Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall)

Tour of the Neues Rathaus: Harry Potter fans get ready!

Our authoress has been living in Munich for more than twenty years. But there is one thing in all that time that she has never quite managed to see in peace: the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) on Marienplatz (Our Lady’s Square) – although it is one of the absolute highlights of the Munich Altstadt (old town). So we sent her on a guided tour. She liked it. A lot!

As I emerge from the lower level of the orange-red Marienplatz station (designed by the internationally renowned Munich light artist Ingo Maurer), the knights’ scene in the glockenspiel is already in full swing. The Bavarian knight seriously defeats his opponent from Lorraine every single day. The spectators always remain loyal to the Bavarian contestant.

They pay rapt attention, there is polite applause and calls of bravo from the crowds: although they have just arrived in the city, many visitors, affected by the rotating figurines, have already become local patriots. The natives on the other hand, for whose amusement in particular the second scene with the coopers’ dance was originally conceived, tend to give the spectacle a wide berth.

Google knows that the building is neo-Gothic. Our tour guide knows more, namely that the town hall was built in a time when Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) was hip in Munich and that the historicising building was not at all to the liking of the representatives of this new artistic movement.

My plan is, after living for more than twenty years in this city, to get to know the town hall better today with the help of a tour guide. At the meeting point in the tourist information office in the ground floor of the town hall, it quickly becomes apparent that I am not the only Munich resident in the group. The other visitors are from Switzerland, Austria and other parts of Germany. Our guide introduces himself: his name is Alex. We are welcome to ask him all our questions at any time.

“Oh, what a beautiful church” comments an enthusiastic spectator of the glockenspiel in the town hall tower. With its clock tower and intricate crowning achievement consisting of gables, bay windows, turrets, loggias, pergolas and battlements, the Neues Rathaus on Marienplatz is probably often mistaken for a church. Together with the onion domes of the neighbouring Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church), it is one of the city’s landmarks, the absolute “must-sees” in the Munich Altstadt.

Here eye to eye with the symbolic figures and statues of the Wittelsbach rulers which are distributed over the entire façade of the town hall, it is not just the visitors who are definitely getting the feeling that they have arrived in the heart of the city.

Unfortunately you have just got to imagine the stony effigies of the associated duchesses, electresses and queens. For example, Adelheid Henriette von Savoyen who brought Italian architectural art and the opera to Munich in the middle of the 17th century. Or the passionate huntswoman Maria Amalia, wife of Karl Albrecht, who was later to become Emperor Karl VII and also the unfortunate Agnes Bernauer, whose husband Duke Albrecht III condemned her for witchcraft and arranged to have her drowned in the Danube in 1435 as the result of a “misunderstanding”.

From the outside the Neue Rathaus looks like a beautiful work of antiquity – it was not completed until 1909. Amazon's Alexa knows that the building is neo-Gothic. Our tour guide Alex knows more, namely that the town hall was built in a time when Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) was hip in Munich and that the historicising building was not at all to the liking of the representatives of this new artistic movement.

Video: New Town Hall

In their satirical Munich-based weekly magazine “Jugend” (“Youth”) which was critical of contemporary culture (incidentally the namesake of the artistic movement “Jugendstil”) the critics made fun of the structure: “Due to overcrowding, there really is a fight for space going on among the Gothic figures of the new town hall. We would warn against adding any more Gothic figures.” Wide sections of the remaining Munich architecture critics also denounced the construction project as a “neo-Gothic masquerade.”

I am amazed. Why did the building with its medieval appearance come into being at a time at the beginning of the 20th century when the Blauer Reiter (Blue Rider) group of artists around Kandinsky, Münter, Macke, Marc and Klee were already mixing up the Munich art world with blue horses and yellow cows? Alex explains that the architect, Georg Hauberisser, who at the time was only 25 years old, had a soft spot for the considerably older Gothic town houses of Belgium and copied their style. That is why the Neues Münchner Rathaus (New Munich Town Hall) looks so old and so similar to the town hall in Brussels to the point that they could be mistaken for each other.

It fits seamlessly into the array of the “typical Munich“ buildings plagiarised from originals abroad, such as Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Castle), Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshals’ Hall), Königsplatz (Kings’ Square) or Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower) in the Englischer Garten (English Garden). This fact no longer disturbs any great minds in Munich. On the contrary: The “neo-Gothic masquerade“ with its decoration of geraniums from more than 1000 plants of the type “Balcony Pink” (as of July 2018) is for most people quite simply typical Munich. At a time when bees are dying out, the intention is to test a more insect-friendly mode of cultivation sooner or later.

That there are not only a number of parallels to the Brussels town hall but also entirely to Harry Potter’s School of Magic, Hogwarts, is brought to my attention for the first time by Alex’s tour. I am not a particular fan of the fantasy genre but a little bit of Harry Potter is now part of anyone’s general education. And you really don’t need to be a full-blooded fan to recognise the similarities here.

