Berlin Urban Design – A Short History of a European City (New Edition)

2013.02.25

A spot of self-publicity in a way, as the 2nd, revamped edition of Berlin Urban Design, by Harald Bodenschatz, has been published recently, English translation by me*.

I notice that amazon.co.uk has the old, out-of-date edition, so check carefully before you buy. The new (2nd) edition has additional and extended chapters, bringing the narrative up to date with various current projects, including the building of the glorious new BER airport, due to open in 2012. 2013. 2014 the 21st century**.

I reviewed the original edition on this blog about three years ago, commenting that it was a good book with a poor English translation. As a consequence, I was given the chance to have a go myself, including some updated and additional chapters. Hope you like it.

The book is a short but oh-so-informative history of Berlin’s urban development, cantering quickly through its medieval roots to focus on the city’s colossal 19th century expansion, 20th century utopianism, and post-wall euphoria-to-debt story, with much more along the way. Maps and images are fantastic, text is not too shabby either.

Will bring some copies along to Wednesday’s book club.

* The intro was written in English by Karl Friedhelm Fischer. Original translation of 1st edition by Sasha Disko.

** See press for details. Mayoral careers can go down as well as up.

Categories : Books

Archi Book Club, Wed 27th Feb: Calvino’s Invisible Cities

2013.01.30

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a series of descriptions, really conversations, told by a fictitious Marco Polo to an invented Kublai Khan. As Marco travels round the world on the Emperor’s business, his job is not to bring back treasure or trade, but to barter in stories – the accumulated wealth of his imagination.

Here are all the cities ever dreamed of; thin cities, cities and desire, cities and the dead, cities and memory, continuous cites, cities and signs. All are named after women – Raissa, Irene, Phyillis, Chloe… ‘In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.’

Calvino was writing about Venice – all the Venice’s collapsed, folded or vanished behind the tourist façade. Anyone who loves Venice, knows that its true life is half-glimpsed or dreamed, that the city reconfigures itself, yielding suddenly as you turn into a deserted square, snapping shut, as you walk past San Marco.

Reading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.

(from a review by Jeanette Winterson)

All welcome, so do read the book and join us for drinks, nibbles and discussion at 7.30pm at

Hudson’s Cafe,

Boppstr. 1, 10967

(corner of Schönleinstr., nearest U-Bahn Schönleinstr).

Categories : Books   Event

Book Club, 19th Dec. Jonathan Raban’s Soft City

2012.11.25

Recommended by two of our group, Soft City was written in the early 1970s when Raban lived in London, and is “a vivid, often funny portrait of metropolitan life, Soft City is part reportage, part incisive thesis, part intimate autobiography, and a much-quoted classic of the literature of the city and urban culture.”

An interesting (and much later) piece by Raban himself: http://www.jonathanraban.com/article.php?id=29

Categories : Books   Event

Archi Book Club, 21st November – The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs

2012.10.27

On Wednesday 14th November, I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion entitled “The Triumph of the City?“, a satellite event of  the Battle of Ideas event earlier this month in London.

One of the other panelists, Alistair Donald, is co-editor of a recent book of essays  - The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs, so I propose to do this as our book club book for the following week, by way of a tie-in.

Book club will be at 7.30pm at Hudson’s Cafe, Schönleinstr 1.

Categories : Books   Event

Book Club, Wednesday 24th October – Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”

2012.09.17

[Rescheduled from 17th Oct, sorry for any inconvenience]

I propose Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, which is one of those books I hear endlessly referred to but have never actually read.

I’m a little nervous that it’s now 50 years old, and may seem on the one hand a little dated, on the other a bit ‘obvious’ (although many of the issues she writes about are clearly still major urban problems. Perhaps this should be the theme of our discussion: have Jacobs’ tirade against modernist planning become a new orthodoxy (or at least the lip-service that planners and architects all have to pay)?

And I think we can add some balance by picking more recent books for future meetings. I’ve been invited to join a panel debate in November, entitled “The Triumph of the City?“, and thought we might consider a book co-written by another of the panelists, Alastair Donald – “The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs“.

