A Fizzled Eco-Architectural Dream

Click here to launch a slide show on an eco-wander through Germany.

While zooming by a field of wind turbines, traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Bremen at 200 kilometers per hour, I suddenly realized that I was experiencing turbine envy.

My own country, the United States, seems to be stuck in a co-dependent relationship with fossil fuels. Meanwhile, if you believe the hype, Germany has quietly erected an eco-empire. Outside the train, turbines towered 12 stories high with blades the length of a Boeing 747 wing. Germany has the world’s largest installed wind-farm capacity and exports more wind technology than any other country. And the country plans to produce 40 percent more wind turbines by 2015, surpassing Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing dangerous global-warming gases. In fact, I’d heard the very train I was on was powered by a grid that includes wind power. My laptop plugged into the train’s wall, I was starting to feel so darned eco that I could practically hear a puff of air each time I hit the space key.

I had a mildly subversive question in mind as I began my two-week trip: If gigantic Germany could be green, couldn’t any country? (You know, like the big one between Canada and Mexico.) Sure, it’s cute that Costa Rica is ecological, and doesn’t it just tickle you that Bhutan has a gross-national-happiness policy? But these are niche nations. Germany is the world’s third-largest economy (after the United States and Japan), the world’s largest exporter, and the most powerful and populous nation in the European Union.

Beyond wind, Germany abounds with eco-superlatives. The country produces more solar technology than any other, it has the planet’s most powerful Green Party, and it possesses a passionate environmental citizenry that has kept Germany’s forests among the best-preserved in Europe.

Though I admire Germany for its intelligent environmentalism, I love the country for another reason. I’m of German descent, I speak the language, I lived here for a year in the early ‘90s and know it as “the land of poets and thinkers”—an artistic, musical, and philosophical heaven. Forget about all those World War II movies for a minute. The Nazi period is a barbaric exception, a tumor the Marshall Plan removed for good. Hitler’s evil decade is sandwiched between two golden ages. Late 19th-century Germany was peopled with cultural creatives (try to name five philosophers, physicists, or composers without mentioning a German name), as was the glamorous Berlin of the Weimar 1920s. After the Nazis, it was back to six progressive decades of success in the economic, cultural, and ultimately—with the unification of both Germany and Europe—political spheres.

My travel companion, eco-architect Mymza Wever Azcui, was less impressed by all the wind turbines. She lives in Europe, after all, and is used to such technologies. My 30-year-old friend is a rising star in an Amsterdam firm and insisted on accompanying me to Bremen to show me a marvel of ecological city planning: Teerhof, a car-free island community in the middle of downtown.

Mymza’s ethnicity could hardly be more liberally inclined—she’s half-Dutch (the home of legal dope) and half-Bolivian (the place the dope comes from)—and she is not only physically striking, she also possesses a charming blend of Northern European exactness and Latin spontaneity. And spontaneous this trip would be: In the spirit of a Wanderung, or leisurely ramble, I intended to rent a BMW hybrid and travel the nation without map or guidebook on the trail of Germany’s promise of a sustainable world.

In Bremen, we checked into Hotel Bauman near the medieval center and took a jaunt to the city’s Universum science center. From the outside, it was a kind of huge metallic ship half-sunk in a lake; inside, it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim. A thousand German kids packed the center’s upwardly spiraling ramps. Mymza photographed a few architectural details, and we quickly exited.

Resisting a strong urge to head right to Teerhof, we instead spent a day eating our way through Bremen. There’s a popular German saying, which we followed: “Breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a king, and eat dinner like a beggar.” I ate bockwurst for lunch (Germany produces 1,500 types of sausage), and the menu noted that the meat was chemical-free and the vegetables organic. More than five times as much agricultural land is dedicated to organic agriculture in the European Union (13.5 million acres) as in the United States (2.3 million acres). Between bites, Mymza interpreted the city’s architecture, comparing the slight medieval row houses to a new design trend: Small is beautiful. In a “post-capitalist turn,” Mymza explained, “Northern Europeans are starting to put spiritual values ahead of material values. Clients demand homes with absolutely no unnecessary spaces—because then they’d have to fill them with stuff.” That’s funny, I thought. House size was heading in the other direction in the States. From its wind farms to “small is beautiful” to abundant organics, Germany was beginning to look like the eco-miracle I’d hoped for.

