Cambodia has mystical Angkor Wat, Peru the glories of Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China is visible from space, and the Athenian Acropolis is a proud monument to Ancient Greece. All are rightly UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Berlin, by contrast, has claimed the same cultural status for six far flung early 20th century modernist housing estates. That’s right, housing estates, housing actual Berliners. It’s the most Berlin thing, ever.
All but one of the six UNESCO-listed housing estates were built during Europe’s interwar period, and reflect the blossoming of innovative social housing philosophies that can truly be said to be one of the lasting achievements of the Weimar Republic. Berlin was the epicentre of politically, socially and culturally progressive movements that sought to break with a past that had led to the horrors of the First World War.
1920s and early 1930s Berlin was urban planning at its most radical and political, a visionary movement during a revolutionary moment in time, seeking to provide urban workers with improved housing and living conditions. The most influential names in urban design were involved, including some involved in Bauhaus: Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner, Walter Gropius, Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and Hans Scharoun.
Their Utopian vision came to a crushing end in 1933 when the Nazis were elected to power. The pioneers of urban planning found themselves on the wrong side of the Nazis’ battle for ideological supremacy. Tainted by their politics, attacked as anti-German, barred from professional bodies, most couldn’t get work and fled abroad. Their visionary buildings remain as monuments.
Exploring all six sites has taken a while to accomplish. Not only are they spread out across Berlin, but the sites themselves are often very large. It was one of my goals before we leave Berlin. Having finally ticked off Gartenstadt Falkenberg (the most distant of all), I can leave for Brussels knowing that I’ve visited all three of Berlin’s UNESCO sites: Potsdam, Museum Island, and Modernist Housing Estates.
It’s the vibrant colours that first strike you – a pattern repeated across all the housing estates – quickly followed by the peaceful calm amongst the charming garden houses of appropriately named Gartenstadt Falkenberg. This isn’t urban living as we know it. This is something different: a village in the city, designed to give urban workers an invigorating living environment.
Like all the estates, Gartenstadt Falkenberg is a vision of a new way of urban living brought to life. I found myself transfixed by the beauty of it all, and also wishing I lived here. This is the work of Bruno Taut and is the earliest of all the estates, built between 1913 and 1916 on the southern fringe of the city close to Berlin’s new airport.
The houses look like they’re designed for individuals. In the summer, gardens are lush and verdant. The bright warm oranges, reds and yellows of the buildings are complemented by equally bright wooden doors and window frames.
Philosophically, this is as far removed as it is possible to get from the diabolical living conditions of the 19th century tenements for which Berlin was infamous.
The work of Bruno Taut, with collaborator Martin Wagner, the Hufeisensiedlung, or Horseshoe Estate, is perhaps the most intriguing of all the estates. Epitomising the new architecture that was to be central to creating a new, post-First World War society. Everything about it seems improbable, from the innovative shape built around a park with a pond in the centre, to the dramatic colours.
Taut was a committed socialist and this project was commissioned to house 3,000 workers from one of Germany’s trade unions. The project was more political than simply housing union members though. To the Nazis and their supporters, the buildings represented everything degenerate about modernism, something they despised. In particular, the flat roofs were deemed ‘alien’.
Wagner was dismissed as a city planner when the Nazis came to power, Taut fled abroad. The whole site is wondrous to behold, and again the tranquility of the estate struck me – all the apartments face onto the peaceful pond area. Next door to the horseshoe is another garden estate designed on more traditional lines with pitched roofs.
Today, they seem to blend perfectly together, but in 1920s Berlin they were polar opposites and, while the Hufeisensiedlung housed blue collar workers, its neighbour housed white collar workers. The boundary between the two was known locally as the “red front”.
The Schillerpark was another of Taut’s creations, and like the others it presents a vision of modern, communal and social urban living. There are communal green spaces built into the fabric of the estate that are designed to make it feel human. Even today, the contrast between this and the streets I’d walked along to get here was remarkable.
A striking feature of the estate is the red brick facades of all the buildings. Used like this, red brick is more commonly found on factories or warehouses. Even more striking were the street names. This is the Englisches Viertel, the English Quarter, and the streets were named after English cities, although I’m not sure many in Ireland would agree with Dubliner Straße being in the area.
