The architecture and history of Hansaviertel
Though Frankfurter Allee in Berlin’s east is better-known and (arguably) more photogenic, the Hansaviertel neighbourhood played an equally large part in the architectural development of the city. Intended as an ideological rival to the socialist classicist style of the GDR’s monumental boulevard, the development of the Hansaviertel involved some of the world’s greatest architects, and was centred around a huge exhibition called Interbau. Let’s learn a little more about this fascinating and attractive area.
The Birth of the Bourgeois
Lying to the north-east of Berlin’s vast and leafy Tiergarten, the “Schöneberger Wiesen” (as it was known prior to the 19th century) was an undeveloped floodplain that grew into an urban residential area alongside the city’s amazingly rapid growth at the end of the 19th century. From a city of 220,000 inhabitants in 1824, by the end of the century, Berlin’s population had reached 2.7 million. This understandably led to a huge spate of housing construction, mostly of apartment buildings and tenement houses to counter the housing shortage. Yet alongside these working-class districts, there were also areas for the city’s wealthier inhabitants, particularly the growing middle-classes. New villa colonies grew up on the outskirts, in places like Grunewald and Dahlem, while closer to the centre, larger, more spacious, detached residential properties were being built for the growing members of the bourgeoisie. After the foundation of the Reich in 1874, the Berlin-Hamburger Immobilien-Gesellschaft began to develop the area of the the “Schöneberger Wiesen”, which thus became known as the Hansaviertel, in reference to the Hanseatic League, a trading network established in the Middle Ages and based in Hamburg.
Among those who settled in the Hansaviertel were merchants, bankers and other wealthy citizens, as well as civil servants and artists who turned the attics into studios. As a result, the buildings themselves had to be correspondingly grand. Indeed, the houses built in the Hansaviertel at this time were some of the grandest and most elaborate of the so-called Gründerzeit period, the time when Berlin’s Altbau buildings, now so cherished and sought-after, were being constructed. With monumental neo-baroque and neo-renaissance façades, stylistic elements such as columns, cornices and friezes, and huge nine-room apartments, these were truly magnificent dwellings that ostentatiously displayed the residents’ prestige and social standing.
Of course, like so much of Berlin, the Hansaviertel was comprehensively destroyed during the Second World War. Of the 343 residential buildings in the Hansaviertel, only 70 largely survived the destruction, and even they were extensively damaged. Furthermore, the large middle-class apartments which survived were each divided into four or five smaller units, to provide shelter to the many war refugees and homeless. Even the trees in the nearby Tiergarten were burned down, with what few trees remained being used as fuel to get the population through the ice-cold winters which followed. It was not until 1953 that the Berlin Senate announced an architectural competition for the reconstruction of the Hansaviertel and declared it the focus of the International Building Exhibition Interbau.
The Interbau architectural exhibition was a response by the West Berlin Senate to various problems the city was experiencing. Aside from the housing shortage and remaining damage from WWII, the reconstruction of West Berlin was stalling due to its delicate political situation. While the rebuilding of other cities in West Germany was progressing with the help of money from the Marshall Plan, West Berlin was falling behind. Its location deep in the territory of the GDR meant that the city was cut off from its suppliers and sales markets, and because of the uncertain political situation, many companies left West Berlin for other West German cities. West Berlin even lost its status as capital, to Bonn. The Senate feared the city would be economically, politically and culturally marginalised.
The Hansaviertel should show what we understand to be modern urban development and decent housing in contrast to the false ostentation of Stalinallee.
Alongside this, Interbau was also intended as a response to the East German government and its national development programme, centred around socialist housing projects in the east of the city. In November 1951, the East German government published an appeal for the reconstruction of Berlin, with Stalinallee as the focal point of a district of high-rise residential buildings and as a model for capital-city architecture and urban planning. The West Berlin Senate saw the Hansaviertel as an opportunity to showcase the capabilities and philosophies of the West. In a public statement on Interbau, the West Berlin Minister for Construction Karl Mahler stated that Interbau was “a clear commitment to the western world. It should show what we understand to be modern urban development and decent housing in contrast to the false ostentation of Stalinallee”.
Architecture as Ideology
Ten-storey slab high-rise buildings were constructed as an “entrance” to the area, forming two “bays” which opened up onto Tiergarten. The train tracks are lined with high-rises and lower linear buildings. Opposite them are eight- to nine-storey slab-type buildings designed by Walter Gropius, Pierre Vago, Alvar Aalto, Oskar Niemeyer and Egon Eiermann. Hansaplatz sits in the middle, with a loose arrangement of residential buildings on its west and the Catholic church of St Ansgar opposite.
This church is one of a number of brutalist churches throughout the city. Its interpretation of architectural reduction gives it a somewhat austere look, with its strong lines and simple shapes. Yet the floor-to-ceiling windows receive and reflect a lot of sunlight, a symbol of illumination, and the stylised church tower is a modernist masterpiece. In fact, the entire Hansaviertel is filled with modernist marvels, in line with the ideas of New Objectivity, built spaced-apart with plenty of green areas in between. Ironically, while Stalinallee was being built in brick, the Hansaviertel would be constructed with reinforced concrete. The façades forewent elaborate cladding, being guided instead by the function of the buildings, following Le Corbusier’s maxim of a house as “a machine for living in”.
The striking building at Altonaer Strasse 4–14 was built by Oscar Niemeyer who created a design with generous floor plans, loggias, and light-filled spaces. The building rests on seven double supports, and has a free-standing elevator tower, giving it a unique appearance. Next to it, the so-called Schwedenhaus marked the first time prefabricated concrete elements were used, being cast on site and assembled using a crane. The stairwell towers were also free-standing, saving the space that would otherwise be occupied inside the building.
In contrast to these high-rise buildings, the single- and double-storey homes built as part of the ‘carpet development’ of the area seem rather underwhelming. Yet here, the urban planners saw the chance to erect single-family homes with backyards in the middle of the city. The architect who designed them, Eduard Ludwig, was so impressed with them that he moved into one of the homes himself. In keeping with the more decentralised aspect of modern urban-planning, the Hansaviertel functioned like a small town. The north side of Hansaplatz is bordered by a shopping centre and a cinema, and the area has its own library and two churches.
Ironically, considering their direct ideological opposition to each other, the fates of both Stalinallee and the Hansaviertel were remarkably similar. Both were too expensive to serve as models for future developments, and cheaper mass construction meant that new housing estates in both West and East Germany would end up looking very similar.