Memory-Based Urban Planning: A Case for Memory Culture in German Military Conversion

by Julian Kramer

A city itself doesn’t remember its inhabitants, buildings, or events that have taken place in it. The physical entity of infrastructure and buildings can’t actively have memory. It needs its inhabitants to do the active work of remembering. At the same time, it is the material surroundings in a city that have the capacity to trigger or reinforce memories. Events, people, and social groups connected to the stones of a city can come back into a person’s mind just by passing certain places. As the city is a social space, memories are furthermore collectivized among all the individual memories of the city dwellers (Schwartz 2007). They create a collective memory that is shared and remembered as well as altered by individuals, but in any case, it is reflected in the urban environment (Halbwachs 1985).

While the city itself doesn’t remember, keeping remnants of historical events or previous social groups in urban renewal and conversion projects can help its inhabitants to do so. We need to create enough livable and affordable housing for our ever-expanding cities, but we should do so in a way close to citizens’ needs, for example also in terms of historical consciousness, instead of ivory tower planning approaches.

Picture 1: Gate of Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg-Südstadt, formerly ‘Großdeutschlandkaserne’ and later European NATO headquarters, which is going to be converted into a private medical school. Photo: J.Kramer, April 2021.

Especially in the context of the Second World War and Allied occupation, as well as Cold War stationing of British and American troops in Germany, cities do need to remember. The stones of the cities need to reflect their history and help citizens to keep their memory alive. This is especially vital in military conversion, but so far, memory has not yet been the focus in contemporary conversion planning. I am, therefore, proposing what I call ‘memory-based conversion.’ Drawing upon scholarship in memory and heritage studies, this a focus in military conversion manages to merge historical consciousness, memory as well as sustainable with future-proof urban development. Why that is vital for conversion planning is the central question of this story.

Military conversion, as a special case of brownfield conversion, has increased in importance drastically in Germany since the end of the Cold War. From 790,000 stationed foreign soldiers in 1989 numbers dropped to roughly 53,000 NATO troops by 2010, while the number of German troops was reduced as well. This means that more and more military areas formerly used by stationed troops are continuously vacated and can be re-used for civilian purposes. Professor Ernst-Rainer Hönes, an expert on heritage law, points out that none of the military housing areas built after 1945 have been destroyed in wars, only through conversion (Hönes 2019: 177). And more often than not, places disappear entirely in this process, says Uwe Wenzel of the Mark Twain Center for Transatlantic Relations, an exhibition space and public research organization located in the Keyes building of Heidelberg’s Weststadt, the former headquarter of the stationed US commanders-in-chief.

Brownfield conversion, the redevelopment of “unused or underused” (Umwelt Bundesamt 2014) land in inner-cities (as opposed to greenfield conversion), is nothing new for the city of Heidelberg. The romantic university town on the Neckar has successfully converted former freight rail grounds into Europe’s largest passive house settlement, Bahnstadt, and its former hospital was incorporated into the university campus in Bergheim. The large-scale military conversion that is currently underway can undoubtedly benefit from this expertise in the city but faces new pitfalls as well.

The arguments supporting a memory-based conversion range from a lack of protection in heritage protection laws and regional differences in their application, the importance of the built environment for the creation of places of memory, or lieux de mémoire, to the historical relevance of Allied military bases and housing areas, especially in their capacity of underlining the non-aggressive character of the deployment after the war. Yet, economic interests in urban planning and bureaucracy in returning these areas to the communities add to the need for a reinvention of conversion practices. Moreover, cities do not have to fear giving up their goals of sustainable, future-proof neighborhoods as the sustainable handling of memory can lead to conservation of grey energy that has been used to create the buildings in the first place. This could even result in more reasonable prices for renters as well. Finally, it can also benefit longtime residents of neighborhoods in proximity to the converted areas as value increases of property might also be limited to a minimum by reducing gentrifying processes.

All military conversion areas in Heidelberg combined encompass 180 hectares (Picture 2), which is 6% of the entire built-on area of the university town. They consist of two large housing areas, Patrick Henry Village outside of the city and Mark Twain Village in Südstadt, two administrational military installations, Patton and Campbell Barracks (Picture 1), a military hospital as well as an airfield and community service center. These areas have mostly been standing empty since troops withdrawals in 2012 and 2013.

Picture 2: Former American military areas in Heidelberg that are part of the conversion. 1: Campbell Barracks, 2: Mark Twain Village, 3: Patton Barracks, 4: Nachrichtenkaserne / Hospital, 5: Patrick Henry Village, 6: Heidelberg Airfield / Heliport, 7: Community Service Center. Map customized with ESRI ArcGIS online Quick Maps. Mapsource: Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS.

