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.

Taut had moved to Berlin in 1908 to start his own architectural firm, and had already been involved in one housing estate, the Gartenstadt Falkenberg, some ten miles south-east of Berlin. Although he had started as an adherent of the British Garden City movement, after the end of the war his personal style had started to incorporate the minimal forms and functionalist ideals associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), a modernist movement that would dominate German architecture in the decade to follow.

The early years of the Weimar Republic, however, were a bad time to be an architect. The instability of the post-war economy combined with a period of hyperinflation meant that funding for public works was effectively non-existent. It was only in 1924, once the Mark had regained stability, that money for public building became available; when it did, prospective builders lost no time getting started. Taut had already begun work on a housing estate in Wedding – the Schillerpark Siedlung – when he was approached by Wagner. Together, they would set about transforming the fields near the old Schloss Britz – just south-east of the Stadtring – into their first major statement of purpose.

The Golden Age of Siedlungen

Construction of the Hufeisensiedlung began in 1925 and continued for a further five years. At the centre of the estate is the iconic block of flats (actually several connected blocks) that curve around a large public garden to form the shape of a horseshoe. Surrounding this central structure are a series of streets containing terraced houses, each with a long thin garden extending from the back door. The buildings depart from the tenets of functionalism only in their distinctive colour schemes.

In total there are almost 2000 individual units (679 houses and 1285 flats) that might house anywhere up to 6000 people. These numbers may seen small compared with housing estates in the second half of the 20th Century – by way of comparison, Berlin’s Gropiusstadt, built during the 1960s, provided housing for some 35,000 people – but it was a considerable advance on the numbers of the past. More importantly, the modest scale and highly functional design allowed it to remain true to the social ideal of the Existenzminimum. Compared with the Altbauten of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, surrounded by nothing but views of other buildings, the gardens of the Hufeisensiedlung must have seemed positively idyllic.

For Taut, it was only the beginning. The following year, he began work on an estate in the south-western suburb of Zehlendorf near the Grunewald; Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was built on a similar scale to the Hufeisensiedlung in terms of the ratio of houses to flats, but offered further refinements in unit design and use of colour. Two years later, he would commence work on the Wohnstadt Carl Legien just north of the Stadtring in Prenzlauer Berg, a complex of more than a thousand flats arranged in U-shaped buildings around a central green courtyard. By the time he fled Germany in 1933, it is estimated that he contributed more than 10,000 housing units to the city of Berlin.

The New Industrial City

Martin Wagner also continued to pursue housing projects within the city, although primarily in the role of a project director. In collaboration with Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, a Swiss modernist who had worked with Taut on Onkel Toms Hütte, he designed and built the Weiße Stadt (White City) in Reinickendorf. However it was in partnership with architect Hans Scharoun that he would realise his most ambitious housing project.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the company of Siemens and Halske, which rose to prominence in the 19th Century as a manufacturer of telegraph equipment, had started to build factories along the river, roughly halfway between Charlottenburg and Spandau; they were far enough from Berlin that the company began constructing houses for workers almost immediately. The area, known as Siemensstadt, was funded privately by the Siemens company, but it was modelled on the same progressive ideals that had inspired the new housing estates throughout in the city.

With the economic upturn of the mid-1920s, it became necessary to build more worker accommodation, and Martin Wagner was called in to manage an addition to the existing residential area. The design of the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was conceived by Hans Scharoun, but the individual buildings would be designed by six different architects, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and Hugo Häring, who had previously worked on Onkel Toms Hütte.

The Siedlung was a success insofar as it provided functional, well-designed housing for a large number of workers at the Siemens factories. However it also marked a turning point in the housing estates of Berlin. Scharoun’s design for the site placed a large number of individual, often identical blocks within a series of spaces landscaped as leafy pedestrian areas. Where the Hufeisensiedlung had retained a structural connection with the urban forms of the past – most notably the relationship of street to pavement to building – the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt offered a more pronounced departure from traditional urbanism.

Even the buildings themselves diverged subtly from their predecessors; they reached slightly higher into the sky, and featured slightly less in the way of articulation. Where Taut’s plan for the Hufeisensiedlung had employed modular structures within a broadly conceived whole, the buildings of the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt make less of an effort to conceal the fact that much of the estate consists of a single building, repeated numerous times. Here, for the first time, we can see the foundations for the half-century of Plattenbauten soon to come. The evenly spaced blocks along the Goebelstraße seem oddly alienating when viewed from the street; the logic and brilliance of their arrangement would, in an age before Google Maps, have only been visible from the window of an airplane.

Yet perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt – and, indeed, of all of the Siedlungen – is the underlying sense that their forms are essentially the result of cultured architects and educated urban bureaucrats attempting to impose middle and upper class values on the working classes by forcing them into a particular mode of living. While the Siedlungen are admirable for their emphasis on green-space and family life, they have wilfully omitted – or heavily sidelined – the shops, cafés and bars that make urban life so appealing. There can be no doubt that the estates fulfilled their aims in terms of housing, but they failed to adequately reflect the ways that people might actually want to live.

Most of the estates discussed here – with the exception of Onkel Toms Hütte – were selected as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2008, and many are now recognised as important examples of social housing in the 20th Century. While the benefit of nearly a century of hindsight makes it easy to highlight their flaws, it is equally important to remember that, when they were built, the Siedlungen were unprecedented both in their scale and their ideology. Insofar as they were created by the first generation of modernists as a solution to a very specific social problem, they were very much a product of their time and place. And the future they imagined was overall a noble one.

Sadly, that future would never come to pass. The golden age of Siedlungen came to an end around the time the National Socialist party seized power in 1933. There was a notable drop in new construction between the completion of the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt in 1934 and the end of the decade; by the middle of the 30s, many of the prominent figures who had contributed to the Siedlungen – including the Jewish Bruno Taut, the staunchly socialist Martin Wagner and the anti-fascist Walter Gropius – had fled the country. After the outbreak of war in 1939, public building in Germany ceased almost completely.

When the dust had settled on a devastated Europe at the end of the Second World War, there was little room for the utopian spirit that had pervaded during the early decades of the Century; housing was a problem that needed solving as quickly and cheaply as possible. The Siedlungen of the past, stripped of their social ideology and greatly enhanced by the advent of new building technologies, would provide a blueprint for a new kind of large-scale housing that would proliferate throughout the urban spaces of Berlin. In the post-war years, the mass production of high-rise estates would create conditions every bit as bleak as those the original Siedlungen had sought to replace.

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