As Munich’s most popular former Lord Mayor, Christian Ude governed the city from 1993 to 2014, and the changes he presided over have now become established in everyday life here. He takes us on a stroll through the historic Altstadt district and shares his memories of both obstacles and successes.
This somewhat-older moustachioed man, whom we have arranged to meet at St.-Jakobs-Platz, cannot make his way through the city unhindered: he is immediately recognised even by younger passers-by, who stop and greet him like an old friend – a full seven years after he vacated the office of Munich’s Lord Mayor.
Christian Ude, 73, enjoys the appreciation. Jovial and warm, he has a friendly word for everyone he meets – that’s how he used to be known and it’s how he is today. Along with the late Hans-Jochen Vogel, Christian Ude is Munich’s most popular former Lord Mayor. He has been honoured internationally many times over and remains a role model for town hall managers and an example of what they can do for a city and its image.
On our walk, the trained journalist and qualified lawyer goes into great detail, in his distinctive manner of speaking (in a very accentuated, deliberate series of print-ready sentences), about the plans he had for Altstadt during his tenure, as well as outlining the problems in implementing them – and proudly showing us what he achieved. “The idea of making St.-Jakobs-Platz what it is today was first suggested by Charlotte Knobloch, the President of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde [Jewish Community] at the time,” the former mayor recalls before biting into a kosher apple strudel. “Also, at that time Munich’s synagogue was still in a back building, and I wanted to symbolically restore the city’s Jewish presence to the city centre.”
Christian Ude, 73, enjoys the appreciation. Jovial and warm, he has a friendly word for everyone he meets – that’s how he used to be known and it’s how he is today.
He grins as he tells us: “Charlotte Knobloch came into my chamber on the second floor of the Rathaus one day and said: ‘My dear Mr. Ude, my community wants to build a synagogue and a Jewish Centre on St.-Jakobs-Platz!’ I was immediately electrified! Suddenly two problems were solved at once! The first: How and where can I create an appropriate space for Munich’s Jewish residents and provide them with a fitting seat within the cityscape once again? And the second: What am I to do with that horrible St.-Jakobs-Platz? After all, the square had been a hideous pile of rubble since it was bombed during the Second World War, and the only kind of business being done there was by dogs. I declared the project a priority.”
It encountered some resistance. Initially people were critical because they said it meant there would be hardly any open space left in Altstadt (there were also plans to build on Marienhof behind the Rathaus at the time, though those have long been scrapped), and that maintaining some open space within the Altstadt district was the environmental order of the day. Ude was most irritated by the hypocritical objections to the proposal: “People said that there were already too many people out and about here in Altstadt, and adding more would increase the risk of attacks. Or: ‘Our Catholic Saint Jacob has nothing do with the Jacob the Jews revere.’ It was up to me to mobilise the public against these voices.”
And that is exactly what he did.
Today the Jüdisches Zentrum (Jewish Centre) on St.-Jakobs-Platz is the largest of its kind in Europe, and an integral part of the cityscape. The hideous pile of rubble has been transformed into an attractive urban square with a number of architectural highlights. These include the bright, transparent structure of the synagogue, the base of which is reminiscent of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; the city’s Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum), which features a large wall of glass that faces onto the square; not to mention the Gemeindezentrum (Community Centre), home to one of the most versatile events venues in the city, as well as some great facilities for children and young people. Thanks to all of these additions, the life of the Jewish community in Munich is flourishing again, with lectures, literary evenings, Yiddish cabaret and events such as Jewish film days. The kosher Einstein community restaurant offers an international menu ranging from wiener schnitzel and hummus to Mediterranean cuisine – and the former mayor is not the only fan of their apple strudel (baked without milk).
We continue our stroll through Altstadt, and Christian Ude stops for a while at Marienplatz (the main square) to buy a copy of Biss magazine from a homeless man. “I am actually Biss seller number 1!” he says. “I supported this initiative enabling homeless people to sell a good publication from the very start.” In recognition of his support and as the Lord Mayor, he was symbolically issued with the first seller number when the initiative was founded. His gaze travels a little way over to the imposing Rathaus. “My office was up there on the second floor where those windows are,” he says, nodding to a few more passers-by who have recognised him, “the whole row of windows from the left to the middle!”
With its cultural centre, shopping arcades and palace of books, Munich’s Altstadt offers something fascinating at every turn. And it is with obvious joy that the initiator of all these vastly different worlds of experience guides us through them.
After walking a few minutes more, we arrive at the Fünf Höfe shopping centre. The shopping mall on Theatinerstrasse was opened 18 years ago and is home to some 62 stores and restaurants. The concept proved a huge success – including for the top man in the Rathaus who was responsible for it at the time. “We wanted to design a bustling commercial space, as small-scale as possible, but with many large companies marketing their products here, to reflect the retail diversity that is so typical of Munich. One contentious issue was whether or not to put roofing over the courtyards. We eventually found a solution that allowed for a feeling of upward openness and also facilitated some greening, yet also provided a roof so that people could enjoy the offerings even in the rain.”
Munich’s business sector focused on creating a timeless, modern shopping street with spacious architecture amid an old-world atmosphere, with a blend of historic buildings and modern design elements – and millions of visitors stroll through the Fünf Höfe every year to this day, just as Ude is doing now. He walks through ‘his’ elegant shopping paradise, stopping often along the way, and at one point asking an older lady who walks towards him: “What are we shopping for today, then?” – “I don’t know, but I know one thing: I always voted for YOU. And I’d vote for you again today.” Ude grins. Munich’s citizen of honour clearly enjoys his popularity in the city.
We call in at the Literaturhaus – another institution that was founded on Christian Ude’s initiative and is closer to his own interests than all the shopping malls of the world. “I am not just a trained journalist – I also consider myself somewhat as a writer and satirist,” he says as we ascend the wide staircase to the hall, passing pictures of many figures who have been invited to give readings here. He calls it, “the place where the voices of international literature take form” – another quotable nugget that’s ready for the page – as we stand at the huge glazed façade on the top floor of the building, high above Munich’s rooftops.
After a complicated construction and funding process, the Literaturhaus was officially opened by Ude with some memorable words on 5 June, 1997. The institution is famed not only for its reading room though, but also its spacious ground-floor café and restaurant. And for the portion of Munich society interested in books, ideas, discussions, themed evenings and readings, the wealth offered here is virtually unlimited, as anyone who’s anyone in the international literary world has been invited for a reading here at some point: tetchy satirists, sozzled pop writers, grizzly crime writers with three-day-old stubble, best-selling authors in trainers, journalists presenting the works of political prisoners. And it feels like Christian Ude has himself been here a hundred times, as a director, host and even sometimes as a guest.
With its cultural centre, shopping arcades and palace of books, Munich’s Altstadt offers something fascinating at every turn. And it is with obvious joy that the initiator of all these vastly different worlds of experience guides us through them: “Yes, it was a good time,” concludes the former mayor, “and I was able to make some changes – even if some things didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. Munich’s Altstadt is and will always be my favourite place in the world to wander around. Even more so than my beloved Mykonos.”
Speaking of Mykonos: incidentally, Christian Ude is a citizen of honour there as well.