Building Utopia Berlin Chases UNESCO Status for 1920s Social Housing

In the 1920s Berlin was the world capital of modern architecture. Now six unique social housing projects from the period are up for UNESCO World Heritage status. The buildings mark a time when star architects like Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut were committed to improving the living standards of ordinary people.

By Siobhán Dowling in Berlin

The Carl Legien estate in leafy Prenzlauer Berg.

The Carl Legien estate in leafy Prenzlauer Berg.

The Carl Legien estate is nestled in a leafy oasis between two busy roads in the north of Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district. The groups of apartment blocks are set amid grassy lawns and are designed so that all the balconies face inwards on wonderfully mature gardens. The elegant, curving balconies and big windows at the ends of the cream, pink and blue blocks give the buildings their modern Bauhaus-like appeal.

Doris Kirscht, an sprightly widow in her mid-60s, appreciates the careful thought that went into designing her two-bedroom apartment. "Everything is so comfortable and simple and well thought out," she says about the flat she has lived in for over 25 years. "And then there are the lovely balconies. It is really wonderful to live in." Like most other residents, Kirscht jumped at the chance to return to her building after recent renovations forced her to move out for a few years.

Her affection for the apartment is not surprising -- Krischt lives in a 1920s social housing block built by one of Germany's leading modern architects, Bruno Taut, in 1926. The estate is one of six social housing projects dotted across Berlin that are up for prestigious World Heritage status. They are the city's official candidates for the seal of approval for sites of cultural and architectural importance awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The six sites, which were built by star architects such as Walter Gropius and Hans Scharoun, 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. Evaluators have been sent to Berlin to assess the buildings, and the big decision will be announced next year. But what are Berlin's hopes of making the grade?

Annemarie Jaeggi, director of Berlin's Bauhaus Archive museum, thinks the chances are good. "The settlements are something really special, not just in Germany or even in Europe," she says. "The quality of the building is so high and the architecture has spread right across the world -- it was really one of Germany's contributions to the 20th century."

For Christina Thomson, a Berlin-based architectural historian, it is the mixture of function and design that makes the six Berlin settlements so unique: "You have the radical departure in terms of aesthetics and form coming together with the socio-political concerns," she says. She explains that much of the avant-garde art in the 20th century was defined by the concept of utopia. "This was social utopia in bricks and mortar," she says. "It's almost like that dream has become reality for that very short period, captured in architecture."

A Right to Decent Housing

The construction of these projects could only have occurred in one particular time and place: Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The right to decent housing was enshrined in the 1919 constitution of the new German democracy that emerged from the ashes of World War I. There was finally the political will to meet the massive housing shortages, and a special tax was introduced to fund huge building projects across the country.

Standards were particularly high in Berlin where strict new construction rules applied. "All apartments had to have a separate bathroom with a bathtub, toilet and sink," Jaeggi explains. "The kitchen had to be small, to avoid it being used as a bedroom or living room. And a balcony was mandatory."

Fresh air, hot running water, central heating, access to public transport -- all things taken for granted now -- were revolutionary in a city where most of the working classes lived in dank, dark and unhygienic tenement buildings.


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