This post is a little different, inspired by a trip to Berlin last December and in celebration of our common European home. I’ve written about perhaps Berlin’s most famous modernist estate, the Hufeisensiedlung (the Horseshoe Estate) in an earlier post.
Weimar Germany, the democratic state founded in 1919, emerged from the horror of world war and the collapse of the reactionary and authoritarian regime which had largely triggered it. It promised, for a troubled and tragically brief period, an humane alternative to the brutality which both preceded and succeeded it and its social democratic stronghold Berlin – Red Berlin – pioneered some of the most progressive working-class housing of its time. This post and the next examine four of Berlin’s most significant modernist estates and allow us to study both a model and form of social housing provision radically different from that which existed in Britain.
The constitution of the new state was promulgated in the town of Weimar, 175 miles to the south-east of Berlin, in August 1919 when the capital, in the throes of revolutionary upheaval, was considered too dangerous for the newly elected National Assembly. This was a democratic constitution, proclaimed plausibly – with its protection of democratic norms and minority rights – as the most democratic in the world. (That it succumbed to Nazi tyranny within fourteen years might be taken as a lesson to another contemporary proudly constitutionalist state.)
The constitution was especially radical in its guarantee of social rights, most notably in Article 155 which promised ‘Every German their own healthy home’ – an attack on the speculative building and private profit which had dominated housing provision and blighted working-class lives hitherto. Henceforth, the Article continued, ‘the allocation and use of land’ was to ‘be controlled by the state in a way which prevents its misuse’. The Reichssiedlungsgesetz (State Settlement Law), passed at the same time provided the detail of this ideal, giving the federal states powers of compulsory purchase and requiring them to set up non-profit-making building societies which would finance the new housing programme.
Greater Berlin itself was a product, in 1920, of the new regime – an agglomeration of eight towns, 59 rural communities and 27 rural estates with the political clout and financial power to implement the reforming ambitions of its social democratic majority. With a population of 3.86m, it was the third largest city in world.
That population had risen fourfold since 1871 and most of its working class were housed in the so-called Mietskaserne (rental barracks) which ringed the centre. These were generally five-storey blocks built around a series of enclosed courtyards – privately (and expensively) rented, grossly overcrowded, with tiny individual apartments and shared facilities.
In the aftermath of war, it was estimated the city needed 100,000 new homes. By 1923, however, only around 9000 subsidised homes had been built in Berlin. Two things were critical to the social housebuilding boom which followed. The Hauszinssteuer (housing interest tax) of 1924 was a tax levied on housing wealth created during the hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923; it provided revenues of around 750m Reichsmarks into the late twenties. The Dawes Plan, agreed with the United States in the same year, was intended primarily to help Germany pay the punitive reparations levied after the First World War but it brought access to international loans and helped fund mortgages on housing projects.
The architect-planner Martin Wagner was the crucial figure in the Neues Bauen (New Building – a term encompassing lifestyle as well as bricks and mortar) programme which followed. In 1924, he organised three of Germany’s largest trade union groups to form the Deutsche Wohnungsfürsorgegesellschaft für Beamte, Angestellte und Arbeiter (mercifully we can call it DEWOG) which undertook the overall coordination of the country’s socialised housebuilding industry. One month later, he helped found the Gemeinnützige Heimstätten-, Spar- und Bau-Aktiengesellschaft (or GEHAG) – a housing cooperative which built much of Berlin’s housing in the succeeding years.
‘In Berlin the essential partner for new house-building initiatives was the trade-union movement’ (2) and Martin Wagner himself, a committed social democrat, served as the city’s municipal building director from 1926 to 1933 until forced out by the Nazis. The dominant architectural figure was the Jewish socialist Bruno Taut. With the personnel, politics and finance in place, it’s time to look at the buildings.
The first modernist estate was Siedlung Schillerpark erected in the Wedding district north of the city centre for the Berlin Savings and Building Association and built by the construction workers’ guild, the Bauhütte Berlin. It features 330 homes, predominantly built to Taut’s designs in three phases between 1924 and 1930, with landscaping by Walter Rossow.
The earliest blocks are located along Dubliner and Oxford Strasse, three and four-storey blocks, red-brick with bands of white plastering, enclosing carefully planned courtyards intended to fulfil Taut’s principle of ‘outdoor living space’. Alternating balconies and loggias, facing the sun, were used to create striking facades. There is a strong influence here of the Amsterdam School which Taut had studied in the early twenties. (3)
The actual apartments were of more traditional form and some of the earliest – where three homes accessed a single landing – were single-aspect, lacking cross-ventilation. The flats varied in size too, from 1½ to 4½ rooms (the main figure refers to living rooms separate from kitchen and bathroom; the fraction represents a small box-room) and, though designed intentionally for different income groups, all enjoyed the same standard of fitting. Low attics contained laundry and drying rooms. A separate bathhouse and new kindergarten were provided in 1930.
