A world away from Kottbusser

2009.04.14

Seems like Summer’s arrived  in Berlin, thus dispensing with the awkward middleman of Spring altogether. It probably won’t last, but after months of low grey sky, everyone’s gone a bit mad with the joys of premature summer.  Walk into our local park (it’s Gorlitzer, admittedly) and it feels like the third day of a music festival.  But with much more rubbish.

I mainly mention all this because the images I’ve been collecting in the last few weeks were all taken while it was still uniformly bedeckt, and I just wanted you to know, if you’re not here in Berlin,  how beautiful the city looks on this glorious sunny easter weekend.  This explains the seemingly irrelevant* image below, depicting some people playing  boules on the canal just down from us the other evening:

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*Not entirely irrelevant actually, as the boules courts, and the whole of the landscaping of the north bank, were part of the IBA Altbau programme – a wholly overlooked part in fact.

Anyway, on with the archistuff.

Just down the Landwehrkanal from the scene above, is a block of housing which I’ve often mentioned – it’s the one which was replanned and partly rebuilt by Hinrich & Inker Baller, and features regularly in things you read about the IBA 1984/1987.  You know, it’s this one:

Anyway, what’s less often mentioned (and rarely photographed) is the rest of the block – collectively known in IBA nomenclature as ‘Block 70′.  The curvy Baller designs form three apparently separate buildings in the terrace facing onto the canal, and a larger rear block, which is only accessible via the large landscaped courtyard within.

Yet the whole IBA-defined ‘block’ is much larger than this.  Although much of it comprises reworkings of existing 19th century buildings, it’s of great interest to me, partly because

a) it’s a perfect example of the complex interweaving of old and new to create communities within a dense, fascinating mix of urban typologies

but mainly because

b) it includes a good pub, which runs a decent pub quiz on thursday nights.

As I wobble back home on my bike from the above mentioned institution, I’m aften given to musing  on the nature of planning, modernism and postmodernism.  It’s mainly the Guinness talking, but the immediate locality is like a planning lecturer’s dream;  directly to the north of Block 70 stand the monolithic 1970s concrete towers of Kottbusser Tor – essentially west Berlin’s attempt to match some of the East’s most visually unappealing Plattenbau estates with one of its own, but without the social infrastructure.  Nowhere else in Berlin, and possibly nowhere in most western cities, can you so clearly the excesses of brutalist ‘We Are The Planners, You Are The Planned’-type urban thinking, standing so close to its successor and antidote.

I should add that in strict architectural terms, I use the term ‘brutalist’ wrongly.  I love Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre as much as the next man (assuming that the next man is a member of the Twentieth Century Society), and I’m also not one of those people who believes in the power of architecture to solve deep-seated social and economic problems. But sometimes bad architecture can just, well, get you down.

The 1980s IBA did what it could in and around these structures (including turning a multistorey carpark into a community centre, complete with roof garden (see the sort of ‘I’ shape in the green square to the bottom left of the image above). But the housing blocks continue to be the local authority’s number 1 choice for housing its poorest residents.  ‘Kottie’ is notorious as a location for dealers, and although I don’t feel unsafe walking through it (I’m from southeast London) it’s not a place I’d want to live given a choice.  Apparently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole monolithic ‘Kreuzberg Centre’ project was planned as a tax-saving write-off.

Kottbusser images, by the way, from the site www.sozialestadt.de, a project aiming to reintegrate socially deprived areas of inner city Berlin. The page I’ve linked to gives a good overview of what went wrong; a microcosm of bad 60s and 70s planning, complete with the blight of a planned-for-but-later-abandoned motorway project.  Add to this the peculiar geographical side-effects of a divided Berlin – this part of Kreuzberg was a peculiar dead-end peninsular surrounded on three sides by the wall.  Then of course the wall came down and changed… well, not everything.

Still not sure how to import Google maps, but if you look here, you can see Block 70 bounded by Fraenkelufer to the south and Kohlfurter Strasse to the north, with buildings gradullay rising in scale and ugliness immediately to the north of Kohlfurter Strasse, reaching their peak (if that’s the right word) at Kottbusser Tor itself.

Amazing then that such a contrast exists, like some rift in time between decades.  On the south side of Kohlfuter Strasse is my favourite building – as ever images here don’t do it justice.  It looks at its best at night, when you see that the original 19th century block has had its end wall opened up to create lighter, more open apartments, and making best use of the roof level with a greenhouse structure – both popular ‘tricks’ of the IBA Altbau programme.

Fragments of lost buildings are glimpsed in gardens; an antidote to the scorched earth policy of postwar planning up till that point:

Meanwhile, across the road, the 1970s:

Anyway, back at Block 70, arguably the best bits are those facing onto Erkelenzdamm.  Interestingly, these used to face onto another waterway – the Luisenstadt canal – filled in before the first world war I think, but whose route is still clearly visible (if you look at the map again, you can see how it ran north from the Landwehrkanal (east west), through Wassertorplatz (clue’s in the name) up to Michaelkirchplatz (a basin still filled with water) then turned 90 degrees east to curve round and up to the Spree.  Basically, just follow the streets ending in ‘damm’. Perhaps I’ll start a campaign to reopen it, just after I’ve bought a flat in a prominent overlooking position.  A view of water adds soooo much to property prices you know darling…

Might have to lengthen the Ballers’ cute little bridge though:

More of the original buildings facing onto Erkelenzdamm below.  This one has a certain faded beauty about it in my opinion. Pub just off to the right, out of shot :

When you look closely, you notice that there’s interesting things going on at roof level.  In fact, nearly all of the buildings within the block are linked high up by communal routes and spaces.

About a year ago a new block arrived to fill in a gap in the curved terrace of buildings, by architect Barbara Brakenhoff.  I quite like it, and I’m also quite jealous.  Essentially, it’s a residential community built by and for women, living singly or attached, but aimed at attracting women of all ages, and including fully accessible design for its older residents.  And a communal roof garden, damn them.  I’m a boy, so not worth putting my name down, obviously.

The project is a specific, women-orientated example of a german/Berlin trend for community building that’s sadly lacking in the UK.  Also a good example of how you can only make a good building with a good client, in this case an organisation formed by the people who will live in the building and have obviously placed some value on design.  I’m worried here that I’m sounding a bit like someone from one of those endless British design/urban/housing/planning/placemaking/benchmarking/taskforce-proposing organisations, but it’s true.

Off to sit in the sun now, so next post will probably be just wittering on about parks and stuff…

2 comments

  1. I do sometimes dream that maybe one day the dreadful block on the north side of Kotti will be blown up.. The ones on the south side don’t seem to (at least to me) be quite so bad. Your Aerial shot clearly shows how that north block acts as a barrier to the surrounding area.. On this point at least, the Brits are years ahead of Berlin – they just blow these slums up..

    Oh and BTW, I owe you an apology, an explanation and a beer — awight maete!

    IsarSteve, April 25, 2009
  2. I managed to never even notice the building above the pub… If you had mentioned your participation in the pub quiz, Murray’s would be overrun with blog fans, no doubt.
    Will you please plug your upcoming architecture round here?

    Jill, May 29, 2009

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