Attitudes, Atmospheres, Aspirations: Erfurt’s squares

-Sara Keller

To get a feel for the vibrant life of the city of Erfurt, we strolled from square to square with a group of our research fellows one May afternoon.

Can we perceive Erfurt’s urbanity on its squares? In this hope, we hunted for perceptible atmospheres, attitudes and aspirations while other Erfurters went shopping, picked up their children or enjoyed the sun. The working hypothesis of our research group on “Religion and Urbanity” is that urbanity1 can be defined as a “way of life that emerges because of the size, density, diversity, mobility, instability, and transparency of a settlement or the people living there” (Rau 2020).2 Rather than an innate characteristic of the city, urbanity refers to an urban way of life that is indeed conditioned by the idea of the city as a type of settlement, and yet not exclusively experienced in the city or everywhere in the city. City and urbanity do not necessarily overlap. Urbanity, or an urban way of life, can be experienced and noticed in a roman villa located outside the urbs (Rüpke 2021)3, in a village centre equipping itself with urban facilities like a theatre or a stadium, or in the eco-friendly house of a city inhabitant recently arrived from the countryside. In all these examples, the space is charged with elements of urbanity such as urban ideas, concerns, attitudes and aspirations. In contrast, urban spaces like the grazing “anger” of German medieval towns, or village-like neighbourhoods of Mughal court cities can be defined as urban spaces with less urbanity or none at all. Urbanity after all is not a binary quality (urbanity versus absence of urbanity), but rather a scaled quality.4

So what defines urbanity, if not the quality of the urban space – since urbanity can certainly not be comprehended by the size and density, infrastructures, networks and activities of the city? As underlined by Susanne Rau, the concept of urbanity goes “beyond the geographical space” and it also engages with the human factor: it is about how the urban is perceived, experienced and expected. Urbanity is relational; it is a dialectic between the space (the city as a space and as an idea) and its inhabitants. In its attempt to measure the “citadinity” of African towns, geographer Gervais-Lambony gives a number of urban criteria, the prime one being formulated as follow: “The city dweller loves the city, he does not want to leave it, and has the feeling of belonging to the city. It is therefore primarily a life project that characterises the city dweller” (transl. from Gervais-Lambony 2001).5 We could say that urbanity is the city plus the citadinity as defined by urban geographers: it is the urban nature of the space (urban atmosphere) to which is added its unique way of being inhabited (urban attitudes, practices, aspirations and claims). Therefore, we focused during our walk in the city on the three concepts of atmospheres, attitudes and aspirations in order to grasp urbanity.

In the framework of this 7th edition of the “Religion and Urbanity” City Walk, we visited two squares of Erfurt: Ilversgehofener Platz, where we focused on urban attitudes and aspirations, and Anger, where we discussed urban atmospheres. Due to shortage of time, we could not visit the last station we had planned (i.e. the Brühler Garten), and we are hopeful to catch up with this on our next City Walk.

Urban aspirations in Ilversgehofen

The Ilversgehofen square is an area in Erfurt North. Today a part of Erfurt, it was an independent village until the 19th century. Ilversgehofen is attested by a document dated 1145 as a “Küchendorf” or a village, whose yield was destined for the manorial kitchen. It had a church, the Martinikirche, whose modified building is still existing today in the form of a protestant church. In the early 19th century, the village was occupied by Prussian troops and then developed as an industrial area of Erfurt. Ilversgehofen not only served as a production place but it also fulfilled military functions with the establishment of prisoners’ camps during the 1870 war, the First and the Second World War. The residential dimension of the area grew due to industrial activities, thus shaping it as a working-class and low income, neighbourhood locally known as “Blechbüchsenviertel”. More recently, it grew as a multi-ethnic area with a number of small shops along Magdeburger Allee. The area is charged with economic, urban and civic aspirations maintained by low renting costs. On the margin of the city centre, yet not too far from it, one hopes, demands and portrays oneself as an Erfordian dweller. This is in particularly reflected in the shop windows mimicking those of the city centres, dressing and walking styles, and private and group initiatives towards communal life and informal religious places.

The Ilversgehofen square is a triangular green square in a traffic fork, thus tightly connected by the unceasing surrounding traffic. It is surrounded by 19th century four-storied housing that offers an urban staging, but repairs, plot gaps and tags give a sense of precarity. The view to the north hints at less residential and more industrial areas. Thus, the Ilversgehofen square despite its garden layout and the relatively high 19th century brick housing gives us the feeling of a weak urban ambiance, on the edge between city centre and periphery, urban aspirations and urban disillusion, experienced and imitated urban attitudes.

Urban atmosphere in Anger

Anger counts as one of the three main squares of the old city (with Domplatz and Fischmarkt) and is the main shopping area of Erfurt city centre. This long street-like area of 600 meters is located south-east of the walled city, and within the perimeter of both successive city walls. It is framed by two churches, the protestant St. Wigbert on the west, and the catholic Kaufmannskirche on the east. Interestingly for this area that is still under the banner of trade and commerce, the Kaufmannskirche was founded by Frisian merchants during the 8th century, and thus is the first church of the market of Erfurt. “Anger” is a common denomination in German towns and it usually refers to busy market places. The Middle High German term “Anger” means a common land/open area with water and grazing space for cattle. It refers to an essential place of sociability in medieval villages and towns, where not just exchanges were taking place, but also processions, laundry activities, etc. From the 14th to 17th century, the eastern part of the Erfordian Anger was strictly dedicated to woad, a tentorial plant and essential resource of the city’s economy (see the chapter 3 of the KFG publication by Keller, Christ and Rüpke. Erfurt. The Blue City | Die blaue Stadt). In the 19th century, clothing industry established itself in this area, which eventually turned into shops and department stores: the big shopping street of Erfurt was born.

