The History of Munich and Its Loam

„Ohne den Lehm daat’s München net geb‘n!“

This post by Julia Schneider, a student of the RCC-LMU Environmental Studies Certificate Program, stems from her research conducted as part of the exhibition project “Ecopolis: Understanding and Imagining Munich’s Environments.”

Figure 1. Details of clay bricks in Munich, from the Nordfriedhof (left), the Frauenkirche (center), and the Salvatorkirche (right). Photographs by author.

Thinking about houses and buildings made out of clay bricks, it is often cities like those in northern Italy that spring to mind. Bologna, Florence, or Siena; particularly those moments when the sun sets and the city glows red and ochre with all the big churches, towers, and palazzi made out of and covered with red clay bricks and tiles. Clay bricks are Italy. Thus, such an image doesn’t really fit with Munich, our Bavarian capital north of the Alps, quite far away from Bella Italia and its red sun—at least that’s what I thought before writing this article.

While wandering around Munich, however, I suddenly realized how many of the buildings, houses, and churches here are also built out of clay bricks: for example, the cultural center Gasteig, parts of the LMU, and also the main church of Munich, the Frauenkirche. If you really start to search for clay bricks, you suddenly find them everywhere in the city—not necessarily in red, and sometimes they are plastered, but still you can see them. Starting to research this topic further, I found an interesting story behind the clay bricks that are found all around Munich. It is a story that has its origin over 100,000 years ago, resulting from Munich’s vicinity to the Alps, and it is one that affected not only Munich’s architecture but also its society and social structure over hundreds of years.

Because of Munich’s geographical position close to the Alps, it was affected by the glaciation of this mountain range during the Pleistocene. During the last two Glacial Periods—the Riss- and Würm-Glaciations around 130,000 and 11,000 years ago—the glacier’s moraines transported a lot of rocks, stones, gravel, and sediment from the Alps northwards, and thus formed the landscape of present-day Munich. A flat and gravelly landscape with some small hills and terraces—the so-called “Munich gravel plain”—was created. The rocks and stones that came from the calcareous Alps were easily eroded by forces like wind or rain. Wind also deposited the fine eroded sediment further north—especially to an area that is now a high terrace located between Ramersdorf and Ismaning in the eastern part of contemporary Munich. This created a thick layer of sediment on the terrace known as the loess-layer. Weathering of those sediments—the influence of temperature and, in this case especially, precipitation over the years—turned the loess into a special type of soil called loam. So, over thousands of years, a layer of loam (termed the Lehmzunge) up to four meters thick, two to three kilometers wide, and fifteen kilometers long was created in the middle of what is now Munich.

This loam layer was an enormous resource of building material and became important for the first time after a large fire in Munich in 1327, following which, in 1342, the Emperor Ludwig der Bayer mandated that all houses in the city of Munich had to be covered with clay bricks. More and more clay brickworks were built. In 1475, one could count 60 brickworks, mainly in the city districts of Haidhausen, Oberföhring, and Daglfing, which were small towns on the outskirts of Munich back then.

Figure 2. The brickwork on Rosenheimer Straße in Munich, with St. Michael’s Church in Berg am Laim in the background, by German painter Joseph Stephan (1770).

From then on, the trade with clay bricks and wood (to burn the clay bricks) was part of the economic interaction between Munich and its surrounding towns and it laid the foundation for Munich’s growth and development—not only by providing building material for the city to grow, but also regarding the functioning and structure of the economy and society.

Despite this development, most of the loamy area remained farming land until about 200 years ago. With the end of the manorial system in 1848, farmers had the right to freely dispose of their land, and a lot of them sold their fields to loam businessmen—known as Ziegelbarone or Loambarone. More and more brickworks were set up on the loamy high terrace, first in Haidhausen and then later on in Ramersdorf, Berg am Laim, and Zamdorf.

Producing bricks became more than just a viable business because of parallel developments to the breakthrough of clay as a building material in Munich: Industrialization and the building of the railroad around 1840. During this time, Munich’s population grew exponentially and the city expanded to become bigger and bigger. While the population increased from 85,000 (1846) to almost 500,000 people (1900), the number of buildings in the city tripled. Between 1820 and 1900, the loam resources of the whole area between Ramersdorf, Berg am Laim, and Zamdorf had been exploited and depleted (a state known as abgeziegelt) and the brickworks necessarily expanded further north to Bogenhausen and Ismaning.

