Building Utopia: Berlin Chases UNESCO Status for 1920s Social Housing

In the 1920s Berlin was the world capital of modern architecture. Now six unique social housing projects from the period are up for UNESCO World Heritage status. The buildings mark a time when star architects like Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut were committed to improving the living standards of ordinary people.

The Carl Legien estate is nestled in a leafy oasis between two busy roads in the north of Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district. The groups of apartment blocks are set amid grassy lawns and are designed so that all the balconies face inwards on wonderfully mature gardens. The elegant, curving balconies and big windows at the ends of the cream, pink and blue blocks give the buildings their modern Bauhaus-like appeal.

Doris Kirscht, an sprightly widow in her mid-60s, appreciates the careful thought that went into designing her two-bedroom apartment. “Everything is so comfortable and simple and well thought out,” she says about the flat she has lived in for over 25 years. “And then there are the lovely balconies. It is really wonderful to live in.” Like most other residents, Kirscht jumped at the chance to return to her building after recent renovations forced her to move out for a few years.

Her affection for the apartment is not surprising — Kirscht lives in a 1920s social housing block built by one of Germany’s leading modern architects, Bruno Taut, in 1926. The estate is one of six social housing projects dotted across Berlin that are up for prestigious World Heritage status. They are the city’s official candidates for the seal of approval for sites of cultural and architectural importance awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The six sites, which were built by star architects such as Walter Gropius and Hans Scharoun, include the famous horse-shoe-shaped complex in Britz, the Siemensstadt and White City estates, the Schillerpark settlement and the Falkenberg Garden City, as well as the Carl Legien estate. Evaluators have been sent to Berlin to assess the buildings, and the big decision will be announced next year. But what are Berlin’s hopes of making the grade?

Annemarie Jaeggi, director of Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive museum, thinks the chances are good. “The settlements are something really special, not just in Germany or even in Europe,” she says. “The quality of the building is so high and the architecture has spread right across the world — it was really one of Germany’s contributions to the 20th century.”

For Christina Thomson, a Berlin-based architectural historian, it is the mixture of function and design that makes the six Berlin settlements so unique: “You have the radical departure in terms of aesthetics and form coming together with the socio-political concerns,” she says. She explains that much of the avant-garde art in the 20th century was defined by the concept of utopia. “This was social utopia in bricks and mortar,” she says. “It’s almost like that dream has become reality for that very short period, captured in architecture.”

A Right to Decent Housing

The construction of these projects could only have occurred in one particular time and place: Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The right to decent housing was enshrined in the 1919 constitution of the new German democracy that emerged from the ashes of World War I. There was finally the political will to meet the massive housing shortages, and a special tax was introduced to fund huge building projects across the country.

Standards were particularly high in Berlin where strict new construction rules applied. “All apartments had to have a separate bathroom with a bathtub, toilet and sink,” Jaeggi explains. “The kitchen had to be small, to avoid it being used as a bedroom or living room. And a balcony was mandatory.”

Fresh air, hot running water, central heating, access to public transport — all things taken for granted now — were revolutionary in a city where most of the working classes lived in dank, dark and unhygienic tenement buildings.

Addressing Social Questions through Architecture

Berlin’s left-wing director of municipal building Martin Wagner managed to build an impressive 150,000 dwellings in just a few short years before funds dried up in the depression of the 1930s. And in a city that was a magnet for Europe’s creative elite, he could avail himself of the cream of modern architects, many of whom were involved in the recently established Bauhaus School, to provide this decent housing.

Some of the most revolutionary and visionary practitioners of avant-garde modern architecture, such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Hugo Häring, Hans Scharoun and, in particular, Bruno Taut, chose to apply their skills to building small apartments for ordinary people, a fact less surprising than it might first appear. “Modern architecture is very strongly connected to social questions,” Jaeggi points out.

Although the settlements cannot strictly be described as Bauhaus — the terms “International Style” or “New Building” are more accurate — Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive decided to support the UNESCO application with a recent exhibition dedicated to the six settlements and their bid for World Heritage status.

Colorful Machines for Living

As the hugely popular exhibition explained, all but one of the six settlements were built during the 1920s, with Falkenberg dating back to World War I. Although they are now over 80 years old, the settlements are remarkably well preserved, a testament to the quality of the materials and of the construction methods.

And contrary to many people’s perceptions of modern architecture as being severe and monochrome, many of the settlements are remarkable for a quite unexpected element: color. This is especially true of those built by Bruno Taut, who was known as the “master of color” for his use of bright blues, pinks, yellows and terracotta. He strove to avoid uniformity, using layout, form and color to give individual dignity to social housing. “Taut believed that one shouldn’t make any architectural experiments at the cost of the people who lived there,” Jaeggi says.

Taut’s relative obscurity today is partly due to his decision to flee first to Japan and then to Turkey after the Nazis branded him a “cultural Bolshevik.” The more famous Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe opted for the United States where they established the Bauhaus name — and cemented their own reputations.

Does Modernism Belong in the Museum?

Ironically, the city that exported its modernist aesthetic to much of the world has no World Heritage Site from the 20th century. Berlin’s two UNESCO-approved sites are the impressive Museum Island in central Berlin and the ornate royal palaces and gardens of Potsdam and Berlin.

And there are those who question the validity of bestowing UNESCO status on the six 1920’s settlements. “What is so extraordinary about them?” sniped a recent article in the conservative daily Die Welt, arguing that the ideals of the collective society that were behind such estates are “obsolete” and “anachronistic” and that “the modern” was now only fit for the museum.

Thomson disagrees, arguing that the settlements are lived-in examples of an architecture that is timeless. “Residents experience on a daily basis the advantages of how ideas were put into reality at the time,” she says. She points out that, while there may be comparable estates in other parts of Germany, these ones stand for the Berlin of the 1920s, “when it was the heart and hub of the avant-garde in Europe.”

Jaeggi argues that modern architecture also deserves to be protected and presented as something unique. “Why should we say it is not worth protecting just because it was a utopia?” she asks. “Why does that not have just as much a claim to UNESCO status as a Gothic cathedral?”

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