Happy Birthday Hilde Weström

Natalie Holmes celebrates the 100th birthday of one of Berlin’s few post-war female architects…

If you’ve spent even a small amount of time in Berlin, chances are you’ll have walked past one of Hilde Weström’s buildings, even if you didn’t know it.

One of the very few female architects of postwar Berlin, Weström helped to rebuild the city with compassionate housing that was necessarily pragmatic and avoided ostentation.

Born one hundred years ago today, on 31 October, 1912, Weström was an ambitious architect from the outset; her lifetime one of consistent disregard for gender-based social boundaries, which she proceeded to smash and overturn one by one.

One of a handful of women enrolled in architectural studies at the Berlin-Charlottenburg Polytechnic in 1932, Weström went on to become one of the first women accepted into the Bund Deutscher Architekten (Association of German Architects) in 1948.

In between, she moved to Dresden to avoid the Nazification of her Berlin university, and then to Breslau (now Wroclaw), where she worked during WWII. After the war, Weström returned to Berlin, where her career began to take off; the destruction of 66,000 homes – one third of the city’s housing – presenting an unlikely opportunity for budding architects at the time.

“Die zerstörte Stadt war meine Chance”  (“The ruined city was my chance”), she reminisced much later – a quote so significant and telling that it has been lifted by the Berlinische Galerie as the title of an exhibition to celebrate the architect’s centenary this year.

Though Weström’s buildings embody what today seems a strange and singular coldness of postwar West German modernity, the somewhat nondescript, functional exteriors mask an intention – and fulfilment – of tenderness and warmth. Building homes that were livable and affordable was the order of the day, and Weström did so by starting at the heart.

Planufer, Berlin-Kreuzberg (1951-52) © Foto- Friedhelm Hoffmann

“Women usually designed from the inside outwards,” she remarked at the now world-famous 1957 Interbau International Building Exhibition in Berlin.

“They are more concerned with the elaboration of spatial sequences which give the feeling of freedom and well-being…as they also care about every detail, including cost, women are more thrifty and consequently build more economically.”

A mother of four, the architect was a champion for the thousands of working women – many of them single mothers after the war – in Berlin, and was devoted to creating social, adaptable housing. It is from this perspective that she entered her designs for a model apartment in the Die Stadt von Morgen (The City of Tomorrow) exhibition at Interbau 1957.

Her designs, which fascinated the audience, included sliding partition walls to make the most of limited space, as well as a “fully automated kitchen” with dishwasher, cooker and pull-out work surfaces.

“I thought about how families could have their own environment” she explained. “The hall can be large enough for kids to ride scooters or rocking horses.” Significantly, and against all expectations, Weström ensured it was affordable.

In addition to creating a number of schools, Weström completed more than 800 housing projects over her career, including an apartment block on Planufer in Kreuzberg, Haus Hanke-Förster at Teltower Damm 139 and Haus Küster at Stubenrauchstrasse 52, both in Zehlendorf.

And though her name is little credited for it, she collaborated with Hans Scharoun in the design of Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek (State Library), hailed as one of the world’s most famous modern libraries.

Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek

A pioneer of the Neues Bauen style popularised by more famous male contemporaries such as Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut, Weström’s sparse and thrifty designs were in keeping with the era’s avant-garde penchant for minimalism.

She used forms and colors to accentuate spaces and people’s experiences within them. “I consider how materials and colors will age in time. Silver-gray and deep pink, for example, age decently together”.

Though she retired in 1981, Weström continues to live a socially active life at a retirement home in Moabit – one that she herself designed. It is here, in her spacious room with two large balconies and pretty view, that the architect reaches her 100th birthday.

“So einen Luxus gab’s in meinen Häusern nicht”, she recently told RBB, in a moving summing up of her life’s dedication to altruism. “My house was never this luxurious”.

Addendum: Frau Weström passed away on 10 February 2013.

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin. She loves learning German, birdwatching and travelling by train, in between working as a freelance travel…

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