Origins of Modernism: The Continual Rebuilding of Berlin


By COD 2013 Berlin Conference Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA

One thing you may not know about Berlin is that from the middle of World War II until 1989, 80% of the city was destroyed or demolished. That decimation is shown in the graphic below as the areas in blue. White areas are open areas: streets, the river Spree, and parks such as the Tiergarten. Black areas are buildings that predate 1942.

According to Manfred Kuhne, Department Head, Urban Design and Projects, Berlin Senate for Urban Development, Berlin was originally a farm city. Over two generations, the city became a powerhouse of wealth and culture. And then, skipping over some very important other dates in German history, a wall was erected in 1961 which divided the city into two zones – West and East. When that wall was destroyed in 1989, the former Eastern half found itself in the center of a confusing, and contrast-heavy, opportunity with the former West. City leaders, according to Kuhne, took several years to work on plans for redevelopment and reunification of the whole city, even as they debated where to locate the capital of the now-unified nation. Berlin was ultimately chosen as the capital. It was decided that a large business district was not needed; smaller businesses are more successful.

Two decades later, this situation is still an active part of the city landscape. Berlin remains attractive, Kuhne said, because land and rent is less expensive than in the larger cities of Frankfurt and Bonn, where financial powerhouses buoy the economy. Germany is the fifth largest economy in the world, according to the current US CIA World Factbook, with a national unemployment rate of 5.5%. Its working population numbers 43.9 million people. Berlin is home to 3.2 million people, with unemployment at 11.6%. With relatively high unemployment, the bright side of Berlin life is a low cost of living, and low land costs.

Picture2Walking the stone sidewalks in temperate September air, one sees construction everywhere.

Picture3Construction is evident with cranes that bookend the skyline, and in piping of water that otherwise would undermine foundations of new buildings. The piping maintains the pre-construction below-ground soil and water pressure.

Picture4The piping is unusual, but something that you get used to, even around historically important sites such as the Neues Museum.

Kuhne said, “People come here because the city is not perfect. And it is affordable.” I love this quote about Berlin, because it encapsulates cities themselves – all sorts of lives, all sorts of reasons for being there, and entanglements and opportunities all around. The Telegraph reports that 80% of Berliners rent apartments rather than own their own houses, but that rate is changing. Rental prices in the city rose 8.1% last year, and interest rates on loans are lowering, providing more impetus to purchase a property ( ).

Modern Berliners have created new ways of developing housing and small business offices. Through the hosts of the Committee on Design conference, we met a local architect, Walter Nageli, whose firm has worked on housing that ‘operates a bit like a cooperative’. The architect hung flyers around the neighborhood to see if people would be interested in owning a building together. After a certain percentage of clients was secured, the architect approached the bank for a loan. The clients own the building after its construction; the architects essentially act as the developer. Because the cooperative formed without a developer, costs for the architect and owners are lower.

Three other firms we met at the Origins of Modernism conference had similar projects where the acting financial force was an individual, a firm, or a group of future owners: Kristien Ring with Bar Architects, Britta Jurgens with deadline Architekten, and Florian Koehl with Fat Koehl Architekten. Each showed slides of their ideas behind those projects. Primarily, the projects sought to mix live/work functions in apartment buildings, to keep ‘eyes on the street’ (hello, Jane Jacobs), and provide rich live/work neighborhoods.

The idea is explored in Ring’s book, Self Made City, which focuses on the changes that small actors – people, small groups and small businesses – have on Berlin.

Fat Koehl’s office and apartment building is one such building, with the architects’ office on the ground floor, as well as separate access for residents.

We were treated to a tour of the clean and well-thought out interior, featuring some really wonderful expanding balconies (more on that in a future post). The balconies were a response to building codes which prohibited permanent overhangs on the street – temporary balconies open off of living spaces and be tucked back inside when not needed.



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