As ever, all book suggestions welcome, especially for German or Berlin-based writing on architecture and urbanism that would have broad appeal (and isn’t just about the war…). Possible future book suggestions: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Colin Rowe’s Collage Cities, and more.

7.30 pm at Hudson’s Cafe, Schönleinstr 1.

Categories : Books   Event

Das ungebaute Berlin

2010.08.09

Just a quick post to recommend ‘Das ungebaute Berlin‘, an exhibiton at the recently refurbished Cafe Moskau.  It’s only on until the 15th of August, and won’t take you hours.

It covers 100 projects which, as you guessed, failed to get built in Berlin in the twentieth century, ranging from the very well known (Mies’ skyscraper on Friedrichstrasse) to the less so (Peter Cook, once of Archigram, happily wittering about some wonderfully odd plans for the western end of Kudamm).

The projects perhaps tell as much about the history of Berlin and of modern architecture as much as what was actually built – the megalomania of Speer, the almost-as-mad 1960s project to build a colossal motorway interchange by demolishing much of Kreuzberg, and the arguments and proposals over the big post-wall sites such as Potzdamerplatz.

There’s an extremely enticing book to go with it, which I’ll try and do a review of soon.

German text only by the way, with the odd english speaking architect in the interview videos (actually, pretty much all the interviewees are pretty odd, not least of all Peter Cook, bless ‘im).

Categories : Books   Event

Books and more books.

2010.07.04

Back in Berlin after break (wedding and honeymoon), to discover that it’s very warm. Tried to sit down with Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City, but kept nodding off. Newspapers filled only with yesterday’s Germany/Argentina game. So having failed to read anything, thought I’d write about some books instead – one in particular, followed by a fairly random list of Berlin architecture-related things that I’ve been reading, as I thought you might be interested.

This all stems from my guilt at not having reviewed Berlin Urban Design: A Brief History, sent to me by Dom publishers a little while back. I was surprised to be sent further books by them, as I was lukewarm about the previous one. But this new publication is much more to my liking; a breezy canter through Berlin’s urban planning history, from its military and industrial roots up to the present day. It’s an easy read (despite a few awkward english translation moments) and a good short guide for anyone wanting a grounding in the subject.

The introduction makes the point that Berlin is very much a 19th and 20th century city. Minimal page space is given to the medieval and Baroque periods, since, despite the Berlin government’s tourist-friendly focus on rebuilding a Baroque castle and other such retro weirdness, these periods do not dominate the capital’s dominant urban history. Rather; between 1871 and 1918, it was the largest industrial city in Europe – something that you’re constantly reminded as you explore the eastern part of the city along the Spree, where Berlin’s monumental industrial remains are only slowly giving way to the offices and apartments of the ‘creative class’ (I hate this term, but as its use becomes increasingly pejorative, I use it more and more. It’s a phrase that makes you shudder, much like ‘World Class’). And important to remember also, as you cycle back late from a friend’s place out at Stralau, that these buildings existed for a purpose other than venues for dimly lit but achingly seductive techno parties.

Anyway, back at the book: the Hobrecht Plan of the 1860’s is compared in some detail with Haussmann’s Paris and Cerdà’s Barcelona projects of the same period, mounting a partial defense of Hobrecht by pointing out that the creation of high density slums was not directly the fault of the plan, which simply laid down street and overall block sizes. It did not regulate the number or quality of buildings per block, although perhaps this omission is in itself a failure on the part of the planning authorities – having been staying in Barcelona’s Eixample only days ago, it’s hard not to see the latter as far superior to the former.

The book gives short shrift to National Socialist city planning, although a reproduction of Speer’s North-South axis ground plan makes you realize just how madly destructive its enormous scale would have been, with single buildings the size of small districts, and a complete disregard for the exisiting city. (Although insensitive urban planning was possibly the least of the Nazi’s crimes.)

