Onkel Toms Hütte

Natalie Holmes unearths the intriguing story behind Zehlendorf’s oddly-named 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 at least 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, which only added to the horrendous noise, smells and claustrophobia.

Due to German unification (1871) and the effects of the industrial revolution, Berlin’s population had exploded to 4.5 million by 1920. Exacerbated by tenement-style 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 meters wide, according to the limits of the planning regulations of the time. This block usually 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 1,000 people lived at the building on Ackerstraße 132 in Wedding, no doubt breaking some grim record at the time.

It fell to the fledgling Weimar Republic to take drastic action to alleviate the growing housing crisis, with architect Martin Wagner emerging as 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.

The penultimate stop on Berlin’s U3 line, the estate is a translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1853 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the name has nothing much to do with the contents of the book at all; the district apparently acquired this label in around 1885 after a local pub-restaurant (Gaststätte) landlord called Thomas installed cabins in his beer garden; these 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 and long-gone Gaststätte, was located near the junction with Riemeisterstrasse. A triumph of colour and light, the estate is rationalist in influence but human in style—conformist yet 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 sections of the sprawling estate look different to each other in terms of colour, shape and size, and the mechanical lines of the buildings are softened by homely details such as asymmetric windows and invitingly individual doors. While the use of colour can often look gaudy and catalyse the ageing process, one of Taut’s achievements here is the enduring polychromatic aesthetic; inspired by the likes of Mondrian, Kandinski and De Stijl, the tones switch between pastel and primary, with blues, greens and oranges creating a comfortable compromise between urbanity and nature.

Nature features heavily too. Blocks are broken up at intervals with unpredictable and pleasing paths, roads, woods and parks. Towering trees are ubiquitous, and wildlife is all around. Bird-life is pleasantly apparent, actively encouraged by the numerous feeders and nesting boxes. The low-rise constructions are dwarfed by arboreal monoliths that cast dramatic shadows, providing an external wallpaper of dynamic 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 its construction.

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