Perec and Benjamin visit Lübeck

Arriving with the spring, Walter Benjamin and Georges Perec decided to visit Lübeck. This city, that was before the capital of the Hanseatic League and an important commercial enclave for more than four centuries, is nowadays a sleepy conglomerate of elements where nothing seems to occur. Although Lübeck is the most prominent German port over the Baltic sea, and there are also some other companies in town, the city has the shape of a commuter town.

If I have to define Lübeck, in terms of my current piece of research, I could say that Lübeck is the antithetical of Times Square. Lübeck is a city that decided to make a pause and to grow slow. This is a place where the past can be traced through its architecture and its way of living. For instance, and with the aim of making a correlation, let’s focus on three aspects of Lübeck and compare it with Times Square:

(1) the downtown of Lübeck is an old assembly of medieval houses and small business surrounded by a big mosaic of suburban neighborhoods, nature and rural areas; Times Square, on the other hand, is a place full of skyscrapers, and commercial activity shaped by big corporations, and global brands.

(2) Lübeck, with a more significant area than Times Square, has around 216.712 inhabitants; in a typical day in Times Square, an average of 330.000 people pass through. In a busy day, the number increases in 460.000.

(3) The rhythms of life in Lübeck are quieter than in the Square. Times Square is always up any day of the year. Meanwhile, most of the commerce in Lübeck is closing around 8 pm. Two hours later there is almost nobody outside. Some bars and restaurants are still open until late, but in general terms, everything is closed. On Sundays, practically all business remain closed, but that is a national rule.

The peaceful environment of gothic edifications and small streets enclosed by two rivers, its nature, and a fascinating history made Lübeck an attractive tourist spot. Hundreds of people use to visit the city every year, and many locals perceive this activity as a lifesaver for their community economy. But the reasons why Benjamin and Perec decided to go to Lübeck are entirely different.

It turns that Lübeck is a challenge. Exhausting a place in Paris (Perec, 2010), creating portraits of Berlin, Naples, Paris or Moscow (Benjamin, 1979) resulted in being an easy activity. I mean, those are cosmopolitan and full of life places where everything could happen, but Lübeck is the opposite. That is why this northern German city is the perfect field-site for conducting some methodological experiments about how to decompose and how to describe the urban life where, apparently, nothing happens outside.

Through the observation of three specific places (the waterfront around the bridge Liebesbrücke over An der Obertrave street; the pedestrian mall in front of the town hall and between the roads Hüxstraße and Fleischhauerstraße; the Eastern part of Holstentorplatz.) and its posterior disassembling process, their idea was creating a collection of stories to compose three urban palimpsests, one per location.

Perec’s technique of decomposing a location and Benjamin’s construction of vignettes are mixed in a methodological strategy for unraveling the urban as much is it possible. Among other things, their questions during this visit are related to a simple issue regarding whether a place where apparently nothing occurs can be rebuilt in a nonlinear and disruptive narrative way until exhaust it.

Every two weeks one of those places above mentioned will be assembled and disassembled aiming to establish a continuous dialogue with some transversal queries related to the urban as a way to understand our current way of living together. The method of presenting those findings is the elaboration of urban palimpsests. Those palimpsests are special artifacts for capturing, representing and reproducing a stabilized reality through a set of heterogeneous descriptions.

Some of the queries that will be on circulation during the construction of those artifacts are: What is the urban? Is the urban la textual resource for talking about everything that is not rural? Is it a discursive device produced by a spatialized modernity? Is the urban an attitude or a specific kind of relationship? Where is the urban located?

Without a doubt, Lübeck will be the departure point for launching a discussion like this one that cannot be reduced only to the description of three specific random places. The creation of artifacts about localized sites results to be more a resource for approaching the reality and the urban phenomena than a proposal for a general theory about anything. Perec and Benjamin are going to Lübeck for untying the urban in a mixed story of materialities, different spaces and temporal stabilizations.