2 December 2009

The father of the Ampelmann dies ...

News reached Dr B today of the death of Karl Peglau, the designer of the East German red and green traffic light people, which have now become a symbol of united Berlin. Here's the story:
Peglau was asked by an East Berlin traffic commission to come up with a new concept for traffic lights in an effort to stem the growing number of accidents on the city's streets ... Peglau believed that traffic could be better managed if pedestrian and vehicle traffic were controlled by different signals, and set about creating the little human stop and go figures now known as the Ampelmännchen. Although they did not receive much attention at the time, the figures became cult objects over the years, primarily for their cuteness. Their friendly quality was no accident; Peglau gave them a stocky build, button noses, perky hats, and jaunty poses so that they would radiate what Peglau called "an aura of cosiness and human warmth" that would resonate emotionally with pedestrians. Peglau's design also took practical considerations into account. The sturdy figures' large surface area made them easily discernible in low visibility conditions, and the red Ampelmännchen's outstretched arms resemble a horizontal barricade while his green partner's wide stride suggests an arrow.
After unification, the continued existence of the Ampelmännchen was threatened by being replaced by the ubiquitous Euromann the new style trafiic light figure from the West:
As authorities began replacing defective East-Ampelmännchen, designer Markus Heckhausen began collecting the discarded glass signals and turning them into lamps, which became a hotly desired fashion accessory and garnered the movement to save the Ampelmännchen substantial media coverage.
In an essay in German Politics (3/1997) Mark Duckenfield and Noel Calhoun explore how the eastern Ampelmann came to be saved from being wound down like other east German relics. It was initially the CDU economics minister in Saxony who recommended the continued use of the eastern Ampelmann in 1995, as, "the use of these figures helps us maintain a Saxony identity". The factory that produced the traffic lights - in GDR times called VEB Signaltechnik - was also located in saxony as it happened. Saxony-Anhalt then followed suit as eventually did Berlin, despite inital resistance, following a campaign by the Committee to Save the Ampelmännchen, which as Duckenfield and Calhoun point out, was an unusual organization; "it is more of an advertising campaign than a political group". The Berlin traffic bureaucracy was initally puzzle by the end of the "one Berlin, one traffic light policy" - although this policy has since been reborn with the eastern Ampelmann becoming standard issue across the city, East and West. At the same time, the continued existence of the Ampelmann, accorring to the article's authors, also serves to act as a positive sign of integration of the east:
... entirely untainted by the negative aspects of GDR life[, d]esigned for children, the short and stocky Ampelmann evokes an uncontroverisal, apolitical affection. It is not associated with the erros, crimes and disasterous public policies of the GDR. [It] serves both as a pleasant reminder of a less complicated past and a symbol of resistance to mindless western standardisation.
Credits: photos from http://www.germany.info/Vertretung/usa/en/__PR/GIC/2009/12/01__Peglau__PM.html.
Mark Duckenfield and Noel Calhoun, 'Invasion of the Western Ampelmännchen', German Politics 6: 3, December 1997, pp.54-69. The full article can be found here in pdf format.


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