Exploring the social housing estate that is recognised by UNESCO as one of the finest achievements of modernist architecture:
Between 1875 and 1900 the population of Berlin more than doubled from 970,000 to over two million, a growth that began with the unification of Germany and industrialisation driven by the development of the railways. Many of these newcomers ended up living in tenement blocks built around a series of dank and dreary courtyards. By the end of the First World War the average one-bedroom apartment was shared by five people. This situation obviously had health implications, but was also a social and political challenge for the post-War Weimar Republic.
It was this challenge that led to the birth of a number of different cooperative building societies in the 1920s, whose stated aim was to bring social reform approaches to solving the housing crisis. In contrast to the tight and cramped tenement blocks of the 19th Century, the Modernist architects employed by the building societies laid out plans for housing that would be open and airy, with green spaces, public areas and playgrounds, and part of a re-imagining of the city that was to have both positive social and political consequences.
The Hufeisensiedlung in Berlin-Britz was one such project, designed by Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner. Over 1000 apartments make up the estate, divided between three-storey blocks of flats and single, terraced houses. As with much of the modernist architecture of the period, the design was functional and plain, with its use of colour being perhaps its most striking feature. What those first families most have thought when they came to their new homes, leaving behind their former cramped accommodations, is hard to imagine now. One thing is for sure – it retains its popularity. Over half of the inhabitants have lived on the estate for over twenty years, and that despite the fact that the average living space of the apartments is – by contemporary standards – relatively small.
We explored the estate on a Thursday morning, when most people appeared to be elsewhere, whether at work or school or curled up in front of the television. Those bright colours, apparently a feature of Bruno Taut’s designs throughout his career – Le Corbusier once accused him of being colour-blind – were strikingly cheerful against an overcast sky. The Hufeisensiedlung is one of six estates from the era (four of which Taut worked on as an architect) that have been entered as a combined entry on the UNSESCO World Heritage List.
A final word on the architect: Bruno Taut and his team built over 12,000 apartments for the social housing society GEHAG (which is still in business today) but he left Germany under the Nazis. As a Jewish Social Democrat there was no place for Taut and his philosophy under the Third Reich. He went via Switzerland to Japan, where he wrote three books on Japanese architecture, before taking a Professorship in Istanbul in 1936. Bruno Taut died in 1938, and was buried at the Edirnekapı Martyr’s Cemetery in Istanbul as the first and the only non-Muslim. There is a memorial stone on the otherwise flawless lawn around the pond at the heart of his “Horseshoe Estate” in Berlin-Britz.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton