Onkel Toms Hütte

Natalie Holmes unearths the intriguing story behind Zehlendorf’s most singular housing estate…

Image by Natalie Holmes

Imagine this: in 1925, 70,000 Berliners lived in basements and about 600,000 people inhabited rooms shared with three others.

Many apartments had little or no heating and the lack of running water made for appalling sanitary conditions. In winter the apartments were damp and icy. In summer they were unbearably hot.

Times were tough, so in order to survive, women and children frequently had to work at home, turning some of their valuable living space into working areas, only adding to the horrendous noise and smells of a sickeningly claustrophobic effervescence.

With the industrial revolution, Berlin’s population had exploded to 4.5 million by 1920. Exacerbated by the style of housing, the city quickly became one of the most populous and densest in the world, where life for the majority of its inhabitants was one of misery and abject poverty.

The most common type of building at this time was a square block – 22 meters high and 150 wide, according to the limits of planning regulations of the time. This block consisted of a Vorderhaus facing the street, two perpendicular Quergebäuden, a side area (Seitenflügel) and the backyard (Hinterhof).

With demand for housing so high, it was not unusual for up to 600 people to cram into one of these tightly knit constructions; over 1000 people lived at the building on Ackerstraße 132 in Wedding, probably breaking some grim record at the time.

The (recently formed) Weimar Republic had to take drastic action to alleviate the growing housing crisis, and architect Martin Wagner was a key figure in the housing reform that followed.

A dedicated socialist, Wagner recognised the failings of purely capitalist projects and set about pursuing a more sustainable form of financing. He was instrumental in the creation of the GEHAG (Gemeinnützige Heimstätten-, Spar- und Bau-Aktiengesellschaft – Housing Cooperative for Savings and Construction) in 1924.

Working with his contemporary and fellow architect Bruno Taut, Wagner was also a rationalist, advocating the replacement of manual labour by machines, which he believed would liberate the workers. Inspired by the towering steel structures being constructed Stateside, the pair saw mass production and prefabrication as the solution to driving down construction costs by cutting out the middle man.

Image by Natalie Holmes

The first product of this new wave of building technique was Britz in Neukölln, the site of the famous Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) that went on to become an emblem of the movement and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with five other subsidised projects (built between 1910 and 1933) that together make up the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates.

In 1926, Taut worked with architect Hugo Häring to design and build Onkel Toms Hütte. Financed by the GEHAG and heavily influenced by Taut’s previous partnership with Wagner, Onkel Toms Hütte is relatively underrated as a building project that was arguably revolutionary in both its theory and execution. Taut visualised a Utopian society – classless and at one with nature, and criticised the capitalist system, describing it as a headless body, selfish and utilitarian.

Onkel Toms Hütte, the penultimate stop on Berlin’s U3, is testament to Taut’s success. Named after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1853 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the district apparently acquired its label in around 1885, after a local pub-restaurant (Gaststätte) landlord called Thomas installed cabins in his beer garden, which came to be known as ‘Tom’s Cabins’.  Situated on the edge of the Grunewald forest, bounded from the west on Riemeisterstrasse and from the east on Holzungsweg, the estate’s trunk access road is Argentinische Allee. Perpendicular to this is Onkel Toms Strasse, and the aforementioned Gaststätte, which is sadly no more, was located near the junction with Riemeisterstrasse.

The housing estate that Taut created on the 12-hectare site is a triumph of colour and light. Rationalist in influence but human in style, the accommodations are somehow conformist but not monotonous. Back in the twenties, Taut anticipated his buildings’ degradation over time and allowed for this in his design so that, unlike most other ageing housing estates, they look as modern, warm and comfortable now as they must have when first erected. More so, perhaps.

Image by Natalie Holmes

The buildings are modernist and practical, but Taut avoids monotony by including diversity within their homogeneity. Various sections of the sprawling estate look different to each other in terms of colour, shape and size.

Space is as important as what fills it, with housing blocks broken up at intervals with unpredictably pleasing paths, roads, woods and parks. The mechanical lines of the buildings are also softened by homely details such as asymmetric windows and invitingly individual doors.

Use of colour can often look gaudy and catalyse the ageing process, at least aesthetically. One of Taut’s many achievements with Onkel Toms Hütte is the enduring polychromatic success, apparently inspired by the likes of Mondrian, Kandinski and De Stijl.