The next morning, we stopped in at the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art. * New installations from Jörg Immendorf and Barbara Bloom focused on the deeper theme underlying my trip: the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. I paused for a long time in front of Immendorf’s half-ape, half-human figures. His paintings seem to suggest that humans are what Jared Diamond calls “the third chimpanzee”—a particularly lucky ape that ascended because of unprecedented mental abilities. Clever, but are we chimps nonetheless, and ones who may not have what it takes to avoid ecological collapse?

Likewise, New York-based artist Bloom blended human and natural elements to portray fascism as a kind of extinct species. She’d mounted hundreds of butterflies in glass cases amid tiny photos of Nazi history folded in two like butterflies. (The caption under one rather spooky black-and-white photo, for example, read, “Mussolini’s official visit with Hitler in Berlin, 1937.”)

Out of nowhere, Mymza said, a little too loudly, “Mein Kampf is a pretty good book.” Heads turned our way. I froze. Oblivious to the shock waves her comment had sent through the room, Mymza gave a provocative justification for her provocative statement—something about how the Bolivian in her appreciates the Führer’s humble origins and belief in himself—but I was busy shuttling her out of the museum. Having lived in Germany, I knew there’s no more sensitive topic. Mein Kempf and other symbols of Nazism (even a joking heil salute) are forbidden in Germany and carry a prison sentence of up to five years. Denial of the Holocaust is also illegal. Visitors like us are not exempt.

Finally, the big moment arrived: Teerhof appeared across a canal. A dozen architectural firms created the island eco-community a decade back. It’s enormous, but you hardly notice its size because the four-story brick buildings blend elegantly with the medieval city. Our stride quickened, and Mymza talked excitedly about Teerhof’s genesis. The idealistic original buyers spent the month before moving to Teerhof driving their cars everywhere. Then they moved in and went virtually car-free. They kept journals of this before-and-after experience: journals that noted the increased sense of community, health, and peace they felt when they left their cars behind.

We walked into a surprisingly silent Teerhof. We’d expected a bustling community, but instead we found not a soul in its series of linked courtyards and riverside walkways. I half-expected a tumbleweed to blow through the abandoned spaces.

We slowly uncovered the uncomfortable truth of the eco-community. In the decade since its establishment, apartment values had shot up, and the original idealists sold up. New parking areas were constructed below ground. The community’s ecological character morphed into something more traditional. Today, nearly everyone has a car parked in the underground lot.

Mymza explained that Teerhof faltered “because in design ‘eco’ isn’t a static condition. Like any organism it has to grow. Teerhof’s didn’t evolve into solar, water-capture, and evolving models of community.” In other words, it seemed it was slowly suffocated by the larger global capitalist system around it, perhaps so gradually that residents hardly noticed.

It was time to leave Bremen. Mymza had to get back to Amsterdam, and I was going to head deeper into Germany in a hybrid. We arrived at the Eurocar rental agency, and the attendant said, “Guten Morgen. Le puedo ayudar with something, s’il vous plaît?”

I knew this EU custom: Jam all your languages into a sentence and let the other person answer according to their preference. I told him in German that I wished to rent a BMW hybrid.

He seemed almost embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said, “but Germany doesn’t make a hybrid yet.”

I’d confirm it later. At the time of my trip, BMW produced only what marketers euphemistically call “mild hybrids” (environmental groups call them “hollow hybrids”) that save just a mile or two a gallon. Not BMW, Mercedes, or Volkswagen had a true hybrid on the market. My dilemma worsened when, deciding I’d suck it up and rent a Prius, I handed him my driver’s license, issued in the last country I’d lived in: Bolivia. He scowled momentarily and then exploded with laughter, asking if I’d made it myself.

I tried to explain. But he kept repeating, “in Deutschland nicht,”indicating the absence of little car diagrams to show which types of vehicle I was qualified to drive. “This might be a motorcycle license,” he said, smugly.

Frustrated, I asked him how I was to do a spontaneous, eco-wanderung around Germany without a hybrid version of Henry Ford’s legacy.

His reply was lacquered with irony: “In this country,” he said, “we have these things called trains.”

Correction, Aug. 29, 2008: This entry originally misspelled the name of the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)