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.