Tag Archive: berlin

Berlin Without a Castle

As part of an austerity package which has been accounced today, the German government has put the (re)construction of the “Berliner Stadtschloss” on hold until 2014, which essentially means that the project has been cancelled, or is at least likely to be cancelled in the end. The original plan was to reconstruct a former Prussian castle which once inhabited a site in the center of Berlin, but had been damaged in World War II and was demolished during the period of the German Democratic Republic.

The Stadtschloss was one of the most controversially discussed current architectural projects in Germany, a fact which echoes in the media reception of today’s annoucement. While the Spiegel weeps for the “most important project in the country”, Baunetz agrees with the decision and infers that “a fiscally wrong argumentation leads to an architecturally right solution” (both articles available in German only).

Even after its presumable death, the project will probably continue to spark endless discussions in the architectural world.

Evaluating Architecture Through its Historical Background — Berlin’s White City

When dealing with architectural heritage from any age, it is essential to highlight its historical background in order to understand the object that you are observing. No architectural project or urban planning theory stands isolated. Instead, they are all a result of the circumstances of their time: trends in architecture and urban planning are joined by political circumstances and social visions that were formulated at the time. I was reminded of this fact during a visit to one of Berlin’s cultural heritage sites, the “White City”.

White City: Looking north along Aroser Alle

When I was in Berlin in February, I visited the White City (“Die weiße Stadt”) in Berlin-Reinickendorf, a housing complex built between 1929-1931. The White City is one of six large scale housing projects built between World War I and World War II that have been enlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008: Gartenstadt Falkenberg (“Garden City Falkenberg”), Siedlung Schillerpark (“Schillerpark Housing Complex”), Hufeisensiedlung (“Horseshoe estate”), Wohnstadt Carl Legien (“Housing City Carl Legien”), Großsiedlung Siemensstadt (“Large Housing Complex Siemensstadt”) and Die Weiße Stadt (“The White City”).

All of these housing projects are answers to a severe problem in Berlin after World War I: the shortage of housing space. At the same time, urban planners were proclaiming a new vision of urban living: in reaction to the prevalent type of housing of the time — tenements where a great number of working class people lived in cramped spaces, often without sufficient access to daylight and under insanitary conditions — they formulated urban planning paradigms that aimed to offer space and air to everybody.

The city administration provided funding and passed laws that allowed (and even enforced) the construction of large scale housing projects that were based on these new planning principles. In this manner, a massive amount of over 140.000 housing units was built in the years between 1919 and 1930. The aforementioned housing complexes that were recently enlisted by the UNESCO are key projects in early modernist urban planning and architecture. They provided a blueprint after which countless similar housing projects in Germany and Europe were modeled.

When I visited the White City though, I didn’t know most of the historical information that I explained above, and the housing complex didn’t really impress me. At first, I was about to blame it on the bleak winter weather, but then I realized that I probably lacked important information which prevented me from pinpointing the underlying logic and core features of the complex. Without a proper background, my impression of the White City remained undefined and superficial. Back home, I did a search for books on the topic and ended up with “Siedlungen der Berliner Moderne” by Markus Jager, Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds.). After an introduction which explains the historical background and the urban planning theories that were prevalent at the time, the book presents each of the aforementioned six housing complexes in detail.

The White City is built around a central north-south axis, Aroser Allee (see map). The south entrance is marked by two tall “Gate Houses” (Torhäuser) designed by Bruno Arends, which step out of the row of facades along the street and reach out above the pavement. A few hundred meters north, the center of the complex is represented by the Bridge House (“Brückenhaus”) by Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, which crosses Aroser Allee and features loggias one one side and open corridors with the apartment entrances on the other – in it’s function as the center of the complex, it had to have two “front sides” and no backside.

The Bridge House also serves as the point that divides the different parts of the complex, all of which were designed by individual architects: the buildings south of the Bridge House, including the Gate Houses, were designed by Arends. The Bridge House itself and the buildings north of it were designed by Salvisberg and the radially arranged rows of buildings to the east of the Bridge House were created by Wilhelm Büning. Inbetween all buildings there are green spaces with parks and gardens – providing this kind of common space this is one of the central aspects of these theories of housing development.

Of course, time always leaves its mark on buildings, but I was surprised about the slightly neglected appreance of the complex. Only the facades along Aroser Allee were painted bright white. In the backyards and side streets, the buildings were grey. A lot of the elements like doors and windows are obvisouly still in their original state with little modernization done over the years and therefore look a bit shabby.

This state of lacking preservation may be another reason why I wasn’t entirely impressed by the White City. However, had I known more about the background and history of the complex and the theories behind the housing developments of the inter-war years, I would have appreciated the complex in a completely different way. And thus, this is the lesson that I took with me after leaving Berlin: in order to value and appreciate the architecture of the past, you have to be informed about its history and the social circumstances that lead to its creation. There’s a lot to learn from historical architecture, but it takes more effort than simply looking at buildings.

A Trip Through the History of a Capital

There are places that are of such historical significance that it makes you hold your breath and contemplate. Berlin is such a place. The city has played a vital role in many of the worldwide political happenings of the 20th century, and has been the place of both unbelievable sadness as well as boundless joy. The cruel, inhuman regime of the Nazi, the splitting of the country into the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunion of Germany and the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc – Berlin was often right in the center of the events that marked the 20th century.

When you stroll through the city today, these historical traces can still be witnessed in many places. The markation line of the former Berlin wall runs through the city, with original remnants of the wall being visible in some places. Museums decicated to the devision of Berlin and Germany can be visited and provide a shocking glimpse into the life on both sides of the wall between 1961 and 1989. There are places of interest at former border crossings, most famously the “Checkpoint Charlie” at Friedrichstraße. In the eastern part of Berlin, you can still see countless traces of the former GDR, in architecture, sculptures, remnants on literally every street corner. Travelling through the city is like travelling through German history.

And then there is the new Berlin. After the reunion, and especially after Berlin has become the German capital in 1990, the face of the city changed drastically, and still continues to do so. In many cases, the new developments refer to the city’s split past. The impressive row of buildings in the new parliament district – just north of the renovated Reichstag with it’s new glass dome – form a line called “Band des Bundes” (“Ribbon of Government”), which crosses the river Spree twice, and in this crosses the former border between East and West Berlin which was located along the river at this place, thus symbolically linking both parts of the city – and Germany.

At Potsdamer Platz, just a few blocks south of the parliament district – passing by the famous Brandenburg Gate and the exceptional new “Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe” – an entirely new quarter was built right on the former border. During the splitting of the city, this area was a no man’s land between East and West Berlin. After the reunion, a new quarter arose from these fields, which today forms a new city center and attracts countless people each day – inhabitants and visitors alike. Impressive high-rise buildings gather around the large plaza, on which the former line of the Berlin Wall is marked.

Despite the cosmopolitan atmosphere and all the new developments that are happening, you can still feel the spirit of a difficult century in Berlin. Walking through the city, especially when you pay attention to the signs and remnants of the past and learn from the information provided at key points, you just can’t help feeling a bit dizzy from everything that this city has gone through. And this key to the Berlin experience: A visit to the city is a trip into the past of this country, and you take home something a lot more valuable than the usual holiday impressions (and sounvenirs): A free lesson in history and a deep insight into the past century.

All content © by Tobias Münch.
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