Fly train through Wuppertal

View of downtown Wuppertal from the city’s famous “flying train.” (MoMA)

This old video, just over two minutes in length, takes viewers through the western German city of Wuppertal, population 354,382 (almost double that of Providence), on a “flying”  or “floating” train a year after its completion in 1901. The Schwebebahn is a suspension railway, a monorail hanging from tracks upheld by a system of bridge girders reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. I almost wanted to call this post “Stairway to Heaven” because the cityscape through which the trams run is as lovely as urbanism gets. The tight-knit townhouse frontages wind with the curvature of the Wupper River, along which much of the train runs. Would that the video were longer! Would that the experience could be relived in the city today!

Alas, it cannot be. Although the Schwebebahn survives, some 40 percent of Wuppertal’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, ordained perhaps by its having been the site of an early Nazi concentration camp built in 1933 to house political opponents after Hitler’s takeover of Germany. A 12-minute film of the Schwebebahn in 1995 shows what has replaced much of the war damage. Wuppertal today bears all the stigmata of a modern city. What remains of the old bears the pockmarks of the new, both in its architecture and in its urbanism.

The video of the 1902 film is made available by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. The film quality is superior to what is usual from that era. The photo above and three of those below are from that old film, followed by six from the more recent film, courtesy of Luke Starkenburg. It shows what seems to be the best of what remains of historic Wuppertal and, finally, some of the worst of the city’s urban character from the period since WWII.

Tip o’ the top hat to Seth Weine, architectural archivist extraordinaire, for tipping me off to the existence of the MoMa film. He also sent another video of five or so minutes from 2018, with more history of the flying train, but also more evidence of the city’s aesthetic degradation. As for the old video, he described it as “shockingly vivid” and writes:

It’s in Wuppertal, a German city toward the Western edge of the country, not far from Cologne.

Yes, I didn’t want it to end either!
 
I say “shockingly vivid,” because of the profound sharpness of the images, the joyful movement, and the strong character of all that one sees – whether it be the city’s buildings, the people walking or playing below (did you see the kid on a swing?!!), or the train that passes the one which the camera is on.
 
It’s also interesting to see that the train line’s steel supports are designed with a light touch – so they don’t seem to conflict with the traditional environment.
.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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13 Responses to Fly train through Wuppertal

  1. Michael Behrendt says:

    Hello David. Thank you for sharing this post. The old video and the new one are wonderful. Nice to see that in the modern age, with all of the destruction of the war and the modern city, the contemporary monorail is still so great. I had never heard of this before. Do you know of any other suspended monorails like this one? Of course, we would/could never build this today so that’s why we must preserve this special structures. Or it would be so damn ugly with minimalist concrete legs. Cheers.

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    • I seem to recall, Michael, that Seattle had built a monorail for its World’s Fair back in the ’70s or whenever it was, or maybe it was Montreal. I don’t know. If you have my book, Lost Providence, it has a picture of a monorail proposed but never built for downtown Providence by a study done in the 1970s by a RISD professor and his class called “Interface: Providence.” Maybe you can look up monorail in Wikipedia and see whether there was one in Seattle or Montreal.

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  2. barry schiller says:

    I too thank you for making this available. Of course one reason the cityscape and streets were so pleasing is that at time the automobiles had not yet arrived with their noise, need for parking, for .expressways, and their threats to those walking. We pay a steep price for the convenience of cars

    Like

    • Well said, Barry. We pay a steep price for progress, or “progress.” We have the blessings and curses of cars and trucks and belligerent streets, but we also have underarm deoderant!

      Like

  3. Lily Bogosian says:

    Great video David!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  4. I just reblogged your article on the Schwebebahn. Very interesting story about it and its history. 🙂

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  5. Reblogged this on The Bridgehunter's Chronicles and commented:
    Although not really considered a bridge or viaduct per se, one of the places that is recommended is the city of Wuppertal in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and its prized Schwebebahn. Completed in 1901, the Bahn features a “flying” train that hangs from the track above. It was only slightly damaged during the bombings of World War II and was restored to its original form after the war ended, with only a few minor replacements. This guest column looks at the history of the Schwebebahn and how it has adapted to the changes that has occurred in Wuppertal since the end of the war 75 years ago. A video of the Bahn is included- just click on the link. Enjoy! 🙂

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    • Thank you, B.C., for the reblog and the shout-out! Much appreciated. It is a wonderful film, and the two more recent videos, while less wonderful, since they reveal the degradation of the city as a whole, are still very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Barbara Eberlein says:

    Hi David,

    Thank you so much for this illuminating piece on the history of Wuppertal. Alas, as you’ve noted, we’ve lost much of the charming and important cityscape BUT we haven’t lost (in my mind, anyway) the most important export of this city, Pina Bausch’s INCOMPARABLE dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. Despite Pina’s early demise, the company lives on and continues to invigorate this region – and yes, the world – with the creative output of this genius.

    Thanks for putting a spotlight on this city that delivers, decadeafter decade, true generative life force.

    Barbara Eberlein

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • Thank you, Barbara. I’ve actually heard of that dance troupe but I did not put one and one together. I believe they must have visited Providence at one point, or perhaps I’d not have heard of them. But the name does stand out! Wuppertal! What a name!

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  7. LazyReader says:

    Using straddle beams, derailment is virtually impossible. Since it’s elevated, accidents with surface traffic and pedestrians are impossible (unless the train derailed and landed on the road) Less system down time, less liability suits and most importantly, a safer public. Street rail systems with grade crossings (light rail, trams, commuter rail or trollies) can’t approach this level of safety. Building heavy rail in the city means rerouting cables/lines and pipes, digging and businesses forfeiting revenue for the disruption caused by years of construction, light rail is no different. Customers can’t access their establishments during the long period of construction. Entire streets and underground utilities must be rebuilt to put in light rail.

    But no matter How whimsical or fantasy esque. That doesn’t make monorails better. Monorails suffer the same problem as every other form of fixed-guideway transit: they can only go to a few places. Streets are everywhere people live, and they can be used by buses, private and shared automobiles, trucks, and a variety of other forms of transportation. No matter how cheap. Like other fixed-guideway systems– they cost more per mile than streets and carry fewer people per hour; That in and of itself sinks most attempts to build monorail, Cities have done so by building between the road median. And it carries NO Freight/cargo.

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    • Yes, Lazy, streets are more flexible transportation infrastructure than such monorails as Wuppertal boasts, but it’s not a matter of either/or but of both/and. The two can work together to give travelers options. Likewise with your complaint regarding the monorail’s reluctance to carry freight. You are holding it to a standard to which it does not aspire. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Who said it had to?” Trucks and regular trains can do that.

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