It’s not so much that these estates and the philosophy that underpins them created far better living conditions, they are also really attractive areas to live, and the building exteriors are quite beautiful. But it is the break with tradition, from closed inner courtyards of typical Berlin working class tenements, to light and open space, that is so important. Each flat had a balcony and its own toilet.
The original inhabitants were supporters or members of left wing political parties, but in 1933 most of them were evicted, many ending up in labour or concentration camps, and replaced by Nazi Party members. Only the outbreak of war prevented the Nazi regime from replacing modernist aspects of the design.
Siemensstadt is a massive development built close to Siemens & Halske, one of the predecessors of present-day industrial giants, Siemens AG. In the 1930s it housed low income workers from the factories. Today, rabbits hop around the lawns in unconcerned groups, in the 1930s it must have seemed like a workers paradise away from the chemical plants.
The estate is less homogenous than the others, a variety of architectural styles reflecting the choice to make it a project jointly managed by six of Germany’s greatest Weimar-era architects: Otto Bartning, Fred Forbat, Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Paul Henning, and Hans Scharoun. Gropius’ style is easy to spot, but the flowing style of Häring is most pleasing – info boards help identify the architects.
Scharoun’s designs in particular have left their mark, deliberately giving the balconies and roofs a form that has nautical elements. Coupled with the size of the estate, this gave rise to its nickname, Panzerkreuzer, or the Battleship. Interestingly, Scharoun lived on the estate for many years. Bartning’s huge Langer Jammer, the Long Shame, looks a bit more like a cruise ship.
Here again, the emphasis is on light and space. We lived in a hinterhof of a traditional Berlin apartment block when we first arrived in Berlin, even in summer it was dark and received no breeze. Layer in poverty, squalor, terrible hygiene, and no running water, as the 19th century working poor would have experienced it, and you can appreciate what the modernists were trying to do.
Finished in 1931, Weisse Stadt, the White City, was the last of the six estates to be completed. The work of Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, Bruno Ahrends and Wilhelm Büning, the dramatic five story towers that form its entrance on Aroser Allee give way to a broad avenue of blindingly white buildings punctuated by cheerful coloured doorways.
The bright reds, blues and yellows are all the more attention grabbing because of the absence of colour on the buildings themselves. This is no Gartenstadt Falkenberg. Further along Aroser Allee is the “clock bridge”, a span of apartments that stretches over the road. Go further into the estate though and the harsh lines give way to green spaces and enclosed balconies.
Weisse Stadt was conceived to build and emphasize community. The vision for it also included a larger than usual number of facilities that today we’d take for granted: a nursery and doctor’s practice, a heating plant and a laundry, as well as twenty shops. At the time, pretty revolutionary. More playful are the brightly coloured doors and staircase windows.
It was only returning back through the two towers on Aroser Allee that the symbolism struck me. These were like the towers guarding a medieval walled town. The contrast between their austerity and the warmth of the interior is stark.
Wohnstadt Carl Legien
There’s a touch of Mondrian to the Carl Legien Estate, yet another of Bruno Taut’s creations. Perhaps the most monolithic of all the estates, the one thing that brings a splash of colour to the uniformity of the exterior are yellow, red and blue window frames and doors. The arrow straight lines of some buildings are softened by the gracious curves of balconies.
Yet again, the estate is bathed in the politics of the era. Carl Legien was a trade unionist and a politician in the Social Democratic Party, as well as a member of the German parliament. In 1920, he was one of the principle organisers of the general strike that brought down the Kapp Putsch, an attempted coup to overthrow the newly formed Weimar Republic.
The uniformity of the exterior gives way to a more individual and personalised interior. Here garden courtyards sport different colours, there are red stairwells, multi-coloured doors and window frames, and white balconies. What you can’t guess at on the outside is the light and space of the interior gardens that offer a different lived experience from Berlin’s tenements.
Perhaps taking modernist purity a step too far, it’s said that Taut gave instruction that only flowers of certain colours were to be grown on the balconies. Still, at least he made sure every apartment had a private bathroom.