Where I went on my Holiday Teil Zwei: the City of the Future
There’s a wonderfully Teutonic compound word to describe the peculiar kind of block of flats that still makes up much of the capital: Mietskaserne
, or ‘Rental Barracks’. Typically, these begin with a street façade of 4 or 5 storeys – originally usually ornamented in neoclassical or baroque style, though most of this was stripped off post-war for its inherent ludicrousness – and then inside there is courtyard after courtyard. When they were built, the further inside the complex one was tended to denote social status. From around the ‘20s until the 80s, these were seen as utterly inhuman structures: dark, dank, without lifts or balconies (for the most part), usually having at least one family crammed into small flats, which nonetheless tended to have incongrously opulent high ceilings. Since they became fashionable in Kreuzberg squatland in the early 80s, they have tended to be the model for all kinds of ‘critical reconstruction’, albeit without the cherubs and twisty ornament that originally festooned them: although I’ve seen a block in Friedrichshain where someone had painted the long-stripped frippery back on. The most grimly beautiful are those Mietskaserne still scattered round Prenzlauer Berg where the ornament is still in place – as are the bullet holes.‘These are the unmistakable signs of a truly collective building, building which captures the sense of totality and which is the most beautiful expression of a supra-personal sensitivity’
Bruno Taut on his Hufeisensiedlung
But Berlin has been the site for all manner of attempts at building the city of the future, and interestingly, with a few (mostly Eastern) exceptions, one has to do a fair bit of research to find its traces in a city still dominated by the Mietskaserne. The earliest, and perhaps most heroic attempt, was that made by the socialist building society GEHAG from 1925 to 32. Along with Swedish rates of unemployment benefit and the NHS, this is one of a few moments in the history of Reformism about which one can be almost unambiguously positive – there doesn’t seem to have been much of a caveat or catch, no clause for the ‘deserving’ poor…Martin Wagner, the SPD town planner, envisaged a series of more futuristic variants on the garden city, and his instrument in this was a building society run by the trade unions and co-operatives. The chosen architect was Bruno Taut. After spending the 1918-9 period working with the anarcho-communist Arbeitsrat fur Kunst, and nearly appointed a minister in the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Taut’s first draft of the city of the future was a glass fantasy of jagged, Caspar David Friedrich sublimity, but by the mid-20s he’d had the obligatory conversion to Sachlichkeit, as can be seen in his first major project – the Hufeisensiedlung, designed in 1924.
At the edge of Neukolln, a KPD stronghold later to be immortalised by Bowie on ‘’Heroes’’
, this is a mix of rows of cherry geometric blocks and multicoloured terraces, leading to the Hufeisen itself: a horseshoe shaped block of flats, with a landscaped park inside – which has become beautifully overgrown, and is still faced by a Constructivist terrace restaurant, now serving Croatian specialties. It’s also notable that here the City of the Future got an immediate response from the city of the past: DEWEGO, run by the white collar unions, erected a line of Volkisch housing in front of the Hufeisen, as if to spite it – the gables and rusticism refusing to let the illusion sustain itself. Likewise, another Taut designed settlement, the Waldsiedlung, served by the Onkel-Toms-Hutte U-Bahn, and often named after it – the rather ambiguous politics of the project are summed up nicely in that name – is also set off against rival hipped roofs and Bavarian tweediness, though here too, Taut’s combination of overgrown, semi-rural and uncompromisingly urban, angular, discordantly coloured blocks and houses still seems like a perfectly viable vision of what the future ought
to look like. Interestingly though, these are places devoid of hipsteriness: edgy urban Berlin generally rents (outrageously cheaply) in the Mietskaserne, while the GEHAG adverts scattered about these estates tend to show wholesome looking families in the Barratt mode, albeit in incongrously well-designed locales.
