Interview: Schanigardens

Makeshift drinking spots – an enduring proposition?

As coronavirus swept through the world in 2020, Munich’s cityscape changed radically, with spaces previously used for parking suddenly reborn as new, improvised outdoor bar and restaurant areas – sometimes dubbed “Schanigärten”. Munich architect Alexander Fthenakis is so fascinated by this phenomenon of temporary architectures that he has written “Schanitown”, a whole book on the subject. In it, he examines how these “gardens” speak to a new understanding of the concept of a city – and why they are worth retaining.

Where did Schanigardens come from? Isn’t it a strange name?

There are various explanations for the word’s origin. The most common one is that it comes from the Viennese hospitality industry, where the most junior waiter or trainee was traditionally referred to as “Jean” – which was then Austrianised to “Schani”. As the new boy, his job would be to carry tables outside and set them up in fine weather, and so the name has come to be applied to these outdoor hospitality spaces.

What is the difference between a Schani and a typical outdoor bar area?

Well, there are many similarities. Opening both requires hospitality venues to apply for permission, and strict rules must be followed in both cases too. We all recognise the table layout markings that the Regional Administrative Office (Kreisverwaltungsreferat) lays out for outdoor bar areas – as soon as something gets disturbed or a foot is out of place, the waiters start getting jittery. The basic difference between an outdoor bar area and a Schanigarten is the location. An outdoor bar area is generally on the pavement right outside the pub itself, while a Schanigarten usually occupies on-street parking spaces.

That doesn’t really like such a dramatic difference.

Ah, but it is. Outdoor bar areas are not particularly exciting from an architectural or urban development point of view. They are generally just made up of furniture and parasols, and maybe an awning as well. Schanigardens are much more elaborate, and are recognisable as proper structures, which are usually made from wood such as construction pallets, plywood or particle board. This structure is surrounded by a railing – that’s necessary because the Schani is in the middle of the road, and you need to ensure that punters won’t stumble into traffic after a few drinks.

What interests you so much about this type of architecture?

Well first of all I find it interesting that it is a type of architecture at all. It is really a kind of manifestation in building form. I like to compare Schanis with a ship’s dinghy. The restaurant or café is the sailing ship, and the Schani belongs to it but is also independent from it. Design decisions need to be made that respect this autonomy. The simplest approach is an enclosed wooden area at the same level as the pavement; but some Schanis are elevated from footpath level, so sitting in them is like being on a little balcony above the street. And then there is the purity of the design elements. Most Schanis are very Spartan – made from wood and nothing else. But some echo design themes from the main pub or restaurant they belong to. For example, at “Pizzesco” in Westend, they have strung up clotheslines hung with clean laundry all around their Schani – which immediately calls to mind images of Naples or Palermo, where sheets flutter on the warm breeze, high above the streets. One thing all Schanis have in common is that they are very much improvised. That is inherent in their nature – most of them were built in just a few days.

And that leads us to the question of why so many Schanigardens have sprung up over the last year.

Well, there are several factors at play. The city has been very generous in granting permits for such spaces, and that is certainly because of coronavirus. The authorities wanted to help the struggling restaurant industry, and they also knew that it is much less dangerous to drink outdoors than in enclosed spaces. I also suspect that one reason so many Schanis were approved was because it was assumed that they would only be temporary – a makeshift arrangement, though one that may now remain in place. The second major factor, of course, is that a new way of looking at cars in cities is slowly taking over. Schanis directly compete with private transport by car.

Drink, don’t drive?

A total of 433 Schanis had been approved by the end of August 2020, meaning 973 parking spaces were eliminated and replaced with around 8,000 seats. If the coronavirus pandemic had happened ten years ago, it would surely not have created the same Schani boom. The car-friendly city was still an undisputed ideal back then: you could have a pedestrian zone in the centre if you liked, but apart from that the streets were for cars. It is now becoming increasingly clear that this model is outdated – even if only because cars are getting bigger and bigger and no longer fit in narrow city streets. But also, there are now adequate alternatives available in terms of shared mobility. The private car is definitely retreating from our cities – and that is why I believe that the Schanis are not going anywhere. Another option which could be imagined, and which seems sensible to me, is for parking spaces and Schanis to alternate with the seasons. In winter, when there is a greater need to travel by car, the Schanis could be dismantled and become parking spaces again. That would probably be advisable anyway, as frost and snow are likely to adversely affect the improvised structures. I am excited to see what architectural solutions to this issue will emerge. In any case, a compromise between mobility and Schanis is certainly possible.

There is another compromise which could be more difficult to get to though: one between party-loving guests, and residents who need peace and quiet.

Yes, that is the second major area of conflict when it comes to Schanis. The city’s residential spaces have gained a huge amount of value in recent years. An affluent client base which would traditionally have abandoned cities to raise their families elsewhere is now staying on – or even deciding to move back. And these not-quite-so-young people are often the first to complain about night-time noise made by those who are still young. Here we can see the city being understood as an interesting backdrop – a luxury product that you can afford to buy yourself. And once you’ve splashed out on that, you don’t really want loud revellers thrown into your shopping basket. It is a conflict that is definitely not so easy to resolve. But perhaps the Schanis will help to defuse it somewhat. After all, we have seen them pop up everywhere over the last year, not just in the top party spots like Gärtnerplatz. I think that things will be clearer after summer 2021 – which is sure to be a time of much celebration and plenty of drinking.

About Alexander Fthenakis

Alexander Fthenakis studied architecture in Munich, Strasbourg and Madrid. With two colleagues he founded the office Fthenakis Ropee Architekten in 2008. For his book "Schanitown" he drifted through the streets of Munich and took a close look at the Schanigartens that have been sprouting up since 2020.

Interview: Paul-Philipp Hanske; Photos: Frank Stolle


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