Greatest depth is allocated to post-Wall planning, to which I haven’t really paid much attention to be honest, save for the odd critical sneer, due to my personal obsession with the late 1970s and early 1980s and the seemingly general agreement that since the wall came down all development has been poorly planned and dominated by commercial interests. Worth noting though that there is more to Berlin’s current plans than neverending gentrification, even if it often seems that way. But most interesting to me was mention of the ‘pilot projects’ for the IBA housing exhibition of the 1980s, which the author sets out clearly as a turn away from modernism, in terms of urban development. These included “Block 118″ – careful urban renewal of existing buildings at Klausener Platz, Charlottenburg, as well as similar planning around Chammissoplatz in Kreuzberg.

Berlin Urban design – A Brief History. By Harald Bodenschatz, Dom Publishers. English and German (link is to English). A picture of the book, almost as it appears on my desk, if my desk was very clean and white:


Other things I’ve been reading…

I’ve just remembered that I did a sort of Bibliography early on in my blogging, which is here.

But more recently, there’s been…

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century

Bruno Taut: Master of Colourful Architecture (not such a great title but a good book!)

Traces of Terror: Sites of Nazi Tyranny in Berlin – not for sad ‘obsessed with Nazis’ types, but a sober reflection on sites rather than just buildings.

Berlin Modernism Housing Estates (Siedlungen der Berliner Moderne) – have just realised that although the publisher sent me this rather fabulous tome, I never actually properly reviewed it. I should have done, as it’s a detailed report on the background and reasons for giving UNESCO heritage status to the six key Berlin modernist estates of the 1920s,
including the Britz ‘Horsehoe’ estate. Braun are a pretty big publisher of all things Berlin architectural, including the essential, I-never-leave-home-without-it, Berlin Architekturstadtplan (Architecture City Map), the Berlin Architecture Guide and also the annual guide to new architecture in Berlin.

Deutschlandscape/Deutschlandschaft – Epicentres at the Periphery. A book produced from Germany’s pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale, covering Berlin and elsewhere. Mainly elsewhere. Where it turns out there is much more interesting new architecture than in Berlin itself.

Modern Architecture In Berlin – an excellent guide by architect Rolf Rave, with a selection of 466 buildings, covered ‘briefly but informatively’, as they say, and available in all good bookshops. The kind of book that I like to flick through endlessly, frequently annoying my wife by saying “oh that’s who did that building”.

A Life In Cities – autobiography by David Mackay, of Catalan architects MBM, whose work includes masterplanning the Barcelona Olympics, and Berlin projects including IBA buildings on Kochstrasse. He graduated from the AA in London in the early 1950s and moved to Barcelona with his new catalan wife directly afterwards. A fascinating mix of personal reminiscence and commentary on cities and architecture. I notice Scotland’s RIAS, who published it, are doing them for £15 at the moment.

And my current favourite: “The Language of Postmodernism“, fourth edition, by Charles Jencks. Often unintentionally amusing (this edition is from 1987, when Postmodernism was seen as the only possible future after the death of modernism) but equally as often intentionally amusing, wry and intelligent. Found it in a secondhand bookshop, am sure you can find a copy somewhere on the web if you need one. A much later edition, which must have been losing its point somewhat, is available.

There’s lots more, but books are all in teetering stacks around the place and thus a bit confused at the moment.

Categories : Books

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century

2010.03.31

I recently had a copy of  “Stadt und Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century” sent to me by Dom publishers – it’s taken me a couple of weeks I’m afraid, due in part to the (ongoing) ‘Hejduk Tower’ campaign.  These two things are related in a roundabout way, which I might mention later.

Anyway, I should firstly mention that the book itself is a thing of beauty – ‘lavishly illustrated’ as they say.  A detailed introduction gives an overview of Berlin’s development, with plenty of maps and images, and each of the twenty or so projects covered feature good photography and include sections and floor plans.

The book’s title, Stadt & Haus*, sets the theme; it aims to present the continuity of urban planning in the capital, highlighting a new style of specifically Berlin architecture which respects the past but is essentially modern.  The projects selected are hotels, offices, apartment blocks and an (apparently) new Berlin typology, the townhouse.  Public buildings, stations, museums, schools and the like are not covered here, which is fair enough – there seems to be an intent here not to create another guidebook featuring yet more photos of the Neues Museum.

