Berlin Modernism Housing Estates: architecture with a conscience

2014-07-25T09:19:31+00:0015 October 2013|Art and architecture, Germany, UNESCO World Heritage|

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.

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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.

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22 Comments

  1. Lisa Goodmurphy 16 October 2013 at 0135 - Reply

    What a great reminder that something which seems unremarkable on the surface may have a great story behind it.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1909 - Reply

      Digging a little deeper…

  2. Cathy Sweeney 16 October 2013 at 1541 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1910 - Reply

      He emigrated to the USA, I seem to recall.

  3. Leigh 16 October 2013 at 1621 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1911 - Reply

      Not much signage that I could find.

  4. Mette 16 October 2013 at 1742 - Reply

    Didn’t know that. How very inspiring.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1911 - Reply

      It really is, I think.

  5. Marcia 16 October 2013 at 2259 - Reply

    Talk about hyperinflation! That must have been chaos. Geez, we really have nothing to complain about, do we?
    Thanks for sharing this, Sophie!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1912 - Reply

      A few similarities with the present situation, though…

  6. Jeff Titelius 17 October 2013 at 0058 - Reply

    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!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1913 - Reply

      Fascinating, indeed 🙂

  7. Mary {The World Is A Book} 17 October 2013 at 0842 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1915 - Reply

      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 at 1012 - Reply

    Interesting…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2013 at 1915 - Reply

      It is.

  9. Mary @ Green Global Travel 18 October 2013 at 1949 - Reply

    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 24 October 2013 at 1916 - Reply

      Thank you for stopping by 🙂

  10. Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad 21 November 2013 at 0301 - Reply

    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

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 at 1952 - Reply

      It makes a huge difference, I think. And thanks 🙂

  11. Abi 14 January 2014 at 2339 - Reply

    Love things that make you think!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 at 1954 - Reply

      Love that extra little challenge.

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