Scheunenviertel: History, Architecture, and Sights
In Berlin's historical centre: Scheunenviertel
In this small piece of Berlin, covering barely ½ sqkm, the architectural history of the capital can be viewed in microcosm. There are the earliest buildings of the 18th century and the idyllic Old Garrison Cemetery, the bourgeois classicist houses and the splendour of the Wilhelminian period, the only remaining department store façade of Alfred Messel and Hans Poelzig’s 1920s ensemble at the Volksbühne, the testimonies of Stalinism and the prefabricated buildings of the GDR as well as the elaborate restorations and diverse new buildings after the fall of the Wall.
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The Barn Quarter
Scheunenviertel is roughly bordered by Dircksenstrasse to the south, Rosenthalerstrasse to the west, Torstrasse to the north and Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse to the east. Considering just how central it is today, it is a little odd to think that this area was originally outside the city walls. In 1670, the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm prohibited the maintenance of barns within the city limits, as they were a common fire hazard. At that time, Alexanderplatz was a thriving cattle market, which obviously required huge amounts of hay and straw for its operation. Since the regulations prohibited the storage of such flammable materials inside the city wall, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered the construction of a large number of barns just outside the city wall, north of today’s Dircksenstrasse. These barns lent their name to the area, and it became known as Scheunenviertel - the Barn Quarter. It also served as a home for the agricultural workers employed there.
In 1737, Friedrich Wilhelm I (grandson of the Friedrich Wilhelm who originally created the Scheunenviertel), pursuing his policy to, on the one hand, limit the number of Jewish people in Prussia and, on the other, exploit their economic potential, ordered all Jewish Berliners who did not own a house to move into the Scheunenviertel. This law, alongside the regulation that Jews were only allowed to enter the city through the two northern city gates, led to the creation of a quarter with strong Jewish cultural influences. Ironically, this policy had a somewhat contradictory effect. Like many neighbourhoods with a large immigrant population, it became a hub for more immigrants and many eastern-European Jewish immigrants settled in the Scheunenviertel when they came to Berlin. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, thousands of Jewish people fled to Berlin from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine to escape pogroms and persecution. Most wanted to continue their journey eastwards towards America, though many stayed in Berlin. This quickly led to a rapidly growing population, 70% of whom were poor, mostly strictly orthodox Jews.
This immigration coincided with the boom in industrialisation and Berlin’s growth into the largest industrial city in Europe. The population density increased rapidly within a few years, and the small-scale old buildings in Scheunenviertel district grew increasingly cramped. Yet many newcomers continued to find their first home here, sharing living quarters with other workers and whole families. The scarce sleeping space was often divided in line with the shifts in the nearby Borsigwerke factory. Those who neither slept nor worked just hung out in the streets or spent what little money they had in one of the numerous pubs in the quarter. This gave Scheunenviertel a rather shady reputation. In those days, the area was characterised by poverty, prostitution and petty crime, and was looked-down on by the Berlin population. In contrast, to the west of the Scheunenviertel, in Spandauer Vorstadt, a bourgeois, Jewish milieu had established itself. The orthodox Eastern Jews saw themselves clearly distinguished from the liberal Western Jewry of Berlin, and this further increased the ghetto-isation of the neighbourhood.
Amongst this atmosphere, it is no real wonder that Scheunenviertel also played a significant part in the history of Berlin’s criminal underground. It all began on a balmy August evening in 1890 when a handful of hooligans gathered in the Schurrbartdiele bar. After a lengthy (and presumably intoxicated) conversation, the gathered ruffians decided they would be safer and more influential if they banded together. Shortly afterwards, the Reichsverein ehemaliger Strafgefangener (“Imperial Association of Former Prisoners”) was added to the Berlin register of associations. Officially, the association was concerned with rehabilitating convicted offenders, making sure they didn’t reoffend and paying attention to their physical fitness. In reality, they were an officially-registered association of rogues, carrying out burglaries, fraud and much more, and were hugely successful, inspiring many other RingVereine, or Wrestling Clubs, as they were known.