The problem with such a selection though is that after a while you start to feel that you’re reading a brochure aimed at enticing people with a lot of money to move here.  The hotels are very expensive, the apartment blocks exclusive, and the townhouses colossal – presumably aimed at ambassadors of richer nations and the independently very wealthy.  The Berlin senate has made no secret of its desire to replace the city’s ‘poor but sexy’ image with that of a cool hangout for those with money;  I’d always dismissed this as hopelessly optimistic (from the senate’s point of view) but flicking through the projects here, you begin to think that perhaps it’s all running to plan.  I often wonder what could possibly be fuelling Berlin’s seemingly neverending gentrification, without the city having any apparent generator of wealth. The case remains open as far as I’m concerned, but this book provides some clues.

Perhaps Stadt & Haus is intended as an antidote to the ‘Architecture Now!’-style publications that cherry pick the best (or at least the most photogenic) new buildings from a city’s output, no matter how unrepresentative.  Maybe the buildings covered here present a more accurate picture of new architecture in Berlin?  It’s not the Berlin I recognise or am drawn to; to be fair the projects are mainly located in that ‘other’ Berlin that feels far from graffiti-tagged Kreuzberg; these designs are corporate Mitte to the core.  Even so, there is much that could have been included here, a selection of new apartments from Prenzlauer Berg perhaps, but which this book seems to be suggesting are not in the spirit of the ‘real’ Berlin, favouring projects like the ones below are:

Above: the Marriott Hotel on Inge-Beisheim Platz by Bernd Albers

Below: interior of the Concorde Hotel in Augsburger Str, by Kleihues & Kleihues

There are some interesting buildings – Chipperfield’s slightly scary apartment block at Potsdamerplatz (deconstructed Speer?), the ‘Slender-Bender‘ house by DEADLINE, cool late modernism by nps tchoban voss in Reinhardtstrasse (I refuse to link to them, as they have a Flash site) and the new terrace of townhouses on Kurstrasse:

These townhouses, by the way, are six to seven storeys, with lifts, and dining rooms that seat up to 30. To me, this is approaching a concept of ‘too much money’, in a city that’s basically broke, but what do I know.

Other areas of the city, and other building types are touched on, but as someone who lives here, I wanted to be told more. There’s a terrace of houses from the new Rummelsburger Bucht district of the city out to the east, where there are some interesting things going on.  Though in the project selected there’s still something slightly timid about its modern take on the Dutch Gable style, which could do with a bit of FATtening up, in my view. (The image below is at Rummelsburg, but not from the book, it’s just that I like it more…)

Overall though, the usual suspects dominate: Kollhoff, Kleihues & Kleihues, Hilmer & Sattler and co glorying in repetitive glazing and those big stonework Prussian facades, which, whatever your architectural taste, seem well made but just not very inspired.  Which leads to my only-slightly-forced link with the Heduk campaign and the IBA.  The introduction to Stadt & Haus suggests a strong continuity between the IBA planning of the 1980s – with its theme of reinstating the 19th Century urban grain – and the post-Wall policy of Critical Reconstruction which has apparently led to many of the projects set out here.  Yet it’s a connection I’m increasingly dubious about.  In West Berlin, the 1980s were a period of great experimentalism in housing; through the IBA, a huge range of approaches, styles and types were tried out by an equally varied range of architects from around the world.  Not all of these buildings were successful, some were not good, some were just bizarre, but the decade left behind a legacy that has still to be fully explored.  Berlin’s post-Wall period however, seems to be increasingly represented by highly competent buildings, efficient in design and professional in construction, but fundamentally dull. 

Stadt & Haus is arguably a more representative sample of Berlin’s current architecture than the highly selective choices of ‘archiporn’ that too often dominate the architectural press.  I guess that I’m just not a fan of this reality.

Stadt & Haus: New Berlin Architecture in the 21st Century, by Philip Meuser, DOM publishers, 2010.

*Stadt & Haus has been translated on the Dom site as “City & House” although it’s worth noting that the German ‘Haus’ has a broader meaning, referring to a block of apartments or other substantial single building.