The American presence in the Rhine-Neckar region spans back to the Second World War when American forces occupied and freed Germany’s Southwest from the Nazi regime and stayed in the region to rebuild the country and transform it into a democratic nation. Developments in the Cold War and the escalation in the Korean war led the American army to stay and make Heidelberg one of its headquarters. While the American presence in German cities was received ambivalently, ranging from romantic relationships and lasting friendship in between GIs and locals to resistance and student protests, Heidelberg was home to up to 20,000 American troops including their dependents at the height of stationing, 16,000 of which lived in Patrick Henry Village.

The US and Allied history in Germany is also “German-American history,” as well as the history “of the development of Germany democracy […], [and] German Jazz”, says historian Uwe Wenzel. This is also due to the fact that American troops developed from being occupiers to becoming a protective force. Troops came with their families, underlining the non-militaristic character of the garrison after the Second World War. Heidelberg hosted American and NATO troops for over 65 years, and with the stationing of the NATO headquarters here in the 1990s, the university town became “the city of generals,” which furthermore underlined the importance of German-American relations in the region (Elkins, Montgomery, and Führer 2014).

This unique history warrants special handling of the memory that such military conversion sites bear in them. Pierre Nora and Maurice Halbwachs coined the terms of ‘lieux de mémoire’ and ‘collective memory’ (Halbwachs 1950). Synthesizing both theories and examining recent memory research by Jan (2011a) and Aleida Assmann (2010, 2019), it becomes apparent that collective memory, shared memory between social groups that is remembered by an individual, “crystallizes and secretes itself” in places that therefore become lieux de mémoire, places of memory (Nora 1989: 7). Halbwachs also makes the jump towards the urban aspect of collective memory, as he emphasizes the importance of the urban sphere in memory and Noraian lieux in cities.

This groundwork for memory-based conversion leads me to the argument that conversion needs to base all other planning steps on the collective memory and the capacity of creating and conserving lieux de mémoire. Non-sufficient cultural heritage laws in Germany as well as other foci in planning, which allegedly do not go in hand with a memory-based approach, lead to conversion planning that is mainly based on profit for the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (BImA), and therefore the federal government, as well as the “sale, destruction, and rebuilding of existing structures” (Hönes 2019: 177), while this memory could help to establish a common identity to – literally – build upon. All military areas in Germany are given back to the federal government once they have been vacated by the stationed troops. The government, in form of BImA, re-gains possession of these areas and can sell them to the highest bidder to make a profit. The cities these plots are located in can also buy the former military areas from BImA for a fixed price, but most cities do not have the financial means to buy these areas at once. The resulting delays in conversion and the power to increase prices in sales to investors make BImA a hindrance for memory-based conversion, as the agency manages and sells the conversion areas for profit, not with their capacity to be sites of memory in mind.

A discourse on memory-based conversion is, therefore, more crucial than ever. Due to the lack of protection through heritage conservation laws, organizational pitfalls in the return of formerly military used areas to the cities, economic interests of investors, and the particular historical and architectural relevance of housing areas, more former garrison cities need to follow through with memory-based conversion and put an emphasis on the historical significance of the remnants of Allied presence. This is also the case because these garrisons often fall below “the threshold of [their] significance for a monument’” (Blokker, Enss, and Herold 2021: 131) as heritage protection laws in Germany are codified in state laws in which protection reasons differ significantly between states. Baden Wurrtemberg’s heritage law only protects cultural heritage on the basis of scientific or artistic reasons (§2 (1) DschG BW: 2017). And the third reason, the importance of buildings due to local history, is by itself usually not enough to put sites under heritage protection, according to Thomas Apfel of Heidelberg’s heritage protection agency. Therefore, mainly the Nazi remnants of Heidelberg’s Campbell Barracks as well as the American built chapels are protected for their architecture; the American housing areas are not. Other states, such as Berlin or Hesse, also protect heritage due to its distinctions in urban planning, a reason certainly important for Allied housing areas that reflect the American architecture in the post-war climate of predominantly Nazi architecture (Hönes 2019).

In heritage conservation scholarship, the importance of the protection of conversion areas is already critically discussed. Johanna Blokker at the department of heritage sciences at Uni Bamberg says that “heritage protection needs to act more like investors and take risks” (2016: 110), while Ernst-Rainer Hönes finds it “shameful that former Allied military and housing areas were destroyed more thoroughly than Cartago was by the Romans” (2019: 175).

