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Udo Kultermann

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Though somewhat crowded, the interior layout of a space colony could resemble that of some old European towns. Noerdlingen in Bavaria could be thought of as an European space colony; its shape, dimensions, and population are similar to those of the Stanford Torus.

In a recent book on space colonies the reader may be surprised to find a medieval German city compared with plans for a colony in space. The book is T.A. Heppenheimer’s “Toward Distant Suns”, in which he points out: “Though somewhat crowded, the interior layout of a space colony could resemble that of some old European towns. Noerdlingen in Bavaria could be thought of as an European space colony; its shape, dimensions, and population are similar to those of the Stanford Torus”. In his comparison of Noerdlingen and the futurist vision of a space colony, Heppenheimer goes on to say: “People have lived for centuries behind the medieval wall. Yet Noerdlingen has a large church, parks, streets, and mostly single-family houses.”

A more detailed description of this planned space colony, called Stanford Torus, reveals other similarities, but at the same time points out the differences between the contemporary vision of a living community in outer space and the existing Bavarian small town from the Middle Ages: “The colony itself, the Stanford Torus, was conceived as a rotating wheel with six spokes and has a startling resemblance to von Braun’s space station. It would be much larger, however; a mile across, providing a home for 10 000 people. Half the colony interior would be used for agriculture; the other half would serve as a living space, divided into three communities, each with its own spoke. Living conditions would be no more crowded than in some small European towns that date to the Middle Ages.”

The aerial view of Noerdlingen

The plan of Noerdlingen

Noerdlingen is not only the area of the first recorded and researched meteorite crater in the world, it was also used by the American space program as the center of their field training. In 1970 the astronauts of Apollo 14 and Apollo 17 went to Noerdlingen to undertake the study of moon geology because of the material from outer space which had fallen on the area surrounding the city. The scientific facts about the area known as the Ries, with the capital Noerdlingen in the center, reveal that a gigantic meteorite from 14.8 million years ago created a gigantic round crater with a diameter of about 25 km, which is surrounded by landscape nearly 200 m higher than the crater itself. There is no evidence that the circular shape of the city of Noerdlingen and the circular shape of the meteorite crater are related in any way.

Noerdlingen was obviously a city founded by the Romans as so many other cities in Europe, but in a shape different than most of the other cities which were square in character, modelled after military camps of the time. With the end of the Roman rule in the north, the character of the city must have changed. Very little is known about the area from the time Roman rule ended and 233 A.D. when the Alemannic tribes from the Ries area replaced the Roman and established a new rule.

Several documents show that during the long rule of Noerdlingen by the bishops of Regensburg, the bishop Wolfgang of Regensburg visited the city in 973, and approximately half a century later it appears that the bishop of Regensburg apparently had to re-purchase the city, or what was then a farm, from the Bishop of Eichstaett who had at some point in time acquired the land. It was only in 1215 that the bands of ownership between the bishop of Regensburg and Noerdlingen were loosened and the emperor Friedrich II took possession of the city. Under his protection there was rapid development which eventually led to the city becoming one of the great commercial centers. Shortly thereafter, Noerdlingen became one of the free cities of the Empire, which in the late Middle Ages was crucial for its development.

From its beginnings in Roman times, and later when it was re-founded in Medieval times, the location of Noerdlingen was an important element for its growth and prosperity as a trade center. In addition to its being located at the crossing of the two main trade lines, its walled-in-structure gave it protection, and it’s imperial privileges helped the city’s development to the extent that it soon became the largest market and fair center in Germany, second only to Frankfurt.

The great security of the city, as well as its annual fair, contributed greatly to the city’s growth and led to its eventual independence from local lords and, finally, from emperor himself. In a document dated 1215 the community of Noerdlingen was no longer called “Royal Farm”, but community of burghers, which was another step in the further development of the city and its architectural and urban manifestations.
The most significant expression of the new independent community was its wall system of fortifications. Prior to this system there had been an earlier city wall which was basically the same round shape, but enclosed a smaller area than the later wall which still surrounds the city today. An airview of Noerdlingen today clearly shows visual documentation of the smaller inner ring of the once existing fortification marked today by the streets Herrengasse, Vordere Gerbergasse, Bauhofgasse, Bei den Kornschrannen, Drehergasse, and Nebaugasse, among others. The existence of the earlier wall system, and its shape, gives important new insights into the patterns of growth of a medieval city showing, in this case, the transformations which created the city of Noerdlingen.