Mauerfall, Part 1

2009.07.06

I’m not one for being up-to-date or cutting edge with my blog content (I’m more of a ponderer) but even I have noticed that 2009 is of course the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To this end, I thought I’d start a series of posts about Berlin places and buildings on its route. I’m not doing them in a particular order, but I might at some point renumber these to make a sort of ad hoc guide. There’s actually a very good cycle guide to the entire route (now also available in English) nearly all of which we’ve cycled. There’s a bit to the north of Berlin which we missed, because we found a rather good restaurant, and lunch ran over schedule.  You can do it in three days comfortably – we just cycled to the nearest station and came home each evening, then restarted the next day at the same point, so I can’t make recommendations for accomodation.

Thanks to Julie (see comments) who noted this useful link: http://www.berlin.de/mauer/mauerweg/index/index.en.php.

Anyway, I’ve elected to start at Michael-Kirch-Platz, which I would insert here as a Googlemap, but can’t get it to work, so here’s a link instead.

I feel really strongly that if you want to get a feel for the wall and its history, far better to get a good book on it and walk some stretches like this, away from Checkpoint Charlie and the tourists.

In case you didn’t know, the Wall (die Mauer) was not really a wall as such – more a series of fences, barriers and heavily guarded strips which formed an inpenetrable barrier around West Berlin.  In central Berlin the outermost line usually took the form of the familiar concrete slabs with tubular concrete section on top that’s become the image of ‘The Wall’.  There’s still bits all over the place:

All this sort of thing you can read elsewhere I’m sure, so back to Michael-Kirk-Platz.  It’s one of those many spots in Berlin where you find yourself so surrounded by history that the place seems somehow to be resting, exhausted, hoping for a quiet life from now on.  The wall ran across the bridge over the Spree (top right hand corner of map) then followed the curve of the old Luisenstadt canal (filled in early in the 20th century but its route still clearly visible, and now a long thin park) down to Michael-Kirk-Platz, where there is still a small lake remaining (the Engelbecker – angel basin) before dropping south.  Confusingly, everything to the south and east of the wall at this point was in West Berlin, everything to the north and west was in East Berlin.

It emphasizes Kreuzberg’s strange isolated location in the already isolated West Berlin of the Cold War years; the allies divided Berlin into sectors which generally followed the district lines, and the wall followed these when it went up, so at Michael-Kirk-Platz divided Kreuzberg in the south-east from Mitte, the central district of the East German capital.

The Kirk (church) itself was heavily damaged in WWII bombing and the nave is now just a shell; only the transepts, main tower and apse are now enclosed and in use:

This was on a poster by the entrance – you can clearly see the small lake and the route of the disused canal heading running south:

Another image from the board, showing the wall pre-1989.  You can just make out a guard tower to the right, in the ‘death strip’.  The church was in West Berlin:

Taking a walk around the Platz is a brief history of the last 100 years of building in Berlin.  Taking a turn about the square from north west, anticlockwise:

First are a group of refurbished east german Plattenbau housing blocks:

…standing right next to some recent new apartment blocks – nothing to write home about in architectural terms, but representative of post-Wall reconstruction and of the area’s not-so-creeping gentrification:

The apartments face across the Engelbecker to older 19th century blocks – before 1989 this would have been a view looking from East Berlin over the wall into the West (the wall running where the line of trees is).  I’m often struck by how strange a situation it all was – the two worlds able to look across at each other every day:

Then, on a different note, a piece of seminal early modernism by Bruno Taut, mentioned in my earlier post:

Off to its left is a block which I know nothing about – at first glance an east german Plattenbau, but on closer inspection older, perhaps Nazi-era (I think) judging by the stonework detailing.  Currently a local activist squat by the look of it:

Walking away from the Platz along the line of the canal/Wall to the north, you witness the amazing contrast between the carefully kept park, with new private apartments behind:

and immediately opposite, an increasingly rare scene here – people living in that other place, in a range of (often) dilapidated vehicles and makeshift buildings:

Refurbished buildings still stand alone in large open plots, created by allied bombing and postwar clearance – now a unique and integral part of Berlin’s urbanity:

And of course that strange self-built ‘Haus am Mauer‘:

Bruno Taut – Meister des farbigen bauens in Berlin / Master of colourful architecture in Berlin

2009.06.03

Verlagshaus Braun, 2008.  Edited by the Deutscher Werkbund Berlin.

Majority of text in german and english, with some of the english texts slightly summarised. Short building descriptions are in german only, but fairly easy to work out.

Amazon link

Bruno Taut is accepted as one of the founding fathers of modern architecture, although his work was apparently mocked at the time by the press as an architect of ‘little people’s happiness’, which in retrospect seems an odd sort of insult.  He’s also one of those, like Poelzig or Mies, whose designs spanned the pre-modern to the modern; it often seems to be the case with figures such as these that their early work is left out of the historical account, as it doesn’t fit with the revolutionary narrative of modernism.

Not so here – the book is both a good introduction to Taut’s work, and a well-researched and thorough guide to all of his buildings in Berlin, from 1908 onwards, both destroyed and extant.  Each project is set out with example floor plans, contemporary and original images, site location plans and text.  But it’s the chronological ordering that’s so effective, as you can clearly see the development of Taut’s ideas from some relatively undistinguished buildings, through to the colourful large scale estates mentioned in the title.  This also gives the lie to the ‘hermetically sealed’ historical view of modernism; rather, the architecture develops gradually through what we know as ‘modernist’ design, and you have the feeling that creating a sleek white minimal look was in any case not Taut’s overriding aim.  In fact the colour schemes of some of the estates, generally recently restored to their former glory and reproduced in the book, could be described politely as ‘exuberant’.

There are some good essays on Taut’s membership of the Deutscher Werkbund (who are responsible for the publication of the book itself), his work with light and colour, and the preservation of his work in later years.  Incredibly, Taut built over 10,000 apartments in Berlin.  Of Berlin’s six housing estates recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status, four are by Taut; the book includes an essay on the status and preservation of Taut’s legacy.  Since you ask, the four estates are:

- Tuschkastensiedlung Falkenberg, 1913-16
- Wohnstadt Carl Legien in Prenzlauer Berg, 1928-30
- Hufeisensiedlung Britz, 1925-30 (the ‘Horseshoe’ estate)
- Siedlung Schillerpark im Wedding

What was also fascinating was to discover that two of Taut’s earliest buildings are in my immediate neighbourhood, both located on what I had considered to be the architecturally barren street of Kottbusser Damm, south of the canal.  Clearly I don’t look up enough when walking down the street (I generally watch the pavement in Neukoln/Kreuzberg, where dog owners take a laissez-faire attitude).

The first is no. 2-3, a block which remained a postwar ruin until the 1980s, until it was rebuilt, bizarrely, by Inken and Hinrich Baller, who are themselves no strangers to this blog.  Originally, the block included a cinema in the lower storeys.

It’s all Taut at the front:

but Baller at the back:

Just down the road is a quite different building, but also 1909.  What strikes you most is the Arts & Crafts styling, which was never completely lost to Taut in his later work:

The book is packed with the level of detail that I like.  I was interested to note that the Haus des Deutschen Verkehrsbundes (the state traffic office) on Engeldamm, originally had its limestone facing painted over in a dark colour, which seems a little contrary to logic, but does emphasize the importance of colour in Taut’s architecture:

(Image by Julien Valle, who has also photographed brother Max Taut’s building just south on Oranienplatz. In fact he’s photographed lots of things that I meant to get round to but haven’t – well worth a look. Anyway, back at the book review…)

In some ways the sub-title ‘Master of Colourful Architecture…’ is a little misleading (as well as being slightly clunky in english) despite the inclusion of an essay on the enormous importance of colour in Taut’s work.  I make this not really as a criticism though, because what comes through most from the book is Taut’s dedication to better living conditions for ordinary people, achieved through design, and the strong influence of the english Garden City movement; more Letchworth and lawns, than Mies and modernism.