Last week UNESCO awarded six housing estates in Berlin the World Heritage seal of approval. Bauhaus Archiv Director Annemarie Jaeggi tells SPIEGEL ONLINE why these examples of modernist architecture are so important.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Dr. Jaeggi, last week, six Berlin social housing projects were— all of them examples of the kind of modernist architecture not often chosen by UNESCO. Did you expect the honor?
Annemarie Jaeggi: I was delighted. The bid entailed a huge amount of work. Some people have been working on this for 10 years and I had huge concerns. (The city’s plans to build a bridge may jeopardize the Elbe Valley’s UNESCO Status — Ed.) There was a fear that UNESCO would say that Germany was not working hard enough and wouldn’t deal with any of the bids from Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Berlin region already has two sites on the UNESCO list: the palaces and gardens of Postsdam and the Museum Island in the heart of the city. What significance do these new sites have?
Jaeggi: We think it is important that Berlin, the capital of modernist architecture, now has a UNESCO status for modernist buildings. These Berlin estates were something really exceptional in Germany and in Europe.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes them so remarkable?
Jaeggi: You have to go back to the history. There was a huge lack of housing in Germany after World War I and with the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919, the state saw it as part of its duty to provide decent housing — it was even anchored in the constitution. A new tax was introduced to pay for big social housing projects and in Berlin this housing was built to a very high standard. Every apartment had to have its own bathroom with a bathtub, toilet and wash basin. There had to be a small kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a balcony. In addition, these estates are all set in very green spaces that are almost like parks. But what was particular about Berlin was that it was modern architects who built these estates. Big names like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Hugo Häring all undertook social housing projects.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does it mean for the sites now that they have made it on to the list?
Jaeggi: For the estates, it is very important. Many of the apartments that were built in the 1920s have been sold off across Germany and many residents are worried that their apartments could be sold to private owners or companies. The UNESCO status will give them a greater feeling of security because the buildings will have to be maintained and cannot be knocked down.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last year, you held an exhibition at the Bauhaus Archive to highlight the UNESCO bid and it was a huge success. But is modernist architecture just as appreciated outside of Germany?
Jaeggi: Bauhaus, of course, is part of the national culture here. But 83 percent of our visitors are tourists, which shows how much interest there is abroad. They want to know where to find buildings by Walter Gropius or by Mies van der Rohe. Bauhaus is better known abroad than say Goethe or Schiller and the vast majority of visitors to our Web site are from North America.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Presumeably because so many of the Bauhaus architects fled to the United States once the Nazis came to power in 1933.
Jaeggi: It has a lot to do with that. The big names, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, they all became anchored in American culture.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One big name that was involved in many of the new UNESCO sites in Berlin, Bruno Taut, isn’t nearly as well known. Why is that?
Jaeggi: He went into exile in Japan and then Turkey. There were many German architects and urban planners who fled to Turkey.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: He also was quite a bit different from Walter Gropius, both architecturally and politically.
Jaeggi: There were huge differences. Bruno Taut was strongly involved in politics and a member of the Social Democrats. Gropius always tried to stay removed from politics. Even as the director of the Bauhaus, he always tried to avoid making political statements. He felt that art and architecture had nothing to do with politics. Bruno Taut was the complete opposite, he saw architecture as political work and he primarily built social housing. In terms of architecture, his work is just as modern as Gropius’ but he was never quite so radical. He didn’t want to experiment at the expense of residents. He also felt that color was extremely important and he had an entire theory of color that no other modernist architect had. Gropius only used white, gray and black.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Only a tiny proportion of the 900 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are modernist buildings. Some, though, would like to see none at all, arguing that such architecture is as obsolete as the collectivist society it once represented.
Jaeggi: Sure these buildings go back 80 years and the collectivist model is no longer there in our society. However, this architecture spread right across the world. That is really one of Germany’s contributions to the 20th century. Why does that not have just as much a claim to UNESCO status as a Gothic cathedral? I don’t see the difference. Why should one say modernism is not worth protecting just because it was a utopia?
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: