Elizabeth Childers profiles Bruno Taut’s Gartenstadt Falkenberg housing estate…
Take the S-Bahn twenty kilometers southeast from the Middle of Berlin to the Grünau stop and you will end up at a small and intriguing housing estate called Gartenstadt Falkenberg (“Falkenberg Garden City”). Clustered around three streets — Akazienhof, Am Falkenberg, and Gartenstadtweg — are 128 dwellings. These simple but colourful buildings sit in what looks like an almost rural landscape.
And, although it is winter it is obvious why the estate is the Garden City; trees will bloom, empty trellises will be covered in climbing greenery, windowsill boxes will sprout, and numerous private gardens will spring to life. There is a sense that you have taken the train much further than twenty kilometres, that you are no longer in Berlin, but in England.
This is no accident. England is the birthplace of the garden city model. The breadth and swiftness of Industrialisation, and its side effects, had caused great currents of social inequality. Born out of late nineteenth century English social reform movements, garden cities were meant to be self-sustaining.
Built on the plan that each community held within it small-scale factories, as well as schools and farms, the English garden cities were an attractive alternative for the low-income working-class that had been relegated to miserable inner-city tenement living.
Too, early designers, such as Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), envisioned several garden cities fanning out from each other. In this model there would never be an instance of overcrowding or overuse of resources as population grew. Instead a whole new sustainable estate would be provided.
The point of the garden city was proportion, not just spatially but ideologically. That is to say, much like the influential contemporary principals of the Arts and Crafts movement—which sought to abandon mass-production in favour of rekindling balance with nature—garden cities were attempts to bring an economic, social, and domestic equilibrium to the masses via proximity to nature and the faculty for self-sustainability.
Berlin was an industrial city, third in population (1.89 million in the early 1900s) only after New York and London. And, like in New York and London, the inner-city Berlin tenements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided wretched living environments. Industrialisation — and over-population brought by the exodus of workers into the cities — as well as (social) reform were topics on many minds.
It is no surprise then that Germans also searched for humane solutions to squalid living conditions. The majority of Berliners were living in crowded storied blocks of flats without bathrooms or sunlight.
As benevolent and cooperative building associations took shape, funds became available to construct viable alternatives for the city’s low-income citizens.
Bruno Taut (1880-1938), leading architect of the German Garden City Association, studied the English garden city model and reinterpreted it. Instead of building a central source of industry and therefore creating a community dissociated from the urban centre, Gartenstadt Falkenberg was meant to be a suburban estate connected to the city via rail.
Although the estate is connected to the city’s industry in this sense, the Falkenberg development allows for far more self-sufficiency than the inner-city tenements by providing each dwelling with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a garden. The landscape/garden architect, Ludwig Lesser (1869-1957), planned the private gardens, giving lectures and suggestions as to how the residents could best use their own pieces of earth. In this light, Lesser’s work takes the English model and evolves it by allowing the individual resident greater personal potential for self-sufficiency.
Overall though, it is difficult to compare Falkenberg to an English garden city since the completion of the estate never came to fruition. Originally planned to house 7,500 residents in 1,500 homes, estate construction terminated at the start of the war. But the 128 dwellings (in 21 buildings) that were built are magnificent nonetheless; and perhaps the development is made even more endearing due to its small size. As I found myself exclaiming how quaint and cozy Falkenberg is, I had to remind myself that this estate was meant to be much, much larger.
Regardless of size, what is strikingly original about Falkenberg is the colour. In fact, the nickname for the estate is Tuschkastensiedlung (“paint box estate”), so called because of the bright colours Taut used to decorate the buildings. That he used colour as (or instead of) decoration is one of the most distinct and pertinent elements of the estate. It also lends a particularly modernist feel to the development.
Colour acts as not only a replacement for superfluous decoration, but also as a way to separate the dwellings. The buildings are relatively plain—no moulding, columns, or statuary, for example—built using inexpensive materials.Taut lifts the plain structures out of their depressive potential through the simple use of colour; such simplicity is deceiving.
It was not until I walked through the estate a second time that I was really struck by how effective this solution is. For example, there is a real feeling of individuality given to the row houses in separating them by colour — the immediate assumption is that each dwelling is freestanding, when in fact a single roof connects each series.
There are other, subtle, elements which add to the character and congruity of the buildings. For example, many roofs display harmonious undulating framework on the uppermost windows. Aesthetically, this creates a feeling of both separation and unity which aligns with the design of a larger structure encasing individual dwellings. Furthermore, it is an element that links different unit housing to each other.
Too, there are unassuming solid shutters for the windows; painted white, they make a strong but subdued geometric impression against the painted walls. Such uncomplicated features strengthen the same geometric quality achieved through Taut’s use of colour, which is also employed to create patterns on doors and facades.
One building face is entirely gold and saffron checkerboard; a red door is set into a wall in the same colours but in a diamond motif. Many doors are the same mint and kelly green, but set against wall faces painted butter yellow, rusty brown, or deep blue (a colour later named “Taut Blue”). Again there is a quality of connectedness and separation — not unlike the idea of the estate being an extension of the city while simultaneously cut off from it. Each building is a rational extension of the others, and the garden city a rational extension of the urban city.
I mentioned before that the estate was meant to be much larger, and I cannot stress this enough when considering and interpreting the architecture or the experience of the space.
This fact limits understanding of the completed garden city, and therefore Taut’s final intention is elusive. I find myself wondering if I would be so captivated by the development if it were on a larger scale; perhaps I would find the abundant use of colour garish in a settlement of 1,500 buildings as opposed to 128. What is charming in one scale can be overwhelming in another.
Nevertheless, as I explored the walkways connecting the buildings, I felt further removed from an urban centre. Taut preserved the rural quality of the original plot through the gardens and the shared outdoor spaces. The landscaping layout between the buildings supplements the community atmosphere and contributes another connection to nature by providing a sort of internal outdoor space.
Perhaps in this light Taut’s plan would have preserved a village impression. In consideration that the estate was developed for low-income residents, the amount of land given to the inhabitants is remarkable. As an alternative to the usual scenario of over-populated inner-city tenement living, Gartenstadt Falkenberg seems a paradise; I like to think that this was Taut’s final design.