Martin Schmitz is a walk scientist and thus a representative of a discipline in which it is not just a matter of reflective walking around.
Martin Schmitz on the move in Berlin Photo: Doro Zinn
He carries an elegant walking stick in his hand, hiking boots on his feet, and a backpack with books he publishes himself on his back: Martin Schmitz, born in 1956, is a walking scholar. His great teacher: Lucius Burckhardt. He invented the discipline that Schmitz now teaches at the Kunsthochschule Kassel in the 1980s – as an approach for urban and landscape planners. He was a "polymath," as Martin Schmitz describes him, a critic of science and a go-getting spirit.
Walking science – that sounds clueless. What is there to talk shop about when it comes to walking? But behind the discipline lies a critical view of the world and its makers, political impetus – and gentle irony. Schmitz wants to give us an introduction to the science of walking (also known as promenadology or "strollology"), a first small seminar, so to speak.
Unlike the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, who propagated the walk as a means of organizing one’s thoughts, Schmitz is concerned with the conscious perception of the environment. And about movement. "If you want to make a statement about a space, you have to move in it," Schmitz says. "Our perception is basically then the quotient of the billions of impressions we have and the things we’ve learned." He crosses the crosswalk in front of his front door on Dresdener Strabe in Berlin-Kreuzberg. And then he’s off.
He prefers to speak while walking rather than standing
Lesson one: Perceive. "This here is urban planning, which of course does what …?" asks Schmitz as he points teacher-like with his walking stick to a bend in the road where a pedestrian railing stands. "For any driver, this is insurance: I can step on the gas there," he finally answers himself. Snow lines the sides of the road. There’s a smell of exhaust fumes. The corner in front of his house was planned from the perspective of motorists, he says. The crosswalk on the next corner is also nonsensical, he says. "That’s a token crosswalk. It’s there so that people can say: Berlin has quite a few crosswalks."
Lesson two: recognize connections. It’s worth questioning what’s behind the things that surround us in the city. What contexts, what intentions. Why is that sign in that place? "It’s all man-made," says Schmitz. All design: "Urban planning is the biggest thing to design. But you can break it down to the egg cup."
Schmitz talks a lot, but prefers standing to walking. He pleads for a sunny spot, keeping his face in the warm light now making its way through the clouds; one hand in the pocket of his corduroy pants, his arm propped on his cane. "It’s beautiful here," the cane emblem reads. The expression is programmatic for the science of walking. "In any place, it has its validity, and then you can ask: Is it beautiful here? Yes? No? Why?"
Focus on the present in a value-free way
Lesson three: question perceptual conventions – walking science does that, too. "Why is Landscape Beautiful?" is the title of a book by Swiss sociologist Lucius Burckhardt, which Schmitz publishes. Schmitz now manages his estate. According to Burckhardt, landscape is created in the mind. It is learned and constructed.
Schmitz explains that people who come back from a walk often describe what they expect – not the things that disrupt the familiar image, such as trash. "We then talk about, ‘This is typical Berlin Grunderzeit development’ or ‘very typical Brandenburg landscape.’ But these are things that we bring with us, that we have learned." What’s important about walking, he says, is to break with those images.
In Burckhardt’s day, walking science was part of the Department of Architecture, Urban and Landscape Planning at what was then the Gesamthochschule and is now the University of Kassel. It unites planning and building science, sociological, art and cultural science perspectives. But also reminds us of phenomenology and the concept of mindfulness: to perceive what is and to concentrate value-free on the present instead of on the thoughts in the head.
In between, it’s about history. Walking science has always had something political, something activist, too (lesson four). It is, he says, a continuation of the urban planning critique of the 1960s and 1970s. But its origins go back even further.
Why is snow beautiful?
After World War II, the gothic inner city in Basel was to be converted to suit cars and entire rows of houses were to be demolished. Burckhardt had been one of the few to oppose this early on, in 1949. Even when Schmitz studied with Burckhardt in Kassel, he says, it was a matter of getting involved: "Back then, I also became the savior of the tramway in Kassel," Schmitz says. It looks as if he is still proud.
We walk a little further. To the bridge in front of the Angel Basin. To where the wall once ran. The dome of St. Michael’s Church shines turquoise against the dark wall of clouds. An unexpected idyll. Especially because of the snow. But why is snow actually beautiful, I ask myself? It’s cold and just slush. Two girls in thick jackets build a snowman. They, too, are creating. And it becomes clear that every walk lasts only for a moment.
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There are plenty of walkers on this day. Under the bridge where we stop, people go their ways, some hand in hand. The former Luisenstadtischer Kanal, which is now a path, reminds me of a skating rink because of the frozen snow. Schmitz, on the other hand, is struck by the need for maintenance in this place. "You can tell by the sprayers," he says. Pointing to the graffiti across from us, he undertakes a change of perspective: "The sprayers are, after all, trying to spray quite riskily – where they can be discovered immediately."
Lesson five: the change of perspective – this is also what walk science is about. Later, in the book "Why is Landscape Beautiful?" I read how Lucius Burckhardt walked along the Frankfurter Strabe in Kassel with students – with windshields in front of their faces. The point was to show the car’s perspective. And to criticize the limitations of their perception. In the process, the science is reminiscent of action art. Schmitz hands me the book with Burckhardt’s texts at the end of the walk – as a handout, so to speak. But before that, it becomes critical again.
No authoritarian expertism
Lesson six: Criticism of science. Important in walk science, he says, is also the critique of science as such. "We call such research, for lack of a better term, art," Burckhardt had said of walk science during his lifetime. In the hallway of Schmitz’s institute today, however, there is indeed a sign that reads "Institute for Walking Science," he affirms. When Schmitz talks, he always does so with a sly smile – there it is: the subtle irony.
As he walks back, he points to an arcade attached to one of the houses on Waldemarstrasse. Tells of his first encounter with Burckhardt, during his studies. Not only his research, but also his nature had fascinated him. Back then, at the age of 20, he walked through a similar corridor in Kassel. "Do I know why the corridors here are so narrow?" Burckhardt asked. And recounted that the hallway was planned by a professor in the department "so students would follow him around like ducklings."
Being a punk in the head
Like Burckhardt, whom Schmitz describes as humble, he doesn’t like authoritarian punditry. In the ’80s, he lived between Berlin and Kassel. In West Berlin, he witnessed the so-called genial dilettante culture. It united people who made art and music across genre boundaries and practiced cultural criticism. Schmitz was fascinated, more hippie than punk at the time – "but in your head you can also be a punk.
Schmitz is freezing – but his apartment is almost reached again: "At that time, I sat a lot in the state library and researched the concept of the dilettante," he still recounts. He was considering a doctorate at the time. But a doctorate on dilettantism? That was not compatible.
Today, his publishing house also sells works by people he met back then: Wolfgang Muller, Françoise Cactus, Rosa von Praunheim. What the "ingenious dilettantes" have in common with walk science is not only the critical, but also the interdisciplinary. And something else: art.