Jesse Simon takes a stroll through the Hansaviertel, yesterday’s city of tomorrow…
On the 22nd of November 1943 a group of allied bombers made a pass over Berlin, dropping several hundred bombs along their path. For the Hansaviertel, a small residential quarter sandwiched just south of Moabit between the Tiergarten and the Spree, it was the end.
The area had once resembled any number of Berlin neighbourhoods, with over three hundred residential blocks lining a series of streets that radiated outward from the central intersection—Hansa Platz—that gave the small district its name. It had suffered its first damage during a bombing raid earlier in the year, but after the additional November destruction only a handful of buildings remained.
Similar stories can be told for nearly every locality in Berlin: there were few parts of the city that remained untouched by the war. Where the story of the Hansaviertel diverges from that of other neighbourhoods is in what happened afterwards.
By 1950, Berlin was divided between the three Western sectors controlled by Allied powers, and the eastern sector under Soviet control. The two factions may have been politically opposed, but they shared a common burden of widespread devastation and a severe shortage of housing.
The Soviet authorities chose a destroyed section of the city east of Alexanderplatz—along a street formerly known as Große Frankfurter Straße—as the site for an ambitious demonstration of post-war housing along socialist lines. The street, which was renamed Stalinallee in 1949, was widened and lined with monumental, Soviet-style eight-storey blocks, each featuring an assortment of shops and services at ground-level.
The result was undeniably impressive and also somewhat austere; but with its integrated shopping and transit connections along the axis of the U-Bahn, it was not without its own functional charm. Whatever one thought about it, it was undoubtedly a new form of urbanism, resembling neither the close-packed streets of Altbauten, nor the edge-city Siedlungen (housing estates) that had defined Berlin before the war.
It was partially in response to the rhetorical monumentality of Stalinallee that the West Berlin senate started to plan their own exhibition of what the future of the city could look like. Where the buildings of Stalinallee offered an idealised illustration of collective living, the authorities of West Berlin wanted to demonstrate that higher-density urban spaces could be created at a less authoritarian and more human scale.
The idea of an international exhibition, in which architects from around the (western) world were invited to submit their ideas for new modes of housing, was proposed as early as 1951. Two years later it was decided that the former Hansaviertel would serve as the site for this experiment in modern urban design. The piles of rubble were cleared away—along with the few remaining buildings that had survived the war—and the area was completely resurveyed; the number of land plots had to be reduced considerably in preparation for larger buildings.
The list of architects invited to participate reads like a who’s-who of twentieth-century modernism: Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius and Arne Jacobsen all contributed plans for residential buildings. Many of Berlin’s prominent architects were also involved, including Werner Düttmann, Paul Baumgarten and Max Taut, the brother of Bruno Taut, whose housing developments in the 1920s were an immediate precursor to the ideologies of the rebuilt Hansaviertel. Le Corbusier was also invited, but his contribution—a reworking of his famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille—was planned on such a vast scale that it had to be constructed in another part of town (it was eventually built in Westend, just south of the Olympiastadion).
Despite the presence of so many prominent architects, the exhibition—known officially as the Internationale Bauaustellung 1957, or Interbau 57 for short—was not merely a demonstration of residential buildings. The area was intended as a self-contained urban entity, complete with schools, churches, shops, a theatre and an art gallery, all surrounded by elegantly landscaped green-space that merged seamlessly with the nearby Tiergarten. It was nothing less than an attempt to show what kind of city could be constructed by making a clean break from the urban traditions that had developed and accelerated during the industrial revolution.
The rebuilt Hansaviertel was intended as a city for the future, but the model of urbanism it espoused had been in development for more than half a century. During the nineteenth century the industrial revolution had triggered a population explosion in most European cities, and planning authorities struggled to keep up.
What emerged was barely controlled chaos. There was soot everywhere from all the coal-burning stoves, people were stuffed into cheap fire-traps with insufficient sanitation, and in the darkest corners lived every manner of crime and vice. This, at least, was the view of a small group of theorists who longed to leave the worst of the city behind and get back to nature.
The garden city, outlined by Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the twentieth century, was one of the first movements to propose ‘slumless, smokeless cities’ in which larger populations could live in closer proximity to outdoor space, far from the vices and ill-effects of the industrial metropolis.
Howard’s theories attracted many admirers, including Berlin architect Bruno Taut, who put some of them into practice. In collaboration with Martin Wagner, Taut created a series of projects in the 1920s in which residential populations were concentrated into large, carefully constructed blocks, that provided everyone with enough room to live while leaving ample space for natural surroundings. Other architects soon followed suit.
Although the style of these Siedlungen varied from project to project, what held them together was a belief in the civilising influence of fresh air, open space, and proximity to nature. In the negative column, however, was an underlying puritanical streak—some of the early Siedlungen conveniently neglected to include pubs—and a sense that the residents were being forced into an unnatural mode of living. The benefits of green areas and sufficient living-space were gospel among planners and architects of the time, but it does not seem to have occurred to them that the disorder and energy of the industrial city could be equally inspiring.
