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Modernism enters the museum

As Berlin's famed housing settlements from the Weimar Republic compete to become Unesco world heritage sites, Dankwart Guratzsch visits the exhibition at the Bauhaus Archiv to assess their credentials.

The housing settlements of the 1920s are the pride of architectural modernism, the icons of the "Neues Bauen" (new way of building), the original form of the "aufgelockerten Stadt" or dispersed city. They reflect the spirit of the Weimar Rrepublic like no other cultural phenomena. They represent the new image of man, the epitome of sweeping social reform, the experimental field of social organisation.

Hufeisensiedlung Britz, 1925 - 27. Architects: Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner
Photo: arial view from 1930s/ Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

Within one generation, the old hierarchical authoritarian state was transformed into an egalitarian mass society. The most obvious metaphor for this being the housing settlement.

Now the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin has made six of these settlements the subject of an exhibition. Berlin is applying to have them recognised as Unesco heritage sites – a status that has already been conferred on Berlin's Museum Island. The German capital is hoping they will contribute to its image as the birthplace of a cultural revolution which conquered the world in the 20th century – in a different way from the armies of the Second World War.

Weiße Stadt after renovation/ Architects:Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, Bruno Ahrends, Wilhelm Büning, Friedrich Paulsen, Ludwig Lesser (garden architect), 1928 - 31
Photo: Winfried Brenne Architects

The exhibition's curators worked together with Berlin's monument authorities to pull off an impressive presentation of the architects' concepts, who under the direction of Martin Wagner, aimed to lift the curtain on a "Neues Berlin."

In addition to Bruno Taut, who was arguably the central figure, the list of the most important names includes Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, Otto Bartning and Hans Scharoun. A combination of pictures, models and vitrines, give the visitor a comprehensive, clear and informative insight into a conceptual world that seems very remote from the present day. It's as though the inhabitants were to sew their own banners and carry them around at the community fair to demonstrate their "co-operative attitude to life."

Großsiedlung Siemensstadt
Modules: Walter Gropius, 1930
(Photo: Arthur Köster,
© VG Bild-Kunst)

And this conceptual world seems more remote still when the visitor ventures out to view the settlements in situ. Without an architectural guide, they're nigh on impossible to find. Unlike those built by Ernst May in Frankfurt am Main, Bruno Taut in Magdeburg (pdf) or Fritz Schumacher in Hamburg, it is almost impossible to identify in the six housing estates in Berlin the figure the were designed to cut in the urban landscape.

Großsiedlung Siemensstadt
Otto Bartning, 1929/30,
Communal wash room / children's play area
(Photo: Arthur Köster,
©VG Bild-Kunst) Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

This is not due to later architectural reshaping, but rather nature at work. In the course of seventy years, bushes and trees have grown over the structures to such an extent that their original uniformity – which was intended to express of the "Neue Gesellschaft" (new society) – is hardly evident any more.

The "settlements" have become residential parks, their modest layouts in stark contrast to the generous natural settings in which they are embedded. What is the "exceptional character" of the six selected estates - Schillerpark, Siemensstadt, Weiße Stadt, Carl Legien, Hufeisensiedlung and Falkenberg – that could help them into the league of heritage sites?

Falkenberg /Akazienhof
Bruno Taut, 1913

Is it the "alternative to the metropolis," the transition to row housing which, as the booklet that accompanies the exhibition claims, made a "radical break with the urban history of the 19th century and its corridor streets"? But we shouldn't we affix this point further back in time, with the "worker's colonies," work settlements and cooperative estates that emerged in industrial centres in the second half of the 19th century.

Their schematism translated machines and industrial production into daily rhythms of life, their socio-political approach followed paternalistic rather than "socialist" notions, their economically peaceful intentions were not aimed at provision for the populace but at the creation of private property.

Falkenberg /Akazienhof after renovation.
Bruno Taut, 1913
Photo: Winfried Brenne Architects

To honour the fundamentally new approach of an "open" urban concept, you have to look at this era of 1870's Berlin. All that singled out the Weimar period was scale and ideological colouring.

Is it the massive socio-political effort that gives the housing estates in Berlin international cultural significance? Between 1924 and 1931, 140,000 apartments were built in the German capital, "a volume unsurpassed even in the postwar period of the 1950s," as the architectural guide emphasises.

Wohnstadt Carl Legien
Architects Bruno Taut, Franz Hillinger, 1928 -30
(Photo: Arthur Köster,
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007) Bauhaus-Archiv

Yet the real pioneering feat in mass apartment building took place half a century earlier. From 1871 on, Berlin grew at a rate of 200,000 inhabitants every five years – but slums such as those in the Third World today never appeared.

The population explosion was met with a privately organised, in its extremes speculative, building programme – even if it also resulted in over-occupancy, unhygienic living conditions and a previously unknown concentration of inhabitants. In terms of sheer construction volume and a "solution to the housing issue, it was the "Grunderzeit" that produced the more astounding phenomenon.

Wohnstadt Carl Legien after renovation
Bruno Taut, 1928 -30
Photo: Winfried Brenne Architects

And there is a third aspect that will not help the chances of Berlin's housing estates winning the title of world cultural heritage site. The ideological beginnings for the "new way of building" which were meant to peak under the Nazis and in the post-war period under the construct of the "neue Heimat", seem in retrospect neither contemporary, exemplary nor future-oriented.

These times of a new individualisation have rendered "collective" societal models obsolete. Now more than ever, the promise of the "neue Menschen" (new people) who were meant to be bred in these new living forms, has lost its appeal. The idea of the "dissolution" of the cities which was laid out in the programmatic publications in the 20s now seems completely anachronistic. The ecologically-oriented "sustainable" city ideal which the UN propagates in its habitat conferences promotes a new concentration, the conservation of resources and "urbanity".

Room in Wohnstadt Carl Legien after renovation
Bruno Taut, 1928 -30
Photo: Hendrik Gackstatter

Perhaps it is precisely this new way of looking at the city, which allows the housing estates of 1920's modernism to seem increasingly threateaned. Modernism is entering the museum.

But this also means that they must be examined with sharpened critical distance. Only then can there be a convincing reappraisal of their special character in the history of living. And there is not enough of this in the Berlin exhibition.


The exhibition "Berliner Siedlungen der 1920er Berlin" (Berlin settlemnents of 1920's Berlin) runs in the Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin until October 8, 2007

This article was originally published in Die Welt on August 1, 2007.

Dankwart Guratzsch is a journalist and editor of Die Welt

Translation: nb and lp - let's talk european