Last week’s post examined two of Berlin’s strikingly modernist interwar estates and the politics which created them. We’ll examine two more this week, built just before Weimar Germany’s famously progressive politics succumbed to Nazism.
That politics was, of course, always fiercely contested and the cultural battle for the German soul is clearly seen in the so-called Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) which erupted in Berlin in 1928.
The point at issue resided in an apparently arcane architectural debate between the relative merits of flat and pitched roofs. The social democratic and trades union building cooperative GEHAG had constructed a modernist (and therefore flat-roofed) estate in the southwestern Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf. The Gemeinnützige Aktiengesellschaft für Angestellten-Heimstätten (GAGFAH building society), representing the salaried, lower-middle classes, opened a combined architectural exhibition and more traditional, pitch-roofed housing estate adjacent to it.
A battle royal ensued. Modernist commentators berated the GAGFAH estate and argued that it – in its failure to build simple, functional homes – lacked public spirit and should be denied public funds. Their opponents defended the estate as representing a specifically German style of architecture.
In other contexts, the question of roof forms might be seen as a simple and practical issue and certainly one susceptible to compromise. In interwar Germany, no such compromise was possible – ‘opinions as to what was the appropriate architectural style for the German home were essentially irreconcilable between progressives and conservatives’: the Roof War represented an existential struggle ‘of traditional versus modern, the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat, rural versus urban, the former regime versus the current republic’. (1)
The Weiße Stadt (White City) Estate with its flat roofs, cubical forms and white walls, built between 1929 and 1931, represented modernist architecture in stark form. It was built by the Gemeinnützige Heimstättengesellschaft Primus mbH, a municipally-owned housing association, on a greenfield site in the northern suburb of Reinickendorf, funded by a municipal grant of 15m Reichsmarks as tax receipts from the housing interest tax dwindled. That space allowed a more extensive design than that of the inner-city Carl Legien Estate but the emphasis – as the Great Depression hit – remained on economy. Of its 1268 flats, four fifths comprised just 1½ to 2½ rooms. (2)
Designed by the Swiss architect Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and two Berlin architects Bruno Ahrends and Wilhelm Büning, it reflects the functional efficiency championed in the architectural style dubbed Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). It presents a striking appearance, seen most notably in the five-storey portal buildings marking the entrance to the estate and the impressive Brückenhaus (bridge house) erected across Aroser Allee. The spare white appearance of the blocks is at once offset and highlighted by their brightly coloured guttering, window frames and entrance doorways.
The apartment buildings are characteristically long four-storey ribbon blocks, including one of 230m length beyond the bridge house facing a school and an open terrain of sports fields. Greenery and open space, designed by landscape architect Ludwig Lesser, remained a key element of the overall design with communal garden courtyards with benches and playgrounds between the housing.
Heating and hot water were supplied by a central plant. Twenty-four shops, dotted around the estate, a pharmacy, kindergarten and health centre provided the estate with the facilities and community identity for which its planners strove.
At the same time and across the city to the south-west, Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was emerging. This was the most diverse of the modernist estates. While Hans Scharoun was responsible for the estate’s masterplan and some of its housing, he commissioned a number of other architects to design individual blocks: Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Otto Bartning, Fred Forbat and Paul Rudolf Henning. Like Scharoun, most were members of Der Ring (the Ring), an architectural collective formed in 1926 committed to modernist principles hence the name occasionally given to the scheme, the Ringsiedlung.
For all this common allegiance, their designs – apart from the de rigeur modernist flat roofs – were diverse. Scharoun designed the access to the estate with a grand head-building with retail outlets on the ground floor which became known as the Panzerkreuzer (armoured cruiser – it sounded less sinister before 1933) for its liberal borrowing of ship motifs: a ‘consciously anti-traditional, machine age aesthetic’ (3) Across the Jungfernheideweg he built a five-storey residential block with similarly deep-cut balconies and angles.
Moving into the estate proper beyond the railway bridge, you reach two long blocks, in a palette of creamy white and grey, designed by Walter Gropius fronting Goebelstrasse: ‘sharply defined and crisp in their contours and dynamically elegant in the functional austerity of the rows of identical buildings’ (3) Gropius had founded the Bauhaus School some ten years earlier. Here he applied its design ideals – ‘to create the purely organic building, boldly emanating its inner laws, free of untruths or ornamentation’ – to social housing.
Otto Bartning’s 388m-long block along Goebelstrasse marks the southern perimeter of the estate and acts as a buffer to the railway line just behind. It’s a similarly functionalist grey-rendered block, broken by patches of exposed brickwork and splashes of cerise framing.