Somewhere between pastel and primary, and clearly well-maintained, the buildings manage to be both vividly and subtly allochroous; the blues, greens and oranges a comfortable compromise between urbanity and nature.

Nature features heavily in this space too. Towering trees are ubiquitous, and wildlife is all around. Bird-life is pleasantly apparent, actively encouraged by the numerous feeders and nesting boxes. In keeping with the architects’ intention to bring inhabitants closer to nature, the vegetation itself is important in the estate’s overall effect. The low-rise constructions are dwarfed by arboreal monoliths that cast dramatic shadows, providing an external wallpaper of dynamic, interrupted light.

Wandering around Onkel Toms Hütte, one gets the strong impression that this is a wonderful place to live. Almost a century since its construction, the area evokes an excitingly futuristic feel and would not seem out of place in a Utopian sci-fi story. That this estate has survived and flourished is all the more moving given the horrors of the decades that were to follow.

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  1. Mari says:

    This is absolutely interesting!I have friends who live in one those houses, not surprisingly she is an architect.
    Utopian architecture and the Höfe are definitely a very distinctive feature of Berlin (not necessarily well known).

    Visiting these days the exhibit “Katsura Imperial Palace
    Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro” (http://www.bauhaus.de/aktuelles/sonderausstellungen+M52087573ab0.html) at the Bauhaus Archiv, I’ve learned that Taut had been influenced by Japanese traditional architecture which he considered an example of modern architecture.

  2. Detlef A says:

    Your subtitle is intriguing, but Natalie Holmes does nothing of the kind!

    I grew up within shouting distance of the subway station she references, yet from her article I have no idea which area she is talking about. What are the streets that enclose this area? What are the boundaries of Taut’s housing estate? Where specifically did Natalie take those photos?

    Why is there a picture of a generic nesting box instead of the “clearly well-maintained…buildings” she mentions. It is my understanding that rather than a “beergarden of a landlord named Thomas” the original Onkel Tom’s Huette was a restaurant near the Riemeister Fenn, across from today’s Rodelhuette. The foundations still exist today.

    Rather than generalities that could apply to anything, I would have loved to have read more specifics about this area.

  3. Natalie Holmes says:

    Hi Detlef A, thanks for reading and for your comment.

    There seems to be some variation about the origin of the name Onkel Toms Hütte for the housing estate. Indeed, even Wikipedia’s English and German pages have different stories. The German page refers to the restaurant you mention – perhaps the Onkel Toms Hütte restaurant got its name initially from the name of the owner and its cabin-like features? Anyway, I think this discrepancy highlights the unfortunate lack of consistent English-language information about the estate, so it’s great to hear from you as someone who grew up in the local area.

    I agree, some more details about the exact location of the estate would have been useful. OTH is situated on the edge of the Grunewald forest, bounded from the west on Riemeisterstrasse and from the east on Holzungsweg. The main trunk access road is Argentinische Allee, and Onkel Toms Strasse is perpendicular to this, with the restaurant that you mention located at the end where the latter meets Riemeisterstrasse.

    We’ve updated the photos too, to show more of the buildings that are referred to.

    As a local, it’d be great to hear from you with any other specifics that you think might add to the article.

  4. christina kraemer says:

    I am reading “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larsen and came across a reference to this area as it was in 1933. I was hoping to read something that comments upon the contradiction inherent in its survival during the Hitler regime. After all, one only needs to recall the Olympics. My curiousity is just that, nothing more.

  5. Zoraida Quintero-Hardie says:

    Hi Natalie,

    My husband and I have just booked for 70 nights ( as from the 12th October 3013) in an old large house in Onkel Tom Hutte. Trying to learn about the place, I came across with your interesting article. Reading it, I feel that I want to learn more about the area. For sure we will be very happy to go around the places you mention in your article.
    We are in Berlin because we love the cultural life of this vibrantcity . In fact this will be our third autumn there (attending to German courses). With it we feel that our minds are always in action. Specially for people over 67 as we are. At least we try.
    Perhpas if you are still about, we can meet for a coffee or tea.
    Best regards and thank you for the pleasure of reading your article.

  6. Daniel Jewesbury says:

    I found this article while researching Taut and Onkel Toms Hütte. It seems to incorporate a lot of material almost verbatim from a paper written in 2003, without any acknowledgement. The paper is available here: http://www.lostmodern.net/biglinks/en_onkeltom_web.pdf.

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