Clay bricks were used everywhere—for the walls of residential buildings (e.g. along Amalienstraße), representative buildings such as the Justizpalast (palace of justice at Karlsplatz) and the Gylptothek (at Königsplatz), or churches such as the Frauenkirche or the Johanneskirche at Preysingplatz. However, the extraction of the loam to build the bricks left shallow pits (Gruben) in the landscape, such as the Gruab’n in Haidhausen, the clay from which was used to build the Frauenkirche.

Figure 3. Munich’s Frauenkirche, which was built out of clay bricks from Haidhausen between 1469 and 1489. Photograph by author.

Of course, the extraction, processing, and usage, of this natural resource also had an impact on the environment. In particular, the large amounts of firewood required to produce bricks out of the loam increased deforestation; later on, in the middle of the nineteenth century, coal was used as fuel. This again had a negative impact on the air quality and also led to acid rain that threatened not only historical buildings but also water resources, flora, and fauna—whole ecosystems in and around Munich. Consequently, Munich’s botanical garden had to be relocated to the western part of the city (considering the geographical location of Munich this meant into the west “wind zone”), so the polluted air could no longer harm the precious plants. Furthermore, removing the loam layer on the ground also had a negative impact on the quality of the ground water, because this type of soil layer functions as a pollutant filter and is therefore very important in maintaining a high quality of ground water and drinking water.

But, apart from negative impacts on the environment and the obvious influence of loam on the appearance and structure of the city (visible through clay bricks as a building material), there are many other aspects that tell the story of clay brick production in Munich. One can be found by visiting the old hostel buildings in Haidhausen. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the First World War, many guest workers, mainly from Italy, came to Munich to work in the brickworks. Therefore, many hostel buildings were built around the “Lehmzunge” and some of them still exist today. Moreover, the name of the city district “Berg am Laim” (Laim = Loam) is reminiscent of the loam resources that existed there a century ago. More hidden links between Munich and loam are revealed during three city tours that are described in a Munich guide and can be downloaded here.

Figure 4. Sewer system in Munich showing typical “Klinker” bricks. (Photograph by Basti007/wikimedia commons)

What we don’t see while wandering around the streets of Munich on the trail of clay bricks is that they’re also below us, in and under the ground. In 1811, when the city started to build sewers, they used “Klinker” for building the tunnels (Figure 3), which was a type of clay brick that they burnt in a special way to make it especially robust. Parts of those tunnels are still in operation and can be visited with official guides.

The explosive growth and the development of industrial brick production meant that within approximately 150 years—from 1820 to 1970—the loam resources in Munich had been completely exploited. Furthermore, new building materials such as concrete began to compete with the clay bricks. Nowadays, the only brickwork within the borders of the city of Munich that still exists is preserved as a monument: The “Ziegelei Haid” in Oberföhring. It can still be visited today, and more information on other former brickworks in the northeastern part of Munich can be discovered online here.

In the end, all of the clay brick buildings around the city can be seen as small monuments of Munich’s history as a clay brick production site. Hence, it of course still takes a good glass of red wine on a warm, sunny, summer afternoon in Haidhausen to feel like Bologna or Siena. However, in some way, the clay brick houses around us can prove the saying that “Munich is the most northern city of Italy.”


Further Reading on Munich’s Loam History

Kasberger, Erich, and Winfried Eckardt. Lehm Ziegel Stadt: Der Rohstoff Lehm in der Münchner Stadtgeschichte. München: Volk Verlag, 2008.

Landeshauptstadt München (LHM). ThemenGeschichtsPfad: Ziegeleien im Münchner Osten, Anleitung zur Spurensuche. München, 2015. Accessed 15 May 2017.

Lehrberger, Gerhard, and Kurosch Thuro. “Geologie am Tagungsort München: Gesteine in und unter der TUM.” In: 19. Tagung für Ingenieurgeologie mit Forum für junge Ingenieurgeologen, 31–40. München: Technische Universität München (TUM), 2013 . Accessed 15 May, 2017.

Lutz, Fritz.  Mein München. I. Streifzüge durch die Landschaft. München: Oldenbourg, 1960.

Weichselbaumer, Susi. Lehmbarone und Ziegelpatscher. A Radio Feature of the Bayerischer Rundfunk BR2. 12 August, 2013. Accessed 15 May 2017.

Wiegant, Claus, Dorothea Wiktorin, and Günter Heinritz.  Der München Atlas: Die Metropole im Spiegel faszinierender Karten. Köln: Emons Verlag, 2003.

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