UNESCO Celebrates Modernism: Berlin's Social Housing Gets World Heritage Status

Berlin exported its modernist aesthetic of the 1920s around the world but its own examples of Bauhaus-style social housing had long gone unrecognized. Until now. On Monday UNESCO gave six properties in Berlin the World Heritage seal of approval.

The 1920s marked Berlin's golden age when it became the creative center of modernism in art, literature and architecture. It is, therefore, fitting that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has now added six prime examples of modernist architecture in the German capital to its list of World Heritage Sites.

On Monday the UNESCO committee, meeting in Quebec City, Canada decided to award the World Heritage status to the six housing estates dotted across Berlin. The justification was that these buildings were an "outstanding example of the building reform movement that contributed to improving housing and living conditions for people with low incomes." What made these social housing projects particularly special was that they were designed by the leading architects of the day, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, as well as Bruno Taut and Hans Scharoun.

The estates were built between 1913 and 1934, and include the famous horse-shoe-shaped complex in Britz, the Siemensstadt and White City estates, the Schillerpark settlement and the Falkenberg Garden City, as well as the Carl Legien estate in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district.

Their construction took place at a time and place when social commitment and the modernist aesthetic combined: the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The right to decent housing had been enshrined in the new 1919 constitution and in Berlin particularly strict new construction rules were enforced. All new apartments in the city had to have a separate bathroom and kitchen, as well as a balcony. While that might not seem particularly revolutionary by today's standards, at the beginning of the 20th century, most of Berlin's working classes lived in dark, unhygienic and over-crowded tenement buildings.

The capital's left-wing director of municipal construction, Martin Wagner, was committed to providing social housing of a high standard. With Berlin acting as a magnet for Europe's creative elite, he could avail of the cream of modern architects, many of whom were involved in the Bauhaus School and who were strongly interested in the role of architecture in building a better society.

UNESCO recognized the impact of Berlin's modernist social housing projects on urban development far beyond the city, stating that they "exercised considerable influence on the development of housing around the world."

The German delegate in Quebec, Birgitta Ringbeck, told the Deutsche Press Agentur news agency that the decision had been an easy one and that the settlements filled a gap in the World Heritage List.

Berlin's city government pronounced itself delighted with Monday's decision, which gives the capital its third World Heritage Site after the Museum Island and the ornate royal palaces and gardens in Berlin and neighboring Potsdam. The city's senator for urban development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, said that the "UNESCO can be certain that these German World Heritage sites are in good hands."

smd/dpa/ap

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