In Architecture and Utopia
, Manfredo Tafuri’s inadvertently proto-pomo diatribe against social democratic Modernism’s Keynesianism and technocracy, a very salient point about the Reformist future city is made: that it has to leave the real city, the one where most still live and work, almost entirely unchanged. In the 20s it was left to rack up its contradictions regardless of what Taut and Wagner did on the outskirts, and seeing as Berlin is a city of Mietskaserne in 2007, Tafuri is hard to argue with here. The tract does mention a few attempts that actually harnessed the contradictions to make a montage architecture of shock and disjunction – partly Wagner’s Siemensstadt estate, designed by Hans Scharoun (and faced by the obligatory Heimatschutzstil response) but mainly the signature architecture of Erich Mendelsohn. Best known today because of a tower for Einstein and a pavilion for Bexhill, Mendelsohn’s Berlin buildings have no trace of the garden city about them. The Mossehaus, for instance, is a futurist invention shoved into the frontage of a newspaper offices wrecked in the Spartacist uprising; the Schaubuhne maybe the first Modernist cinema; and the IG Metall trade union offices a sweeping, curved incursion into the street’s linearity. There are other totally urban fragments of the city of the future from the 20s here and there – the very imposing Kathreiner Hochhaus by Bruno Paul at Potsdamer Strasse, or Emil Fahrenkamp’s irresistible fantasy, Shell-Haus, or a few blocks by Hans Poelzig at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (including the lovely Kino-Babylon) but these are mostly sachlich precursors of the office blocks of today, with little latent utopianism to them, for all their brilliance. Then there’s 12 years of volkischness and neoclassical bombast, and then most of the city is flattened…
After the war, the Soviet occupiers gave Wagner’s old job to Hans Scharoun, who envisaged a totally new city on the ruins, doing away completely with the Wilhelmine street plan. Tafuri’s comrade and Berlin ‘critical reconstructor’ Aldo Rossi was more keen on the sinister exercise in retro-utopian planning that this eventually became – the Stalinallee, which he called ‘Europe’s last great street’. After a first segment planned by Scharoun and designed by Ludmila Herzenstein in ‘20s fashion, politburo edicts imposed the Stalinist Empire Style, roping in former Modernists like Hermann Henselmann and Richard Paulick to devise tile-clad palaces for workers and functionaries, and appropriately it was the construction workers here in 1953 who first proved the usefulness of the very wide streets for tank movements. The Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee is a street as architectural museum, ranging from the early 50s ‘workers palaces’ to a return to functionalism from the end of that decade, as one approaches Alexanderplatz. It’s also clearly held in more popular esteem than the West Berlin equivalent, the Hansaviertel – a pretty but somehow unresolved scattering of blocks in the Tiergarten, which lacks Taut and Wagner’s conception of totality as much as it does Walter Ulbricht’s.
This wasn’t quite the last of the city of the future – there was Marzahn in the East, a huge plattenbau new town which I haven’t visited, and the Western equivalent to that, Gropiusstadt. This was planned by the Bauhaus director himself (then under fire for the Pan-Am tower in New York, and several decades past his best) as a 4-5 storey garden city, then after the wall went up in 1961, it ballooned into 30 floor blocks rammed up against each other, and was setting for smack & Bowie extravaganza Christiane F. It looked rather pleasant on a very brief visit, if lacking in the sense of the uncanny one gets from, say, Alexanderplatz. And then the city of the future more or less gives up. The ‘80s IBA, a successor to the Hansaviertel, resulted in some interesting buildings, but was all about filling in the gaps left by the war and the wall – then in the tabula rasa at the former Wall ‘death strip’, Potsdamer Platz, the city of the future was squandered for stone and brick skyscrapers. The dominant look imposed by Hans Stimmann is almost comically stern and Prussian, and one should remember exactly who pioneered this particular aesthetic in the city
. There are still little parts that put anywhere else to shame in their futurism: the new Hauptbahnhof, maybe the Sony Centre. Yet the most politically and historically curious thing about the Century’s numerous stabs at the future city in Berlin is just how little mark most of them have made. This is still mostly a 19th century city, save maybe for a few Eastern segments of the 60s. At the same time though, it’s a city of fragmentations, ruptures and scars, lacking the laissez faire barbarity and speculative meanness of certain other mainly Victorian capitals one could care to name – and perhaps this is a legacy of the futures that have been attempted in its interstices…