This was the atmosphere into which anti-Jewish sentiment exploded during the Weimar Republic. Scheunenviertel was the repeated target of police raids and anti-Semitic pogroms. In 1923, the Berlin police chief Wilhelm Richter ordered a large-scale raid against the Jewish population in the Scheunenviertel, during which around 300 Jewish men, women and children were picked up by the police and interned in a “Jewish camp” near Zossen, a chilling precursor to what would happen over the next 20 years.
Evidence of the once flourishing Jewish community has been preserved in the Spandauer Vorstadt, with Berlin's oldest Jewish cemetery in Grosse Hamburger Strasse and the magnificent synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse. But in Scheunenviertel itself you will search in vain for architectural remains of the former backyard synagogues, Talmud schools, Jewish prayer rooms or guest houses. Today, nothing on the streets reminds us of the dense atmosphere of the pre-war period. The bombs of WWII destroyed much, but the demolitions afterwards were just as destructive. The GDR wanted to erase the memory of the centre of bourgeois Berlin and build a modern city centre on the same site, which would herald the triumph of socialism, with the TV tower as a sign of victory. Vast housing developments went up. Of the 1200 houses that once stood in Scheunenviertel in the mid-1930s, only 85 have survived.
Strolling Scheunenviertel today, it is hard to imagine it the impoverished and deteriorating neighbourhood it was until at least 1990. Flophouses and dingy pubs have been replaced by artisanal cafés and independent boutiques, filled with media “creatives” and black-clad fashion designers. Let’s start our tour at the Neo-Renaissance splendour of Hackescher Markt.
With its red-brick façade, ornate decoration and wrought-iron rose windows, Hackescher Markt is one of Berlin’s most attractive stations. Constructed by Johannes Vollmer, who was also working on the nearby Friedrichstrasse station at the same time, the station was opened in 1882 and remains a vibrant and bustling place today. The square in front of it is a popular gathering-place, with tables spilling from cafés and bars and a regular famers’ market every Thursday and Saturday, while the James-Simon Park behind it is the ideal place to sit on the grass with a drink during long, hot summer days.
Don’t Hassle the Hof
Opposite the station lies a series of labyrinthine courtyard complexes filled with cafés, bars, restaurants and shopping boutiques. Hackescher Höfe (Hof here means courtyard), Rosenhöfe and Rosenthaler Höfe are a tremendous place for a stroll, even if you’re not buying anything. The Art Nouveau architecture is splendid, the shops intriguing and the cafés relaxed, and there is an undeniable pleasure in exploring these courtyards and alleyways. Some are manicured and polished while others, such as the superbly-named Dead Chicken Alley, are rougher and graffiti-strewn. Take a stroll around and find your favourite. Yet it is not all shopping and cafés here. If you wander down Dead Chicken Alley, you will find a very intriguing little museum - Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind.
Otto Weidt opened his first workshop in Kreuzberg in 1936, before moving to this property on Rosenthaler Strasse in 1940. Having learned the brush trade as he increasingly lost his own sight, Otto Weidt employed other blind and deaf people, mostly Jewish, to produce brooms and brushes in the workshop. The factory was classified as “important for the war effort” because some of its products were made to order for the Wehrmacht, and Otto Weidt managed to further protect his workers from deportation for some time by bribing Gestapo officers. He also provided his workers with forged IDs and hid Jewish families in his studio. Although its workforce was severely reduced after the deportations in 1943, the Workshop for the Blind maintained production until shortly before the end of the war.