Such discussions are also part of Mannheim’s conversion projects – military areas that belonged to the Heidelberg headquarters but are already further in development. Konrad Hummel, former conversion representative for the city of Mannheim, responds to the cliché that existing American housing areas would be “garbage; monotonous; dull! Demolish and rebuild everything!” that conversion would mean to build on the basis of existing structures as “we don’t want a space void of history here.” Dutch star architect Winy Maas, who was involved in the planning in Mannheim, points to the immediate symbolism of planning on such conversion areas and advocates for brave and exemplary planning to achieve a neighborhood that lives from the overlay of history.  While such an overlay would be a basis for collective memory, it would also create a common identity in the realm of the history these places carry with them.

Heidelberg residents fear that the current conversion located in the Südstadt area of town could result in a “second Bahnstadt,” as Reinhard Henkel of the neighborhood club states, the newest neighborhoods which is seen critically in the city for its soulless and sober drawing-board-architecture and high prices. This critique on current standards in conversion planning is also visible in the naming contest for Patrick Henry Village of Rhein Neckar Zeitung. One reader suggests the name “privileged hipster suburb,” which even abbreviates to PHV in German. This and other ironically connotated names showcase the fears of the population of high prices in the newly developing neighborhoods. Moreover, The Left, a democratic socialist party, in Heidelberg’s city council argues in favor of keeping as much of the existing buildings as possible in order to keep rents and prices down. Similar disconnects of public opinion and the plans for the conversion areas become apparent in Mannheim’s FRANKLIN, as the city council states dissatisfaction with plans for high-rise buildings in the neighborhood, as such an urban planning predicament would not be accepted by the locals around the conversion areas. Nonetheless, these buildings are currently under construction.

Conversion plans in Heidelberg’s Patrick Henry Village would result in 73% of its existing buildings being demolished. Mark Twain Village sees similar losses. The heritage-protected buildings of the German Wehrmacht at Campbell and the Hospital will stay but might rather create a lieu de mémoire for the Second World War and the Nazi past in Heidelberg in the future and the memory of the American presence in Heidelberg will wane, as Thomas Apfel of the city’s heritage protection agency predicts.

Cultural institutions in Heidelberg like Karlstorbahnhof, Metropolink, or Mark Twain Center try to diminish the loss of recent history in Heidelberg. The re-use of the Commissary on PHV or the Huebner Center in the horse stables at Campbell in accordance with heritage protection, both signify a way to renew conversion areas and keep most of its previous aura intact at the same time. This could have been done for more areas, including housing areas, especially with buildings in Mark Twain Village and Patrick Henry Village, as Mike Montgomery, formerly employed as a civil engineer with the US Army, told me in an interview in March this year. These housing areas would have been in good conditions and frequently renovated during the American presence and could have been used for German residents as they were left by the Allied troops. This was only done in parts of Mark Twain Village but could have been expanded to many more buildings there as well as in Patrick Henry Village. Ultimately, the fear of gentrification of adjacent neighborhoods and very high entry rents for the areas themselves could be solved with a focus on keeping and converting existing structures, as seen on the eastern side of Römerstraße (Picture 3) and the student dorms in Holbeinring, for example. This approach could be applied to many other cases.

Picture 3: Residential house east of Römerstraße, converted into civilian use in the original American structure. Photo: J.Kramer, October 2021.

A memory-based approach to conversion would include only a very selective demolishing of existing structures on conversion areas. In such an approach, only if no use for the structure or no historical connection to the military presence on the respective base is found, buildings would be demolished and rebuilt. In some respects, this could also extend to typical, for example American, floor plans of housing structures in garrisons, therefore showcasing even more of the history and reminding their new inhabitants of the past of their homes. These remnants can then be a basis for community building in a newly created neighborhood that is aware of its history and origins, while also creating new spaces and opportunities for development and housing. Indeed, this can be impractical at times and an only partly viable proposition in an urban planning reality; it is crucial due to its historical and cultural implications, nonetheless. Keeping structures and areas intact will furthermore be a basis for keeping the memory of the former presence alive in the community, which is warranted due to the long history, deep personal connections, and important economic ties.

Regarding existing physical lieux de mémoire and a more sustainable handling of cultural heritage and memory, Pierre Nora poses the question: “Have we not sufficiently regretted and deplored the loss or destruction, by our predecessors, of potentially informative sources to avoid opening ourselves to the same reproach from our successors?” (Nora 1989: 13).



Julian P. Kramer is pursuing an MA at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. Having moved to Heidelberg from Munich, he was inspired by the local German-American history in the city on the Neckar, which became the topic for his Master’s thesis and ultimately inspired this story. Reach out via email.


Featured Image by Robert Heyliger 

Other pictures by author



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