Utopian Visions

Jesse Simon delves into the roots of Berlin’s modernist housing estates…

Central building structure of Neukölln’s horseshoe estate. ©A.Savin, WikiCommons

From the air, the shape is unmistakable. As one descends into Berlin from the south-east, a large horseshoe appears within the loosely-structured street layout of Britz. The shape forms the centre of a planned community that, in keeping with the fondness of Berliners for bestowing descriptive nicknames on their buildings, became known from the outset as the Hufeisensiedlung, or ‘horseshoe estate’.

The estate, constructed in the latter half of the 1920s – when Berlin’s population had reached a peak it has not since surpassed – was a logical extension of the Weimar Republic’s progressive social ideologies. Most of Europe’s great cities had grown overpopulated as a result of industrialisation during the previous century, and it soon became obvious that if urban centres continued to grow without the intervention of the state, the results would be disastrous.

When the Hufeisensiedlung was built, it was one of many similar attempts at large-scale social housing – predicated on the belief that all citizens should be entitled to private space, small gardens and access to public transportation – to emerge from a Europe that had only just recovered from the First World War. But for Berlin, it was the start of a golden age of housing estates; while this optimistic period of construction would last for less than a decade, the housing it produced would have a decisive effect on the shape of the city throughout the 20th Century.

The Crisis

In 1924, Berlin needed housing. The Greater Berlin Act of 1920 had placed a ring of outlying communities – including Charlottenburg, Lichtenberg and Neukölln – under the control of a central authority, and the population of this newly enlarged metropolis had just topped four million. A year before that, the Weimar Republic, in a remarkable feat of social policy, had instituted the so-called Existenzminimum, a series of regulations and baseline requirements relating to population density and individual living needs.

However, the idea that every individual or family deserved a certain amount of private living space, public green space, and access to public transport, meant that housing could no longer be approached on a building-by-building or even a block-by-block basis; indeed, the extreme shortage of acceptable urban housing in Berlin meant that the problem would need to be addressed on a scale unprecedented in the history of the city.

Independent building societies were established to oversee the construction of new housing. Martin Wagner – who had trained as an architect, but thrived within the bureaucracy of Berlin as the city’s chief urban planner – founded the Gemeinnützige Heimstätten-, Spar- und Bau-Aktiengesellschaft (better known as GEHAG) and immediately set out in search of an architect who could apply the principles of social housing to projects on a grand scale; the architect he found was Bruno Taut.

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