Following its independence and growing economic importance, the citizens of Noerdlingen began to feel a civic sense which they expressed by founding institutions of social and communal character. In 1233 they founded a “Spital”, a social institution which included a hospital, church, old people’s home, mill, brewery, restaurant, and several services which were all self sustaining. The building complex was erected in the northern part of the city, just outside of the old northern gate known as the Baldinger Gate, the same name given to the new gate built as part of the outer ring. Over a period of nearly 800 years, this institution, which developed as a city within a city, took responsibility for taking care of the sick, housing the orphans, and helping the poor. Still in existence today under the name “Vereinigte Wohltaetigkeitsstiftungen Noerdlingen”, it had a budget of more than 12 million German Mark in the year 1979.

The wall system which surrounds Noerdlingen today grew out of a decree by the Emperor Ludwig the Bayer, dated May 3, 1327, entitling the community to levy a tax on specific drinks from which the new fortification system was paid. The document by the emperor stated that several suburbs were to be enclosed within the new wall system, which assured their security and greatly enlarged the total space of the city. The tax continued over a period of 8 years during which time the citizens erected many new buildings. The growth of the city and the construction of the new wall system surrounding it was very carefully planned. The new wall structure exactly mirrored the older one, which, as it disappeared part by part, was used for different purposes. Like a shell around the older wall, the new structure provided not only protection, it also united the inside community and harmoniously structured their urban existence.

In 1632 King Gustav Adolf of Sweden visited Noerdlingen and expressed his praise for the strong and modern fortifications, which had been completed some decades earlier. In 1634 the Imperial troops encircled the city, the citizens supporting Swedish resisted, and the famous Battle of Noerdlingen took place. Noerdlingen was defeated, losing not only its importance as a city but also any possibility of further development. Most of the city’s structures were destroyed and many of it’s citizens lost their lives. In 1802 Noerdlingen became part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, completely losing its self rule.

Since the 19th century, Noerdlingen has developed within the context of a larger government body. The modern state and administration has created rules different than those in early times, which provided architectural and urban articulation in harmony with the mutual wishes of its citizens.

The circular city shape has a long tradition in itself. It received significance as early as 762 in the Round City of Baghdad by the Calif Al Mansour, and in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, c. 1307, in which he described Paradise as being a round city of light. The round city was also revitalised later in several ideal planning schemes in the Italian Renaissance. Different than the planned fortification of Noerdlingen, these cities were planned and given meaning based on symbolism of form rather than function.

The application of geometric order in city planning was perpetuated in cities such as Karlsruhe in the early 18th century and later in the same century in the city of Chaux by Ledoux in Eastern France. It may be significant that the circular form of these cities was related to universal and cosmic connotations and realities which were seen in line with regularity of heavenly bodies. Richard Kaufmann’s plan for his Kibbutz Nahalal built in 1921 reflects these cosmic analogies as does Ludovico Quaroni’s proposal for a housing scheme in Venezia-Mestre around 1960.

The closing of the circle appears in Wernher von Braun’s proposal for a space station, as well as later projects for similar living accommodations in outer space, such as aforementioned Stanford Torus. These circular shapes, however, are not based on form or symbolism, but the necessity of rotation in space, in order to create gravity. These requirements, so very different than those for medieval fortification yet so similar in their circular form, were already envisioned in Wenzel Hablik’s Space Station of 1920.

The city of Noerdlingen as a model for a space station, therefore, does not appear as absurd as it might at first glance since it is not the specific condition of fortification, or artificial gravity, which is important, but rather the organization of communal patterns of life style. In this regard the city of Noerdlingen can be seen as a model from the past for the future.

Udo KultermannUdo Kultermann

Udo Kultermann, born in Germany, is Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of 35 books on art and architecture, including “New Directions in African Architecture” and “Art and Life – The Function of Intermedia”.

See also his essay “Visible Cities – Invisible Cities” in Epifanio 1/2005.