Books and more books.


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.


  1. If you’re interested in MBM’s work for the Olympics there’s an old book on the urban design of the Olympic Village by Oriol Bohigas himself (in Catalan, though). Personally I’m not too sure about it, even though I enjoy taking a walk around the area and maybe I’d live there – but a relatively important part of the industrial remains of Barcelona were reduced to decorative smokestacks here and there, the new buildings were vaguely postmodernist and mostly nothing to write home about (with the exception of Miralles’ archery range, JAMLET’s housing blocks and a few others) and the new neighbourhood is weird, sold by Bohigas as a successful mix of modernist planning and Eixample city blocks containing everything a real city has, but the density is a tad low, and there’s so much space between the buildings that’s just so poorly landscaped (also private). Oh, and of course it’s 99% rich people. The seafront is especially dreadful – Barcelona virtually had no beaches before the Olympics except for the traditional ones near Barceloneta, sandwiched between the harbour and the factories, so I guess the city gained something, but the area under the two skyscrapers is so horrible! The architecture of the Olympic Port itself is not too offensive, but it is so appalling to see that what used to be an industrial area is now full of yatchs and restaurants that aren’t even good… oh well. MBM’s idea was that this area is next to the old city so it was like a natural step which could bring some good things to the traditional industrial neigbourhoods surrounding it, but now “regeneration” has put those neighbourhoods under siege as well. Still the plan is solid, maybe a little more density and a little more utopianism would’ve done it no harm.

    From the few pages I’ve seen, Deutschlandschaft looks like a really interesting book, doesn’t it?

    angry catalan, July 4, 2010
  2. Hi ‘angry’, thanks for the comments. Always good to have a better perspective (I only know the area as a tourist). Do you think the fact that the whole area is only for the rich was a foreseeable outcome of the masterplan, or is it just the seemingly unstoppable gentrification of such ‘regenerated’ areas in most western european cities? When I was in Barcelona a few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of banners hung from apartment windows around the old town, not sure what they were saying, but seemed very similar to the many in Berlin objecting to steeply rising rents in gentrifying areas. Any thoughts?

    And yep, Deutschlandschaft a very good read – I’m still not convinced by the whole ’suburbia is the new urbia’ thing, but a welcome antidote to books about new urban cool, icons, starchitects et al, including as it does a commentary on Germany’s ‘other’ places; countryside, suburbs, conurbations, and what goes on there.


    admin, July 6, 2010
  3. The old town… It’s strange because during Francoism the district was left to rot and it eventually became deserted except for old people and criminals, so even the immigrants in Raval could be considered gentrifiers. This also means that even though the people living there are affected negatively by gentrification, they ask for things that usually come with it – schools, quiet public spaces, less prostitution, less drug dealers, “normal” commerce. That’s what the banners stand for – “volem un barri digne”, Catalan for “we want a dignified neighbourhood.” On the other hand, the old town itself is as big as a regional city, so there are a lot of different areas – I think Ribera (the neighbourhood around Miralles’ market and Llinàs’ housing blocks) is nice enough. I’d say the part most affected by gentrification is northern Raval, around the MACBA, between Carrer del Carme and Pl. Universitat. It’s slowly turning into an expensive and fashionable place, but at least the shops there are actual shops and the flats are actual flats, which is more than you can say about most of the Gòtic, and which brings me to the mainstream opinion amongst those who don’t live there – that it’s lost any civic meaning and that it’ll eventually become 100% hotels and souvenir shops. Of course that’s just populism, but there’s some truth in it and it’s become a big issue in local politics. If we’re talking about architecture then it’s true, lots of buildings have been gutted as of lately, but then again there’s been a lot of good stuff too, new plazas, new markets, new public buildings, restored houses.

    The Olympic Village – well, most flats are very big and the density is kind of low for Barcelona standards, so I think they knew what was going to happen. Still it has a coherent masterplan, public space was a concern of the planners and the relationship of the neighbourhood with the whole city was taken into account – so it was more or less done “the public way”. The thing with the masterplan is that it’s not very flexible. In the actual Eixample, the inner courtyards hold all sorts of things from cinemas to small factories to public plazas, but this could never happen in the Olympic Village, which is a more permanent kind of thing, more defined by the buildings. Also, since they knew the area was going to have little traffic, they could’ve made better use of the potential of the Eixample chamfered corners as generators of public space…

    I think I’ll make another comment about “the other -urbia” but for now I’m tired! And sorry for talking so much about Barcelona in a blog that’s about Berlin!

    angry catalan, July 7, 2010

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