The often overlooked beauty of Berlin can be found in the century-spanning walks one can make through the city. The architecture mirrors the city’s status as a space for revolutionary ideas. The Berlin Wall – an utterly prehistoric concept that divided the city until harrowingly recent times – led to both sides of the city developing in startlingly different ways.
The Weimar Republic left an indelible mark on Berlin’s topography. These years, following the stagnation of WW1, saw innovation arrive in the form of Europe’s finest avant-garde architects taking residency in the city. From Le Corbusier to Taut; a new architectural association was created in 1923 called ‘Der Ring’. The aspirations and direction of this collective, which would later be renamed ‘Bauhaus’, was a clear break from the traditional. These architects broke with traditional aesthetics, in doing so, they created a new, modern, healthier and affordable approach to building.
Due to the housing shortages Berlin was suffering – following WW1 and Berlin’s steadily mushrooming population – these new architects, in conjunction with the chief city planner, devised a new breed of ‘Siedlungen’ (housing estate). The distinct aims were to breathe new life into forgotten spaces and breed social interaction between residents. A fine example and one that later received UNESCO heritage-listing is the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Colony) in southern Neukölln.
I headed out to find the estate, located in a pretty corner of Neukölln far removed from the tourist trail, on a cold morning in December. Taking the U7 U-Bahn to Parchimer Allee, sheds the years off your surroundings. Stepping off the U-Bahn, you then walk north up Fritz-Reuter-Allee. To a Brit; the shift in the style of architecture is significant. Bruno Taut, like his peers, wanted to apply his expertise to social housing for the common man. While you can feel that the Dutch influence on design is significant, for a Brit, you instantly recognise the garden city movement aesthetic, still very prevalent today. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere near Eastbourne when you first arrive at the surface from the underground station. The ‘Hufeiseniedlung’ takes its name from the shape of the estate. While this is easy to locate from the sky, like a crop circle, I quickly realised that it would be more difficult at ground level. The impressive curve – 350-meters in length – arches a pond that dates back to the ice age. The curve encompasses 25 housing units with the central building embedded in a suburban ideal that is both urban and rural. Taut’s loyalty to colour – he staunchly utilised it to ‘create variety and vivid impacts’ throughout his career, is evident. Doors, windows, staircases and minor recesses are all considered and contrasted against the facade of the building. Should you wish to spend a weekend within this iconic housing estate, ‘Taut’s Home’ is a lovingly restored property available to rent from Wimdu.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989 so, too, did many of the East German government buildings and the hotchpotch of GDR buildings that were erected hastily in the 1960s. A few still stand today, yet the majority are cheap, ugly monstrosities that lurk, baying, on the eastern borders of Alexanderplatz.
There do, however, remain a few era-defining architectural gems. Karl-Marx-Allee is lined with grandiose architecture that echoes the socialist classicism of the former Soviet Union. Formerly ‘Stalinallee’, the grandiose apartment blocks and wide promenade of a street that was built for parades, still stands stoic today. Café Sibylle, which opened in 1953, was once one of East Berlin’s most popular cafes. Today it is well worth a visit, both for a coffee break and to view the intriguing exhibition that charts the construction Karl-Marx-Allee.
Some other key examples of this Soviet-inspired architecture, free from the sharp corners and rectangles of the Nazi buildings, are now being adopted by businesses and are also home to new galleries and nightspots. Soho House Berlin, located in the former headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party, is another classic example of this form of architecture.
West Berlin architecture contrasted heavily with the East, with a notable step away from the monumentalism that characterised the other half of the city. The perfect example of this can be found in the Hansaviertal, a leafy area north of Tiergarten that mixes high-rise and single-family homes together. The area was completely devastated during the war, with nine out of every ten buildings destroyed and the majority of its residents fleeing and seeking asylum. This left behind a blank canvas for the city planners to build upon. The focus was to decentralise the whole area and open up more spaces for greenery to thrive.
A nationwide competition was launched and iconic architects such as Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Egon Eiermann were all invited to design the new Hansaviertel to modern standards. Originally intended as council housing, the distinct new tower blocks were erected, along with a small settlement of single-family housing and two modernist churches. All of these were arranged around designated green spaces. Today, the Hansaviertel provides an intriguing insight into the history of this remarkable city and is sure to transport you back the late 1950s should you explore the area.