly comprehend what kind of fantastic change would occur if the Spree were clean. It is truly shameful that we – such a wealthy society, one permitted to live in such a highly developed manner – still treat our river like a toilet.

KT: I would argue that people are already thinking differently today. However, we are still far from our goal. Unfiltered substances from modern human life are still found in our sewage, in spite of a three-stage purification plant performing very well. These include pharmaceutical residues that have a negative impact on the reproductive systems of fish and snails; residues from birth control pills that causes the feminisation of fish; even antibiotics are a problem. Today, we can trace nano-particles all the way to the sea. In other words, it's ultimately about the question of how we better handle water as a resource.

JE: That brings us back to even more fundamental questions as to whether we should institute changes at the causal end or try to fight against the harmful effects of these causes.

KT: Based on my own experience, I would say that environmental policy has always been about the attempt to get away from the idea of solving problems at the end of the pipe. We have to start with the polluters. A sewage treatment plant, for example, is obviously at the end of the pipe. We always put too much trust in solving environmental problems using engineering after-the-fact, which is why we don't think long-term enough at the beginning of the process, i.e. at the cause. This brings us to the fact that we are living in the Anthropogenic Era, that is, in an era shaped by human beings. The fact is that we can only correct that which was false or thoughtless in the past. In this sense, our economic growth is running out; it involves merely the elimination of errors made in previous growth. But I don't really want to have a critical debate about the system.

JE: I consider it very important that we not talk about the Flussbad as if it's an isolated project.  I'm much more interested in the question: How does environmental policy take place? I have long associated the issue solely with negative images: The world is coming to an end, we can't change a thing, it's too late to change gears, the only thing that could help is a systematic change from above, etc. People feel helpless. Today, I know that we all must make a concrete contribution if we want things to change.

Barbara Schindler: Yes, we have to start with ourselves. That's what I like so much about the Flussbad Berlin. We can all get active by taking time to discuss the initiative and publicising the project in its diversity. 

KT: My sentiments exactly. Take the issue of Germany's big turn away from nuclear power: You could, of course, say it was caused by Fukushima. But there were people who had already long since recognized the necessity of developing alternatives. They were initially dismissed as crackpots. I'm thinking in particular of the SPD politician Hermann Scheer, who was active in the Bundestag. Only because of committed people like him was it possible – already back in 2002, long before Fukushima – to commit to a phasing-out of nuclear energy in Germany. Renewable energy sources stopped being mere visions and became more and more tangible realities. 

JE: When I spoke just now about "negative images", my intention was to go beyond the sheer potential of the Flussbad. In other words, the project can create positive images and thus help to push something through. 

KT: It is certainly important to keep the larger context in mind. But you also need to show that the Flussbad can actually be realized. I think it's great to concretely implement such an idea, not just to design it on paper. This is why I was delighted to hear that the Flussbad Idea had received a Holcim Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2011. Fantastic.

JE: That award was certainly a decisive boost for our project. Plus the fact that the award came from Switzerland. That was the point at which we were able to engage in a broader debate in Berlin. It was very important. As you just mentioned, it's all about making a concrete start and thus proving the added value of the project in practice. Holcim places great importance on the fact that the winning projects be close to reality, with a real chance of actually getting made…

KT: They acknowledge projects that help to launch social discussions. Ones that are outside what we would usually think about. This supports my argument that we should first prove the opportunities a project offers, instead of working towards the grand overall solution and saying "we'll start only when we find the perfect solution". I find it much better to say: Let's get this project started and then we'll be able to see pretty quickly what kind of urban quality we can gain from it. In other words, don't start with the big question of whether all federal waterways need to be decommissioned. That won't get us anywhere.

BS: How did you put your vision into practice?

KT: It's good to have visions. And yet, Helmut Schmidt put his finger on it when he described the associated dangers: "Anyone who has visions should see a doctor". He was warning us that grand visions can be misused as an alibi for not taking concrete action. I agree with the philosopher Ernst Bloch who distinguished between abstract and concrete utopias. The abstract utopia is far from actual behaviour, while the concrete utopia faces reality. Building blocks such as the Flussbad represent a concrete utopia. It's all about the question: What do we want to do with the city in the future? We know that we've landed in an urban millennium and that our living spaces are getting more compact, that our subject is urban density, that we need to mix functions such as work, recreation, culture, etc. But we still have decrees from a time when these different functions were not compatible in the city. Yet, they will become compatible again, and I consider that to be a major gain. Sometimes people say: When you can't solve a problem, make it bigger. With regard to the Flussbad, I would say you can solve it. You don't have to make it bigger. It's already a tasty morsel. A gem right in the middle of a reunified Berlin; in the middle of all those developments driven by use-based priorities. You should be very proud of your work. Congratulations.

CH: Thank you. That's a great note to end on. 

JE: But one more thing; in 1988, you lost a bet and had to dive into the Rhine. What do we have to do to get you to swim in the Spree? We would of course provide for a red bathing cap.

KT: In a democratic system, every politician has to have some sort of screw loose. Some wear captain's caps, some smoke cigars, some have imposing eyebrows and some have pear-shaped heads. You have to be able to be made into a caricature. 

JE: But the photo of your dive is fantastic!

KT: Sure, it's my discernible quirk. 

JE: For me, it was one of the first pictures that stuck in my political consciousness. It was a very strong image. In this regard, I'm very grateful that we were able to talk to you today. 

KT: That's wonderful. Keep up the good work.

Klaus Töpfer spoke to Jan Edler, Charlotte Hopf and Barbara Schindler.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer (CDU) was born in1938 and helped introduce active environmental policy in Germany as its first Minister of Environment in the 1980s. One decade later, as Minister of Regional Planning, he helped design the new federal capital of Berlin. From 1998 to 2006, he was also Executive Director of the Environmental Programe of the United Nations (UNEP). From 2010 to 2014, he was Chairman of the Trustees of the Stiftung Berliner Schloss – Humboldt Forum. Until September 2015, he was also Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam.