A woman swings with outstretched arms on a tree in Munich.

Growing up in the Olympic Village

Bullerbü in the concrete desert

Conceived as a "city within the city", the Olympic Village was designed to be car-free from 1972 and equipped with all the necessities of daily life. Our author remembers her incredibly happy childhood in an urban planning experiment.

“You live here?” my friends used to say when they came to visit me in the Olympic village for the first time. All they could see when they caught sight of the rows upon rows of grey buildings was concrete and harsh lines; to them a solid, immovable mass. To me, an utopian idyll, my home.

After its construction for the 1972 Olympics, the Olympic Village, a 40-hectare large residential concept designed by the architect studio Heinle, Wischer and Partner, was called many things by its critics: concrete desert, ghost town, Futuropolis …  Slayed by much of the press and residents of Munich alike, it appeared that only those who lived there, those who dared to bed down in the newly-emerged city of cement, truly understood the magic that lay within.

Often called a “city within a city”, to residents it was more of a “village within a city”. We had everything you might need: a supermarket, a school, a bakery, a hair salon, a stationary shop, a bank, a post office, even our own cinema. But more than that, we had freedom.

To kids, the entire Olympic village was a playground. To parents it was free childcare. As cars were and still are confined to an entire underground network of garages, thanks to the architects’ original forward-thinking design, our parents could let us roam the expansive spaces free from the worry of traffic or pollution. Not once did I hear, “Watch out when you cross the road,” in my childhood. The only words that used to echo out across the landscape, were the various households calling their offspring back to feed: “Diii-inner time!”

The naked façades of 1972 have long been transformed into towers of tumbling green, where honeysuckle and roses, lavender and jasmine spill out over balconies.

Surely a city of cement is not supposed to work for kids, or parents for that matter. What is it about this construction that Heinle, Wischer and Partner got so right? None of the reasons beyond infinite freedom to roam, were obvious to me as a child. But this summer as I retraced my steps to all my old haunts, when visiting my parents, who still live there 50 years later, I could see quite clearly why this highly-criticised urban planning experiment was and still is so successful – so successful in fact that it was placed under Ensembleschutz in 1998, making the entire village architecturally protected.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the village, a mere 10-minute U-bahn ride from the city centre, are the vast wildflower meadowlands that provide far-reaching views and an opportunity to frolic. What’s more, despite housing the best part of 7000 residents within its four streets (Connolly Street, Nadi Street, Strassberger Street and Helene-Mayer Ring), there is not a hint of compact living. In fact the opposite is true: a sense of peaceful communality pervades. Thanks to the many little forums, fountains and benches, residents are invited sit a while, to exhale.

When it comes to the actual properties, all buildings – both the high rises and the bungalows – are strategically positioned with south-west-facing staggered balconies, providing maximum sun exposure, private outdoor space and minimal sound disruption from the busy Mittlerer Ring nearby. The naked façades of 1972 have long been transformed into towers of tumbling green, where honeysuckle and roses, lavender and jasmine spill out over balconies bringing a luxuriant lusciousness to its residents, 90% of which are proud owners of their properties – an anomaly in Munich, where most people rent.

Walking back through the Olympic Village in the early summer of 2022, now a London-based parent of three children myself, I am astonished at how deeply the invitation to ramble and roam is woven into the fabric of both the hard and soft landscaping.

Part of the pioneering group of people who moved in to the Olympic Village as students in 1971, my parents settled down in the then hardly occupied village, even before the games begun. Forced to vacate their student digs in 1972 to allow the athletes to move in, they returned to their home after the games. By then my parents had had two kids and the one-bedroom bungalow was getting a little tight, so for a while, the book shelf became my bedroom. In the early 1980s, after a short stint in Strassberger Street, we moved to a garden maisonette in Connolly Street, where my parents have lived ever since – now going on for 40 years.

For adults the village provided easy access into the city for work, with the added bonus of being a natural setting to create friendships to last a lifetime. The close proximity of countless young parents, many of whom were academics or just starting in their field, meant a shared outlook. A sense of hopeful harmony.

Walking back through the Olympic Village in the early summer of 2022, now a London-based parent of three children myself, I am astonished at how deeply the invitation to ramble and roam is woven into the fabric of both the hard and soft landscaping. As I look into the thinking behind this coup, I discover that the architects commissioned specialists in urban play – the Munich-based registered charity (e.V) “Pädagogische Aktion” – to come up with ideas, so keen were they to get the interplay between exploration and play just right.

Of course I didn’t know this as a child, but what I did know deep in my bones, was that every day was a new adventure. Not only were there countless playgrounds dotted about the village, but entire swathes of hard landscaping designed specifically to encourage discovery, such as the giant globe we used to climb, that sat hidden away between Connolly Street and Nadi Street, or the “Rote Stadt”, the not un-dangerous cluster of multi-layered brick walls that were begging to be clambered up or hidden in. We were the Kinder von Bullerbue of the concrete desert – always roaming, never overlooked by parents.

On my reminiscence trail, back in Munich’s Olympic Village, I notice that many of the doorbells I used to ring to call my friends out to play still have the same names. It appears my parents aren’t the only ones who remain convinced by the village’s benefits, even decades later.

When I think back to what we got up to, I realise the modern-day passion of city councils to ensure “health and safety” in all areas of play, was most likely not high on the agenda. As children, we thrived in this environment. The village and its structures as well as the open landscape, designed by the inventor of “democratic green spaces” Guenther Grzimek, meant no two days were alike. Thanks to Grzimek, who won the most prestigious landscape architects prize in 1973 for his design, our setting was idyllic and mirrored the hills and valleys of the Bavarian pre-Alps. We became intrepid explorers of our habitat.

In the afternoons, we would come home from school, sling our schoolbags into a corner and head out. Without fail children of all ages would gather in the fields behind my house after school, unsupervised, and begin our adventures. It was a childhood unleashed.

Countless were the days where my neighbour and I would gather “survival essentials” into a large blanket: biscuits, “Bravo” magazines, fizzy drinks, a compass … and drag them to a copse of trees on the nearby meadow. There we would sit, amongst the buttercups, hiding out in our newly-constructed den, singing Nena songs and dreaming up ways to annoy our big brothers. When we became teenagers, “Bravos” were replaced with beers and the readily available hang out areas across the village became ideal locations for BBQs or snogging in the tall grasses, away from our parent’s glare.

Heinle, Wischer and Partner’s concept was a triumph, not just for its residents, but for Munich as a whole. Thanks to the Olympics, the U-Bahn was constructed, road infrastructure was improved, the city centre became pedestrianised and Germany could begin to create a worldly and welcoming new image.

On my reminiscence trail, back in Munich’s Olympic Village, I notice that many of the doorbells I used to ring to call my friends out to play still have the same names. It appears my parents aren’t the only ones who remain convinced by the village’s benefits, even decades later. For a moment, as the warm breeze wafts down the grassy banks of the Nadi lake, carrying with it the fragrant scent of a summer about to explode, I’m transported back to my childhood. I can sense the anticipation, the exhilaration of youth unbound. And I thank my lucky stars I grew up in the arms of this benevolent brutalist beast.

 

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle

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