Old Garrison Cemetery
As you walk along Rosenthaler Strasse, take a small detour up Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse. This is a pretty, though rather nondescript street, but at the top of it is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. Alter Garnisonfriedhof (Old Garrison Cemetery) is a listed historical site, with origins dating back to the early 18th century and the founding of Prussia. The Garrison Church (now sadly destroyed) was a place of worship for the military, and its attendant cemetery was where military commanders would be laid to rest. Nowadays it is a very pleasant spot to wander around, with some interesting and noteworthy monuments (although most will only be of real interest to fans of Prussian military history…). After you leave the cemetery, turn right and stroll along Linienstrasse, a charming and rather hip street with an intriguing mix of galleries, cafés and talent agencies. If you have time, stop off at Black Isle Bakery for some of the city’s finest baked goods, before heading on to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the (metaphorical) heart of modern Scheunenviertel.
Named after the co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz is a large square, and one of the most interesting places in this part of the city. Numerous quotations from Luxemburg herself are embedded in the ground around the square, which is itself dominated by…
The Volksbühne ("People's Theatre”) is Berlin’s most iconic theatre. Built in 1914 and extensively reconstructed in 1954, the theatre has its origin in an association known as the Freie Volksbühne ("Free People's Theatre") who aimed to promote the naturalist plays of the late 19th century at prices accessible to the common worker. Plays dealing with the lives of the poor were prohibited in Prussia at the time because of their "revolutionary" content, so the theatre worked extensively to bypass this censorship. This left-wing, revolutionary aspect to the theatre was intensified during the GDR and continues to this day. After Frank Castorf became director in 1992, the theatre's ambitious, experimental productions, brought it worldwide recognition as a leading European venue.
The other building which dominates the square is the rather unassuming-looking Karl-Liebknecht-Haus. Originally built as a factory in 1912, the building was purchased by the Communist Party of Germany in 1926, became the seat of its Central Committee, and was named in honour of Karl Liebknecht, the Communist Party leader who was murdered, alongside Rosa Luxemburg, by the German government in January 1919. It is now the headquarters of Die Linke, the democratic socialist political party. The house is surrounded by Bauhaus-inspired residential buildings, designed by the architect Hans Poelzig as part of the area’s redevelopment in the late 1920s, and in which you can find…
This cinema has been operating here ever since its completion in 1929. The building is a superb example of New Objectivity, with its use of horizontal lines and spare ornamentation. Following its restoration in 1999, you can see the different states of constructions and eras of usage inside, with the foyer showing it when it first opened, while the auditorium is in the style of the renovation of 1948, with plush chairs, stucco ornamentation and gilded details. The cinema often serves as a venue for the Berlinale film festival. Berlin's only silent film organ plays in the large hall and it is a true experience to come here for a performance of Metropolis, or any other silent classic.
Despite its huge cultural importance and fascinating history, these days Scheunenviertel is really best known for shopping. A number of independent boutiques, ateliers and workshops opened in Almstadtstrasse, Max-Beer-Strasse and the neighbouring streets during the area’s redevelopment in the 1990s. As you walk along these streets, you can still occasionally catch the whirring of a sewing machine, though most of the original shops from the ‘90s are disappearing. Yet this is still the area for quality clothes shopping. Alte Schönhauser Strasse, Münzstrasse and Neue Schönhauser Strasse all throng with eager shoppers visiting COS, & Other Stories, Samsøe & Samsøe and more.
Still, if you pause amongst the frantic shoppers, you can catch glimpses of the history of the neighbourhood through its architecture. At Neue Schönhauser Strasse 13, next to & Other Stories, you will find the Volkskaffeehaus, designed by Alfred Messel in 1890, formerly a social institution for impoverished workers and petty bourgeoisie. Opposite, the late baroque house at number 8 dates from 1770 and is a perfect encapsulation of the character of the neighbourhood in that time.
As with the redesign of the Babylon cinema, you can see the different states of constructions and eras of usage of the entire Scheunenviertel played out in its buildings. From cramped 18th century townhouses, through the majesty of grand Wilhelminian apartments buildings, to the clean lines of Modernism, the history of Berlin is written throughout the streets. Take some time to explore it.