Facing it along Goebelstrasse are nine blocks, aligned Zeilenbau-fashion on a north-south axis, designed by Hugo Häring, very different in outward form in which yellow-brown bricks, smooth beige plaster and dark brown main doors are used to complement the greenery of the open courtyards designed by Leberecht Migge. Kidney-shaped balconies add an expressionist touch. Six similarly disposed blocks to the north by Paul Henning echo Häring’s natural restrained shades.
Along Geißlerpfad on the eastern fringe of the estate lie the two long blocks designed by Fred Forbat, white-walled but with cut-out and protruding balconies with yellow brick to add to their texture.
Each in their different way captured the modernist aesthetics and ideology of their time. Gropius and Bartning, ‘in accord with the pragmatics of the factory assembly line or the aesthetics of the Tiller Girl’: (4)
created strongly rational and anonymous structures that used repetitive forms to generate a fixed number of forms in terms of size and occupancy…In contrast to this rigid adherence to the ideologies of mass production and mass entertainment, Scharoun and Haring produced housing blocks that, although fully committed to modernism, were also wilfully allusive and organic in their design.
This divergence of form represented, to one architectural theorist, ‘one of the most serious ruptures within the modernist movement’ but, as a simple place of residence, the estate forms a signified and attractive whole and represents an ambition to decently house the working class rarely matched in later years.
The average size of apartment in the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was just 54 square metres, a reflection of contemporary austerity. Later affluence would expect greater space and more mod cons but the estate and its counterparts across the metropolis provide an uncommon example of architectural ideology committed to social service and progressive politics.
Berlin’s five modernist interwar estates – I’ve covered perhaps the most celebrated, the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) in Britz in an earlier post – were exceptional, providing only around 6700 of the 140,000 new social homes built between 1924 and 1932. Most of the new-build was of more conventional form although it uniformly represented a huge advance on the ‘rental barracks’ which had been the lot of the Berlin working class before the war.
All were provided with significant, and often direct, support from the local and national state although, as noted, in a manner very different – though more common on the Continent – than that in the UK where central government grants and local government provision were the norm. It’s another model, closer to the housing association model which has largely undertaken the provision of social housing in this country (such as it is) since 1979.
With the direct participation of social democratic politicians and trades unions it was a potent one, although not without its critics. The increasingly powerful Communist Party welcomed the new homes and rationalist mass production which delivered them but argued – with some justice – that socialised housing remained too dependent on land and construction material prices dictated by a capitalist free market.
That cleavage in the left was one factor which eased Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. After 1933, left-wing ideals and activism, in whichever form, were damned and dangerous. Scharoun remained in Germany under the Nazi regime in a form of internal exile. He would return to prominence in the 1950s to design his most famous building, Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. Bartning too remained in Germany, retreating to the safer terrain of church architecture for the duration of the Nazism. Häring attempted to convince the new regime that the new architecture was German rather than international (6). Forbat moved first to Hungary and then Sweden where he died in 1948. Gropius fled to Britain (where he designed Impington College) and ended his life and career in the US.
Of the chief protagonists of Berlin’s Neue Bauen (New Building movement), Taut, who died in 1938, fled first to Japan and then to Turkey. Martin Wagner too spent time in exile in Turkey, where he briefly resumed collaboration with Taut, and devised a new city plan for Ankara. He took a position with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1938 and died, an American citizen, in 1957. All this represented a tragic loss of talent and social purpose to the German nation; many millions of others paid a far heavier price.
The aim of Berlin’s modernist estates had been to bring ‘light, air and sun’ to its citizens. What followed was among the darkest periods of human history. In 2008, the five estates were granted UNESCO Heritage status – a fitting tribute to the energy and ideals which inspired them. They are now a properly celebrated aspect of a prouder German history and well worth a visit.
You’ll find some additional images of the two modernist estates featured here on my Tumblr page.
(1) Mark Hobbs, Visual Representations of Working-Class Berlin, 1924–1930. University of Glasgow Department of History of Art PhD thesis 2010 and this well-illustrated article on the Atlas Obscura website.
(2) Ian Boyd White and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin (2012)
(3) Ronald Wiedenhoeft, Berlin’s Housing Revolution. German Reform in the 1920s (1971)
(4) Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds), Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style (2007)
(5) Boyd White and Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin
(6) Eric Paul Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (2002)
You’ll find more detail online including this comprehensive record of the five estates: Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style: Nomination for Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The architects’ images and the two colour images of Großsiedlung Siemensstadt are taken from this source.