The Law Library of the town hall with its oak cabinets and high bookshelves, its spiral staircases and wrought-iron lights impress me the most. I did not expect to encounter such a magical place. You only really get to see stuff like that in films.

Alex opens the doors to the small conference room, a jewel in original neo-Gothic Hauberisser design. With its long tables and high-backed chairs, the fireplace, the canopy-crowned leather sofas, the grandfather clock and the wood-panelled walls, it is clearly very similar to the large hall in Harry Potter’s school. Instead of the students of the school of magic, Munich City Council holds meetings here under a 24-armed bronze chandelier. The parties who have sent the 80 Munich city councillors, however, do not have such cool names as Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin.

The Law Library of the town hall with its oak cabinets and high bookshelves, its spiral staircases and wrought-iron lights impress me the most. I did not expect to encounter such a magical place. You only really get to see stuff like that in films.

Visitors only have access to the reading room if they are 1.) either interested in legal matters and want to study there in peace or 2.) if just like me are making their way through the town hall as part of a guided tour.

Of course there is no quidditch, the sport popular among young magic apprentices, in the Neues Rathaus, but there is plenty of football: After winning championships, FC Bayern Munich are traditionally received by the Lord Mayor in the Neues Rathaus. For more than 50 years now, famous players like Thomas Müller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Oliver Kahn, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge or Franz Beckenbauer have been celebrated by their fans here on the town house balcony.

Alex shows us pictures of this. The cups that the players lift up over the balustrade are a little bit more compact than “the golden snitch” that the broom-riding magicians chase after during a game of quidditch. We, too, are allowed to go out onto the celebratory balcony and day dream that all the people at our feet have only come to Marienplatz to cheer us.

Then we take a seat in the large conference room. Here it is cool and dim like in a church and I sit back and relax and follow the explanations which Alex provides from the Lord Mayor’s lectern about the massive mural behind him. The commission for the oil painting of the “Monachia” which was completed in 1778 was awarded to Karl Theodor von Piloty who at the time was Germany’s leading historical painter.

In the centre of the 15-metre wide and almost four-metre high picture stands the “Monachia” in a white tunic and antique headdress. She personifies the city of Munich in female form. Unlike the façade of the town hall, the members of the Wittelsbach family tend to stay in the background in the painting. It was more important to the magistrate to depict distinguished Munich citizens of both sexes at this most important place of urban administration.

At this point, for the first time, Alex was almost able to dispense with his exemplary gender referencing and only talk about male citizens, because among the people who in the picture of the “Monachia” are honoured for their achievements are just seven women among a total of 121 men. They are presented here only as allegories of the “River Isar”, personified types of grain or “benefactresses”.

Above the entrances, the Münchner Kindl (Munich Child) greets the visitors with wide outstretched arms: a child dressed in monk’s garb in the Munich municipal court of arms. It gave Munich its name – and much of its hospitable charisma.

By contrast, the depicted men include the heads of the Munich patrician families, clergy, scientists, painters, musicians and sculptors, beer barons such as Joseph Pschorr and also Benjamin Thompson, a native American who reorganised the army in Munich, created the Englischer Garten and invented a stew, the Rumford soup, to feed the poor. Georg Hauberisser is, of course, also immortalised.

At the beginning of the 50s, the colossal painting no longer appealed to the tastes of the time and was stored for the following 50 years in the Städtische Galerie (urban gallery) in the Lenbachhaus (Lenbach House). It was not until 2004 that there was again a majority in favour of returning the painting to its original place in the town hall.

Above the entrances, the Münchner Kindl (Munich Child) greets the visitors with wide outstretched arms: a child dressed in monk’s garb in the Munich municipal court of arms. It gave Munich its name – and much of its hospitable charisma.

To round the tour off, on the aisles Alex once again draws our attention to the many colourful glass windows. After the destruction in the war, they were donated by prominent Munich citizens and foreign sponsors.

I almost lose contact with Alex and the group because I queue up a bit stupidly to send snapshots of the particularly strange-looking stone figurines, grimaces and mythical creatures which are depicted here on all the columns and arched ceilings to my friends by mobile.

While Alex explains the individual motifs to us in detail, Munich’s third lady mayor walks past us. After all, the town hall is not just a place to stand in awe and study but also the centre of Munich politics. And for two hours with our little group, we were quite simply in the heart of everything. Thanks, Alex!

 

 

Text: Karoline Graf; Photos: Frank Stolle; Video: Redline Enterprises

Has this given you the desire to explore the Neues Rathaus once yourself with an official guide from the Munich Tourist Board? All the information about our guided tours is provided here.

Also interesting: An exclusive look behind the scenes of the Glockenspiel on the Marienplatz, which has been inspiring visitors and locals for over 100 years: Glockenspiel in 10 pictures.