Not just two churches but also two fountains frame the square: on the west side, the “Angerbrunnen” built in 1890 presents two figures that immortalise both the main activities of Erfurt: horticulture represented by the roman goddess Flora, and craft and industry represented by the man with hammer and vice. The fountain not just enlivens the square with the vibrant sound of sparkling water, it also states the dual identity of the city, rooted in a long horticultural tradition and looking to a prospering and industrious future. It stages the self-awareness of citizenship, gained neither by religion (Domplatz) nor by political assessment (Fischmarkt), but by economic power.

The carillon of the Bartholomäusturm is another element that energizes the square where a crowd of strollers, flâneurs and shop clients are enjoying to see and to be seen. The remaining tower of the 12th century Bartholomäus church was enriched in 1979 by a carillon of 60 bronze bells. The carillon is played three times a day, besides special concerts, and thus sonically adds to the atmosphere of the busy Anger. With its 19th century architectural flair, its shops, its pedestrian zones, its fountains and carillon, Anger is the glorious square of Erfurt, demonstrating wealth, modernity, dynamism.

This boulevard-like square illustrates how much urban atmospheres can be staged and manipulated: power structures control the atmosphere through design (fountain, carillon, building maintenance) and legal regulations (opening hours, pedestrian zone, traffic). That way, the powerful, potentially dangerous, environment, namely the crowd, is turned into a resource. It is an economic resource and a powerful narrative that stages a modern and dynamic city (see Blom Hansen and Verkaaik 2009).6 Yet, the atmospheric manipulation is not only a top-down phenomena: it also results from the performance of urban infra-powers. Anger is a chic area because of well-dressed strollers contributing to the ambiance of the space. In the words of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, the city also results from the practices and claims of city dwellers (Lefebvre 1968 and de Certeau 1980).7

Another perspective on urban atmospheres can be gained by the open debate of phenomenologists, geographers and urban specialists on the nature of atmosphere. Is atmosphere linked to a meteorological presence determining emotional responses, or rather to the affective ‘aura’ of individuals and groups projected on a spatial setting? The idea of a meteorological presence comes from the 19th century and its debate on air quality. The development of phenomenology further emphasised the idea that air impacts the mood and triggers a corporeal experience and emotional responses (Anderson 2009, Gandy 2016).8 Atmospheres connect with moods, feelings and ambiances and are thus referred to as “affective atmospheres”. In Anger, the movements in the pedestrian zone, the humidity influenced by the presence of water, the extra lighting, the sound of the carillon are all stimuli that contribute to the shaping of a particular affective atmosphere. Apart from these physical stimuli, we should keep in mind that memories, imaginations, aspirations, fear and desires also influence the nature of the space. Besides the idea of a given meteorological presence, some authors like the phenomenologist Gernot Böhme advocate the subjectivity of atmospheres: the latter are rather the results of individuals and groups projecting their affect on a spatial setting. This perspective makes it possible to take into account the impact of groups and crowd, and to discuss “charged atmospheres” (Kathleen Steward, see Gandy 2017: 360).

Whether atmospheres are subjective and intrinsically spatial, it is clear that the physical is entangled with sensory and emotional factors. The complex phenomena results in the creation of multiple and ever-changing atmospheres. The urban setting with its small and compartmented spaces allows us to quickly navigate from one atmosphere to another (see the idea of the “spaceship” by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Gandy 2017: 316). Also, atmospheres are highly volatile –as Anderson puts it, “uncertain, disordered, shifting and contingent” (Anderson 2009: 78). Interestingly a Hindi word for atmosphere would be “mahaul” (माहौल), a term coming from Arabic “mā ḥawl” that can be translated as “atmosphere”, but also as “what changes.” Atmospheres are as fascinating as they are ephemeral.

Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in history of architecture and space, and currently works on water spaces in South Asia.


I would like to thank my colleagues Susanne Rau for the stimulating comments and Klara-Maeve O’Reilly for her editing. The images are by Martin Christ and the author.

1 Urbanity should also be seen in the perspective of neighbouring concepts such as metropolity and “citadinité”: on metropolity, see the DFG project (DFG-GRK 2337) “Metropolität in der Vormoderne”; on citadinity, see: Gervais-Lambony, Philippe. 2001. “La citadinité, un arbre dans la forêt ou comment un mot peut en cacher d’autres …” Vocabulaire de la ville, Editions du temps : 92-108.

2 Rau, Susanne. 2020. “Urbanity (urbanitas, Urbanität, urbanité, urbanità, urbanidad…) — An Essay.” Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Also see: Rüpke, Jörg and Rau, Susanne. “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations.” Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

3 Rüpke, Jörg. 2021. “Foundation Stories: Concepts of Urbanity in Augustan Rome”. Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

4 Lakjaa, Abdelkader. 2014. “Algérie : sens et enjeux d’une urbanisation par le bas. ” In: Devenirs urbains. Paris: Presses des Mines.

5 Translation is by author. “Le citadin aime la ville, ne veut pas la quitter, il a le sentiment d’appartenir à la ville. C’est donc d’abord un projet de vie qui caractérise le citadin.”

6 Blom Hansen, Thomas and Oskar Verkaaik. 2009. „Introduction – Urban Charisma. On Everyday Mythologies in the City.” Critique of anthropology. Vol 29(1) : 5–26. DOI:10.1177/0308275X08101029.

7 Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. Le droit à la ville. Paris: Éditions Anthropos. De Certeau, Michel. 1980. L’invention du quotidien. Arts de faire. Union générale d’éditions.

8 Anderson, Ben. 2009. “Affective atmospheres.” Emotion, Space and Society 2: 77–81. Gandy, Matthew. 2017. “Urban atmospheres.” Cultural geographies, Vol. 24(3): 353–374.

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