Berlin Modernism Housing Estates: architecture with a conscience

In my quest to see sites that UNESCO has deemed worthy of special protection and preservation for future generations, I sometimes stumble upon rather curious ones. These can be quirky and fascinating sights off the beaten path, like these ruins in Armenia or this tiny island in the River Gambia. Other times, well, I’ll be honest, I can’t immediately understand the reasoning behind the inclusion. The Berlin Modernism Housing Estates was one such instance.

Berlin Modernism Housing Estates

Such was my superficial first impression.

The property comprises six housing estates around Berlin, four in West and two in East. I decided to have a look at Wohnstadt Carl Legien in the Prenzlauer Berg area of East Berlin. It took some finding, and some asking. Oddly (and perhaps sadly), none of the 5 – 6 people I asked for directions seemed to be aware they had a world heritage site in their backyard.

Wohnstadt Carl Legien is somewhere I could easily walk past without noticing. Seen through jaded 21st century eyes, these are merely blocks of flats, apartment buildings; nothing remarkable.

Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Bruno Taut, Hugo Häring, Franz Hillinger – prominent, well-known architects of the time – designed the housing estates. And the Bauhaus architecture is certainly a part of the reasoning behind the World Heritage status. Equally important, however, is what these buildings represented: early 20th century social housing projects.

After World War I, Germany was in shambles: economic crisis, depreciating currency, horrible debt balance, all money used to pay for the war, and hyperinflation: in 1919, a loaf of bread cost 1 Mark, in November 1923, it cost 200,000,000,000 marks. Prices didn’t just rise year by year, but hour by hour. If you bought a coffee and thought you might like two cups, it was best to buy both at the same time, as prices might have risen by the time you had finished the first cup. Money became worthless and those who could, reverted to a barter economy. Society broke down, and, as we all know, a little Austrian with a toothbrush moustache didn’t waste the opportunity. But I digress.

People starved, and housing was scarce. In the middle of all this, the Weimar Republic (the period between 1919 and 1933 in Germany) acknowledged the state’s responsibility to ensure people had a proper place to live. And these housing projects were very proper indeed. They were designed by the most famous architects of the time and set up as labour union cooperatives. Every flat had a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom complete with toilet, bathtub and wash basin. Each also had a balcony, and lots of green space surrounding it. Hardly something to be taken for granted 80 – 90 years ago, anywhere in the world.

Now, when I try to see these buildings through the eyes of a Berliner in the 1920s, the picture looks very different. There’s much more to this housing estate than meets the eye, this is a world heritage site with a heart.

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Practicals

  • If you’d like to have a look at Wohnstadt Carl Legien, hop on a tram to Prenzlauer Berg. From the tram stop walk towards Erich Weinert Straße, you’ll find the housing estate between Gubitz and Sültstraße.

unesco logo

Wohnstadt Carl Legien is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site Berlin Modernism Housing Estates.

Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

22 Responses to “Berlin Modernism Housing Estates: architecture with a conscience”

  1. Lisa Goodmurphy 16 October 2013 0135 #

    What a great reminder that something which seems unremarkable on the surface may have a great story behind it.
    Lisa Goodmurphy recently posted..Fall Fun for Families at Springridge Farm

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1909 #

      Digging a little deeper…

  2. Cathy Sweeney 16 October 2013 1541 #

    Sophie, this is very interesting. You had me curious from that very top photo, because I knew you had to have some surprise for us. Now that you’ve told us about it, I can totally see Mies van der Rohe’s style in the buildings. What fascinating background. Would love to see one fo these housing estates next time in Berlin.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Italian Comfort Food at Trattoria Montepaolo

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1910 #

      He emigrated to the USA, I seem to recall.

  3. Leigh 16 October 2013 1621 #

    Love the insight you provided into this post. I guess all the people you spoke with didn’t dig below the surface; it makes me wonder if there is any signage letting people know about its’ status.
    Leigh recently posted..Hiking to the Summit of Le Mont Albert in Quebec

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1911 #

      Not much signage that I could find.

  4. Mette 16 October 2013 1742 #

    Didn’t know that. How very inspiring.
    Mette recently posted..Senigallia – gastronomy and rock-n-roll

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1911 #

      It really is, I think.

  5. Marcia 16 October 2013 2259 #

    Talk about hyperinflation! That must have been chaos. Geez, we really have nothing to complain about, do we?
    Thanks for sharing this, Sophie!
    Marcia recently posted..Crocodile Eggs Make Stamina Punch in Jamaica

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1912 #

      A few similarities with the present situation, though…

  6. Jeff Titelius 17 October 2013 0058 #

    Fascinating account of the history and architecture my friend. Boy times were tough back then and I thought I had troubles!!

    Loved the second “art deco” architecture!
    Jeff Titelius recently posted..In Search of Christmas: The magic and wonder of Santa’s Lapland

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1913 #

      Fascinating, indeed :)

  7. Mary {The World Is A Book} 17 October 2013 0842 #

    I always enjoy your post of the most interesting and unexpected places. What a great history behind these walls and building. How sad that some of the locals didn’t know this historic gem in their backyard.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Seeing An Elephant Parade in America

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1915 #

      Can you believe it? But then, Berlin is so full of gems, maybe they’re a bit blase about it all.

  8. Muza-chan 17 October 2013 1012 #

    Interesting…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1915 #

      It is.

  9. Mary @ Green Global Travel 18 October 2013 1949 #

    Amazing story that certainly inspires one to look deeper and at at the same time, feel incredibly grateful. I can only imagine how wonderfully luxurious these simple flats must have been in those years* Thank you for sharing their history!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 1916 #

      Thank you for stopping by :)

  10. Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad 21 November 2013 0301 #

    A perfect example on why it’s so important to learn about the history of a place we visit beforehand. It gives us a fresh, complete perspective! Great post, I learned a lot <3

    -Maria Alexandra
    Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad recently posted..Things to do in Quebec City: My Personal Recommendations (PHOTO essay)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 1952 #

      It makes a huge difference, I think. And thanks :)

  11. Abi 14 January 2014 2339 #

    Love things that make you think!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 1954 #

      Love that extra little challenge.

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