In 1925, Le Corbusier took urban utopianism to its (il)logical conclusion with his controversial Plan Voisin, which proposed that central Paris could be bulldozed and replaced with a matrix of large, high-density high-rises surrounded by trees and parks. The plan was justly derided for its insensitivity, its impracticality and its underlying hints of fascism, but the negative reactions also demonstrated just how unwilling people were to part with traditional urban life.
Only two decades later many of Europe’s greatest cities lay partially in ruins, and urban authorities were forced to decide between trying to reconstruct what had existed in the past, or creating something entirely new. The once-provocative dreams of the modern urban theorists were now suddenly within reach.
The City of Tomorrow and its Afterlife
After the ground was cleared and the plan approved, construction of the new Hansaviertel began in 1955. The work was still not complete when the exhibition had its official opening on 6 July 1957, but there was more than enough on the site to draw crowds. Interbau 57 was a genuine tourist attraction—complete with a temporary aerial tram—and Berliners flocked to the Hansaviertel to see the new tall buildings rising up from what, at the time, would have been a well-manicured and largely treeless landscape.
The new Hansaviertel was made up of numerous approaches to residential architecture. Near the S-Bahn were a series of high-rises, each with different sizes and arrangements of flats. Around Altonaer Straße were a series of slabs: longer, lower buildings of eight to ten storeys, with flats that extended through the width of the building. Yet there were also low-rise blocks, single family homes and complexes of smaller bungalows. Only the traditional five-storey Altbau, with Vorderhaus, Seitenflügel and Hinterhaus arranged around a small Hof was nowhere to be found.
In addition to the buildings, an exhibition was set up in a temporary pavilion in the Tiergarten called Die Stadt von Morgen—The City of Tomorrow. It was a work of outreach designed to convince a public still shaken by the war but increasingly consoled by the rapid economic recovery of the Wirtschaftswunder years that traditional urbanism was a thing of the past and that, with enough redevelopment, all of Berlin could be like the Hansaviertel.
After spending the afternoon marvelling at the architectural delights of the future city, visitors would return to their Altbauten on gas-lit, cobbled streets, with an Apotheke on the ground floor and a pub on the corner. The new urbanism of Interbau must have seemed a distant dream. In fact, for many Berliners, it would soon become a reality. The basic tenets of Interbau—high-density residential buildings, many built from prefabricated concrete slabs, placed in a parklike setting—were put into practice in new residential developments throughout the city.
In the West, the new developments of Gropiusstadt, Märkisches Viertel and Staaken were self-contained areas of inexpensively constructed towers and slabs designed specifically for lower income residents. In the East, the monumentality of Stalinallee—renamed Karl-Marx-Allee very soon after Stalin’s death—was shelved in favour of communities of large blocks built to only a handful of different building designs. Shorn of the architectural pomp and governing ideologies that had differentiated Hansaviertel from Stalinallee, the large residential complexes of East and West bore a curious resemblance to one another.
Yet the traditional model of pre-War urbanism—tangles of narrow medieval streets, grand avenues and grid systems imposed by enlightenment visionaries, and the inviting chaos of industrial-era commercialism—has never lost its allure. The urban environment that inspired Walter Benjamin, Franz Hessel and countless part-time flâneurs is resilient precisely because of its unpredictability. It tempts us constantly with vistas of streets not taken, and of courtyards whose mysteries we will never discover.
There is nonetheless something to be said for the alternative model of city life promised by Interbau 57. Anyone who has suffered beneath the noisy feet of careless neighbours in a poorly insulated Altbau, or who has been forced to watch the seasons change from behind the double glazing looking down on a gloomy Hof may begin to see the attraction of a place where the floors are concrete and everyone has a balcony that looks out onto nature.
Today the Hansaviertel is not only one of the prettier spots in central Berlin but also one of the most desirable residential addresses. The shopping precinct has not, perhaps, aged especially well, but the trees have grown tall and the well-maintained buildings are as graceful as ever. The fact that no two buildings are the same, and that each has the refined articulation of an architectural showpiece, lends the area a visual interest lacking from some of the more repetitive developments that followed in its wake.
Indeed, Berlin’s original ‘city of tomorrow’ provides something close to the best of both worlds. It is an enclave of relative calm where one can spend a sunny afternoon looking out at the trees from one’s balcony, but the chaotic delights of old Berlin are only an U-Bahn stop away. This, perhaps, is the paradox of Hansaviertel: it offers a reprieve from the traditional city, but cannot ultimately replace it. The city of tomorrow and the city of yesterday need one another; it is only through their opposition that we can appreciate the merits of each.