When I tell people that I’m a Culture Studies student, rarely do they have an idea of what that actually means. What do I study? Well, cultural phenomena like social media, literature, culture history, ideology, sociology of culture, media literacy, globalisation… Basically anything culture-related that constructs the world around us. Instead of going into a deep discussion of what culture is and what we do with it, I thought that today I would share a short piece I wrote for a Globalisation assignment a few weeks ago. It’s actually pretty typical of what we do at uni – taking an object, public space, or art piece, and try to place in in a certain context.
How Does Cologne Fit in a Discourse on Globalisation?
Celine Frohn, 2014
The moment one walks out of the central station of Cologne (Köln Hauptbahnhof), one cannot help but notice the most eye-catching building in the city: the Kölner Dom. This cathedral is over 150 meters high, and can be seen from various points in the city. Although the cathedral takes only a few hundred square meters of space in the city center, because of it’s dominant and overwhelming presence, it changes from being a katholic place of worship it becomes an identifier of the city itself. This becomes especially apparent when shopping for postcards – the Dom is placed prominentely on almost all of them.
The Gothic cathedral around which the city center of Cologne is built, stands in stark contrast of the buildings that surround it. Built almost againt the Dom is the Römisch-Germanisched Museum Köln, an archeological museum, a square concrete building. On the other side, the square leads to a shopping street, featuring chain stores like H&M, Esprit, Douglas, Media Markt, Fossil, and countless others. If you turn a corner, you can enjoy a coffee at the Starbucks, or have the local specialty beer, Kölsch, at Früh.
On one hand, Cologne has many of the characteristics of a globalised city. The all-present chain giants, selling the same product over the entire globe, dominate the shopping streets. One can buy the same Fossil bag in Cologne, New York, or Paris. The shops are nearly interchangable with those in other cities. A lot of articles have been written about these kinds of global chains with a global brand, and Cologne doesn’t escape the standard high street image. However, as globalisation tends to go together with a current of localisation, there are also strong elements to profile Cologne as a unique place. The biggest symbol of this is the Dom, the beautiful and huge cathedral, but also smaller typically “Kölnsch” elements can be found throughout the city. The archaic pubs, with waiters in traditional uniform serving Kölsch beer in specific glasses (which are carried on special serving plates). Not only is drinking the local beer stimulated by profiling it as a part of the culture of Cologne, there is also an added economical stimulus: in all of the pubs the city center, Kölsch is the cheapest beer.
The city has conformed itself to the globalising influences of chain stores, but tries to cling to a local identity, as mentioned above. Returning to the Dom, it’s becomes apparent how public space can get claimed by global tourists. Even though the building is still a functional cathedral where the catholic mass is performed, it doubles as tourist destination. I witnessed the bizarre duality of this on a particular Sunday this summer, when in the front of the cathedral there was a mass going on, which is traditionally held in silence outside of the occasional prayers or songs. At the same time there were hundreds of tourists in the back of the cathedral, happily chattering and taking pictures. The public space of the cathedral doubles as both a sacred space, and as a destination for tourists seeking the unique and authentic, tourists who want to capture the “essence” of Cologne.
The Dom can be seen as a metaphor for the entire city of Cologne. It clings to a constructed local identity of uniqueness, but can’t escape the global flow of comodities, products, and people.