Earlier this summer, a mint-coloured object made of wood was located in downtown Munich not far from the famous Viktualienmarkt. The construction made of geometric shapes infuses some feelings of nostalgia. Like an oversized shell of a snail with a retro look, it fits into a public square, or rather an urban non-place which doesn’t even have its own name. This structure, the size of a pickup truck, attracts the curiosity of passers-by. Is it a café bar or a kiosk? Or is there something else on offer? If you get closer, the scenario inside is largely visible through the glass door and windows: there is a coffee machine and a bench like in a mobile home, otherwise the room is largely empty. At first glance, and where you would least expect it, it is not about consumption: no vegan ice cream, no business plan, just listening.
This place in Munich is called Zuhörraum, a listening room in English, where every weekday one of the ‘deep listeners’ welcomes passers-by during the opening hours. The setting should enable nothing more and nothing less than to start a conversation. Accessible without visible barriers, if you are interested you can simply stay by the door, take a seat on a step in the entrance area or sit face to face in a semicircle inside – an intimate area a little more protected from the outside.
One person comes and tells about himself and his whatabouts. A ‘deep listener’ is on site to pay attention. “Zuhörraum. We’re listening,” her business card reads, “Everybody’s story. Every joy. Every sorrow. Every human being.” It is not about replacing professional help, it is about tips, about attention, but not about advice or a holistic solution for personal crises. Everyday conversations should fill the listening room.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term third place in the 1980s, and mainly refers to a physical location other than work or home that is easily accessible and where interactions among people spontaneously happen. For three semesters, students of architect Florian Nagler, Professor of Design and Construction at the Technical University of Munich, have created, in a collaborative way, this place for listening, a room built using timber. The impetus for this idea and the location came from the Munich entrepreneur Michael Spitzenberger. His organization called momo hört zu! (in English, momo listens to) advocates for people to get in touch and listen to each other. Connect, reconnect, encounters should become acquaintances. “People are happy when somebody listens to them,” says Spitzenberger with a smile.
Everyone has the opportunity to make a shorter or longer stop at the listening room, to have a coffee – and to talk: momo hört zu! could be a solution for a third place with potential for development. Spitzenberger drew on the main character of the same name in Michael Ende’s 1973 novel Momo, or the full title, The strange story of the time-thieves and the child who brought the stolen time back to the people. In this sense, the listening room can also be understood as a kind of late-modern time capsule made of stories and a third place for communication in Oldenburg’s sense.
Munich is home to many different people. How do people live together in the city nowadays? Where do they meet – sometimes unexpectedly? A city needs spaces for encounters. However, often the city of today is not made for people and their needs beyond consumption, work and optimization. You can hardly find a bench, a seat to rest and generally to pause for a moment. The city thus reflects a restless society that no longer knows any resonance spaces because – driven by its own demands – it just keeps going. “Increasingly there is no time and consciousness for any random act of kindness,” says Spitzenberger.
Digitization, new forms of mobility and the struggle for sustainability are major challenges of our time. Climate change takes its toll. Yet we keep defending our habits by all means, although the realities are no longer the same, massive changes are ahead of us. Binding communication platforms such as the evening news program don’t play a role any more. Even if it is technically possible to communicate with people anywhere in the world, many people are primarily alone. The emphasis of valuing one’s self over the others has reached a moment in time, today it is primarily individuals who co-exits in a city. Everyone wants to be unique and stand out from the crowd, but many are lonely at the same time.
People are happy when somebody listens to them.
Munich has been Germany’s No.1 capital for singles for a long time. At the workplace, there are hardly any breaks, optimization comes before self-awareness. Stress is the connecting moment that everyone can commit to. The more stressed, it seems, the better the business is going. And yet it seems that this unhealthy development has now come to an end. The city – and with it the people – is in danger of collapsing in the face of permanent overload.
How can the city of tomorrow be imagined? Which rooms are necessary for a society that has exhausted its efficiency? As part of the City Makers Conference, which took place in Munich in July 2022, Ursula Münch, head of the political academy in Tutzing, pointed out the need for consumption-free spaces in a democratic society. In the city, such places must be created with the aim of communication – and maintained, not only to make participation possible, but to make living together possible. This can include setting up a bench where people you know and don’t know can talk to each other. But it can also be a garden or a neighborhood gathering place where different people meet each other informally. These are all reasons why Spitzenberger came up with the listening room.
What characterizes an urban society? It’s polyphony, which must be preserved in the spirit of a lively urban structure. A city is based on the division of labor, in a condensed form there are very different tasks to be dealt with at the same time. The people who do all these different jobs – from the principal to the cleaner, the educator to the teacher, the street sweeper to the entrepreneur – all those who work in the city must also be able to communicate in order to keep a healthy balance. Oldenburg explored in his book The Great Good Place how a third place could positively impact democracy, neighborhood communities and urban dwellers’ wellbeing, Spitzenberger thinks one of the main pillars is listening.
In a contribution for the German radio station Deutschlandfunk, the author Anne Müller shared some thoughts about listening nowadays. “In a personal conversation, listening means concentrating on the other person, making eye contact, literally ‘seeing’ the other person with what he or she is confiding to me,” summarizes Müller. Beyond paying attention, it is about a holistic perception that evolves into a form of empathy that is connected to meaningful hearing. Listening means taking time for the other and giving space.
A city that is increasingly occupied by private and economic interests literally needs third places or something like space for in-between activities such as the listening room. They must make encounters possible and open up a dialogue in which the issues of our time, fears and desires in our society can be discussed. These places – either for temporary interim uses or reserved for citizens in the long term, large or small interfaces in public space – always stand for a quite complex understanding of how to deal with resources and urban land.
In the three months that the listening room was anchored not far from Munich’s Viktualienmarkt, many people talked about what moves them but also about many other topics. In addition, around 25 people signed up to take part in the project and act as ‘deep listeners’ in the future. They are between 18 and 75 years old. Firstly, explains Spitzenberger, who is a trainer, they should be sensitized to their role as ‘deep listeners.’
With the initiative listening room, he tries out new strategies for mental health, thereby touching on the economic and political nerve of our time, of course without – and this can be critically assessed – going too deep into the matter or taking on social responsibility. “How do people achieve self-efficacy?” is Spitzenberger’s credo. There will never be enough third places to pause, reflect, and most importantly for listening in the city.