It was intended to pioneer a new and civilised form of urban living at density both in its quality of accommodation and design aesthetic. Clearly modernist in form, Taut included some personal signatures – a rich use of colours, textures and surface patterns – and some idiosyncratic expressionist elements seen, for example, in the reinforced concrete tapered pillars.
To one commentator, it was all a: (4)
bold statement of new site planning ideas and building forms, a forcefulness of expression, drawing attention to itself as something revolutionary. The preference for flat roofs, straight lines, and right angles is symptomatic of the will to express the social spirit of a new age.
Most new public housing of the time was not of such consciously modernist design but new building regulations, drawn up municipal building councillor Walter Koeppen, introduced strict zoning rules separating housing and industry and banning the use of side and rear blocks in future developments. New blocks had to be arranged either around the plot perimeter (Randbebauung) or as open-ended terraces (Zeilenbau). The Mietskaserne had been consigned to history. (5)
A desperate housing shortage remained, however; by 1926 it was estimated 174,000 homes were required to accommodate Berlin’s growing population. One consequence was rising rents; between 1925 and 1929, they almost doubled – for a two-bedroom flat, from 23.10 Reichsmarks to 43.75. Planners and architects looked to secure affordable rents by standardising schemes and reducing space standards; at worst, a so-called Existenzminimum (‘minimum existence’) home, condemned by Wagner, contained just 1½ rooms and 40 square metres of floor space.
The Carl Legien Estate (named after the German trades unionist and social democrat who had died in 1920), built for GEHAG between 1928 and 1930 in the densely-settled working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, reflected such economising measures. Eighty per cent of its 1149 flats were of 1½ to 2 rooms but it was an attempt by Taut (in collaboration with Franz Hillinger) to provide high-density housing in a consciously modernist and progressive form: in the words of Kurt Junghanns (Taut’s biographer): (6)
to defeat the tenement building system on its own terrain and to prove that the new principles can also be used to build in a better way in an urban context.
The estate comprised a series of four- to five-storey blocks along existing street lines but there the resemblance to the earlier tenement housing which surrounded it ended. Two innovations stand out.
Firstly, Taut maximised the light and air of the new development by creating three large U-shaped open courts along its main artery Erich-Weinert-Strasse. Living rooms and balconies were placed on the inside of the blocks, facing the courts, to emphasise their communal, semi-public nature.
Secondly, Taut – who had famously urged that colour (he called it ‘this wonderful gift from God’) should have ‘absolutely the same rights as form’ – painted the exterior facades a sunny yellow which made the narrow side streets appear wider. Interior loggias were painted yellow too for emphasis and rear walls across the interior courtyards in pairs of red brown, blue or dark green.
Shops and two communal laundries were provided in the blocks’ impressive head-buildings and a central plant delivered heating and hot water to each of the tenements. For all the necessary economies, the estate raised working-class living standards to a new level and it became ‘a very desirable residence’.
Ironically, the condition of blocks deteriorated sharply under the post-war socialist regime (Prenzlauer Berg found itself in East Berlin) and by 2005, within a united Germany, the estate suffered a 40 per cent vacancy rate. A major refurbishment that year by a private real estate company has restored their former popularity but with the added irony supplied by a resurgent capitalism that it now caters for a ‘more affluent and wealthy clientele…Prenzlauer Berg, which used to be the epitome of poverty and overpopulation, has now become one of the most gentrified enclaves in Germany’. (7)
It seems that each generation must fight anew the battle to secure good quality and affordable accommodation for its least well-off. That struggle continued in innovative ways in Weimar Germany in the later 1920s and we’ll look at two more of Berlin’s modernist estates in next week’s post.
You’ll find some additional images of the two modernist estates featured here on my Tumblr page.
(1) For more on these, see ‘Mietskasernes: Working Class Berlin, 1871-1922’
(2) Ian Boyd White and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2012)
(4) Ronald Wiedenhoeft, Berlin’s Housing Revolution. German Reform in the 1920s (1971)
(5) Mark Hobbs, Visual Representations of Working-Class Berlin, 1924–1930. University of Glasgow Department of History of Art PhD thesis 2010
(6) Quoted in Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds), Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style (Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munchen Berlin, 2007)
(7) Ulduz Maschaykh, The Changing Image of Affordable Housing: Design, Gentrification and Community in Canada and Europe (Routledge, 2016)