Looking at Liverpool last week, we saw the influence of Berlin’s 1920s public housing schemes and, in particular, Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner’s Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) built between 1925 and 1927. It’s a good opportunity to drag out some photos of the Estate I took last year. More seriously, it allows us to ‘compare and contrast’. We’ll see a very different model of public housing and design and a cultural ambition which the UK couldn’t match but there are similarities too.
Germany emerged from the ruins of war with, in 1919, probably the most progressive constitution of any in the world. Article 155 stipulated the right of the state to control all land for the public benefit and promised a ‘healthy home’ for every German family. In the new Greater Berlin, created in 1920 with a population of 4 million, this was urgent – it was estimated the metropolis required over 130,000 new homes.
The failure of the private sector to build forced federal government intervention: a new rent tax in 1924 was used to provide public subsidies for construction. In the seven years which followed, 140,000 new flats were built in Berlin alone. You’ll note, firstly, that these were flats rather than the cottage homes that British reformers favoured. Moreover, they were built principally not by the local state, as in the UK, but by cooperatives and housing associations. In Berlin, two-thirds of the new housing was constructed by the socialist trades union housing association, GEHAG. (1)
It was GEHAG which built the Hufeisensiedlung in Britz, a south-eastern suburb of Berlin which sometimes gives the Estate its name, and its ambitions for the project were signalled by the appointment of Bruno Taut, a socialist and modernist, as its chief architect. Taut brought a range of influences to his designs – from garden city pastoral to plate-glass futurist – and a painterly sensibility to colour but, above all, he brought a commitment to high-quality housing for the masses.
That ideal was shared by his fellow socialist and modernist Martin Wagner, a founder of GEHAG, and Berlin’s Director of Planning from 1925. Wagner’s support for new construction materials and methods which would bring ‘light and air, dignity and order’ to working-class homes would also mark the Hufeisensiedlung. (2)
Underlying these ideals lay an ethos, a belief in a Neues Bauen: a new way of building – a difficult concept to summarise but one which here seems to marry humane functionalism and modernist style with ideals of community and progress. A new environment, new ways of living, would create a neuer Mensch – the new human proof against the militarism and injustice which had hitherto shaped Europe’s story. Alfred Döblin wrote of this effect in Britz in 1928: (3)
As elsewhere, people live separate lives; but the magnificent buildings are wiser than they themselves and express what is happening here. The effect is slowly educative, like a silent, daily sermon.
As a final, tangible sign of the totality of the vision here unfolded and the encompassing nature of German social democratic politics, the Hufeisensiedlung would be constructed not by private enterprise but by cooperative building guilds.
The 72 acre Estate was built on a former feudal estate bought by the municipality in 1924. The finished scheme, completed in two years, comprised 1285 flats in three-storey blocks and 679 houses arranged in asymmetric terraces.
In design terms, there is a deliberate variety of plan and height between the buildings and different parts of the Estate. Equally striking is the abundant use of colour – on walls and design elements, in windows and doorways and stairways. Taut had urged architects not to ‘despise this wonderful gift of God’; colour, he said, had ‘absolutely the same rights as form’. The prevalent use of red is a more secular tribute to the politics of the Estate’s founders.
Then there is the single most powerful element of the Estate – the 350 metre long horseshoe-shaped central block which gives it its name. At the time, the block was most controversial for its flat roof, perhaps the first in Berlin and interpreted as a deliberate challenge to the architecture of German Romanticism. Now you’re more likely to notice the building’s verdant setting – the shared gardens of its perimeter and the parkland which surrounds a natural pond at its centre. (Here the credit belongs to Leberecht Migge, the leading German landscape architect of his day, who oversaw this aspect of the Estate’s planning.)
The homes themselves were more conventional but were, of course, well-equipped for their time, with separate bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Flats were provided with balconies and attic space.
Let’s leave further description to a contemporary visitor – Franz Hessell, writing in 1929: (4)
We enter the central ring and finally set eyes on the pond, the rising banks of which form a horseshoe lined with houses. With pleasing regularity, the houses present a row of dormers, windows large and small, and colourful, recessed balconies. On the narrow side of the horseshoe, this happy little township has its own marketplace, lined with the shop windows of co-ops that cater for the residents in – we are assured – a socially responsible way. We enter one of the houses. It is colourful inside as well as out, but there is no superfluous ornament; everything is unadorned, and yet good-looking.
That too was a mark of the new world being constructed in Britz – an aesthetic and political rejection by Taut and others of bourgeois society’s baggage.
According to the Estate’s journal, ‘the changed situation of the people of today has become the necessary starting point for new expectations about our home’ – a new Wohntechnik (living technique) to be expressed in hygienic living, simple furnishings, orderliness and rational housework. There was, it has to be said, no challenge to traditional gender roles here and, for some, the domestic respectability of this vision marked a neutering of more colourful life-styles and more class-conscious forms of politics. (5)
It is true also that, as in the UK, this was a relatively well-off population – a skilled working-class in steady employment that could afford the higher rents of the Estate. In 1927, of 1800 residents only 85 were classified as unskilled.
The echoes here of the supposedly middle-class mores promoted by Britain’s suburban council housing estates are strong – but equally mistaken. This was not (that elusive thing) a revolutionary working-class but it was collectivist and – with no contradiction – self-improving. It was, in other words, as authentically social democratic as its Labour-voting counterpart in the UK. In the 1930 municipal elections, about 50 per cent of Britz tenants voted for the Social Democrats and 16 per cent for the Communist Party.
By 1933, all had changed, changed utterly, of course. Employment had declined catastrophically. Red Berlin continued to resist Nazism but the split between left-wing forces was fatal, literally so in too many cases though both Taut (who was Jewish) and Wagner escaped into exile.
Surprisingly, the Estate survived the war relatively unscathed and emerged as a suburb of West Berlin in the Cold War after it. GEHAG, transformed into an instrument of Nazi rule in the 1930s, was re-formed after 1945 but privatised in 1998. The sale of it 679 terraced houses to private owners followed. In 2008, the cultural significance of the scheme was recognised when it was declared – along with five other interwar Berlin estates – a UNESCO World Heritage site.
If that makes the Hufeisensiedlung a monument, it remains a powerful and vibrant one. You could say it is a vanquished history, defeated in the end not by fascism but by resurgent capitalism but its confidence, quality and style survive and remind us not only of the past but of an imagined future whose loss we might lament.
(1) Anthony McElligott, ‘Workers’ Culture and Workers’ Politics on Weimar’s New Housing Estates: A Response to Adelheid Von Saldern’, Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1, January, 1992
(2) Paul Knox, Palimpsests: Biographies of 50 City Districts. International Case Studies of Urban Change (2012)
(3) Alfred Döblin, first published in foreword to Mario von Bucovich, Berlin (1928) and extracted in Iain Boyd-Whyte and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin, 1880-1940 (2013)
(4) Franz Hessel, ‘I Learn; via Neukölln to Britz’ (1929), extracted in Boyd-Whyte and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin, 1880-1940
(5) Adelheid von Salder, ‘The Workers’ Movement and Cultural Patterns on Urban Housing Estates and in Rural Settlements in Germany and Austria during the 1920s’, Social History, Vol. 15, No. 3 October, 1990