The Scharoun Houses Berlin
Hans Scharoun's architectural legacy in Berlin
Few other architects have shaped the building history of the 20th century as much as Hans Scharoun. Let's take a look at his legacy through one of his lesser-known projects in the west of Berlin.
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As in many artistic disciplines, architecture at the beginning of the 20th century was in a state of flux, with revolutionary new ideas and new possibilities being explored by young architects. Even the idea of architecture as a work of art was a recently rediscovered and somewhat controversial belief.
Scharoun was hugely influential in two main areas – expressionist architecture and organic architecture. He was not unique in this; Scharoun was part of a vibrant artistic world, and many of his contemporaries explored these and other ideas at the same time. However, unlike some of his contemporaries, Scharoun was not interested in a purely conceptual or theoretical exploration. He saw his architectural ideas as a positive way forward for housing development, riding the wave of functionalism alongside others such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. This belief that architecture should be used as a means to physically create a better world and a better life for people in the broadest sense was something that Scharoun applied to all his works.
Born in Bremen in 1893, Scharoun studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin until 1914, though he did not complete his studies, instead volunteering to serve in the First World War. Paul Kruchen, his mentor from Berlin, delegated Scharoun to what was then East Prussia for the construction of watchtowers and fortifications and later made him deputy head of his building consultancy office. After the end of the war, Scharoun took over Kruchen's office in Wrocław as a freelance architect, where he carried out numerous projects and organised art exhibitions.
His earliest works focused on residential buildings; he designed a single-family home for the Weissenhof Estate (Weißenhofsiedlung) in 1927, as part of an exhibition alongside other major European architects, including Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. He developed the overall master plan for the Siemensstadt housing development, built between 1929 and 1931 as worker housing for Siemens' nearby electrical factory, which employed 60,000 workers. In 1936 he turned his attention to a housing project in Kladow, a small, idyllic neighbourhood in Spandau in the west of Berlin. Now known as The Scharoun Houses, this development is less well-known than many of his others. Yet it exemplifies many of Scharoun’s prime beliefs, and explores a slightly different approach to organic architecture, while still maintaining his signature eye for detail.
A village in a city of millions, Kladow lies on the very edge of Berlin’s borders. Even in 1936, it was seen as a contemplative area, a rural idyll on the edge of the metropolis, yet close enough to swiftly immerse yourself in the delights of the big city. Scharoun’s idea was to create a park-like residential complex, surrounded by nature, which reflected the lifestyle of the time and echoed the desire for light and air. To this end, he constructed seven, two-storey residential buildings, each divided into four apartments. This was a clear departure from both his previous designs for high-rise apartment buildings and for larger, single-family residential homes.
Upon first glance, these modest dwellings do not appear nearly as radical or as revolutionary as the earlier Weissenhof home, or the buildings he designed for the Siemensstadt estate. They lack the flowing lines Scharoun explored in projects like the Schminke House, adhering more to rectangularity and cubic forms. Nevertheless, they express his commitment to organicism in other ways.
Organic architecture is not simply about adding sinuous Art Nouveau curves to buildings. Rather it promotes balance between human habitation and the natural world, and a deeper belief in the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. This is achieved through a holistic design approach, taking into account everything from the building’s location, to its interrelation with other buildings, to its design and furnishings, aiming to become part of a unified, interrelated composition.
This concept of balance extends even to the location of the housing development. If one had to choose between a life in the urban centres or in a rural idyll, the ensemble in Kladow offers the perfect midpoint. Not for nothing was the area known as Prussian Arcadia, with the nearby parks and banks of the river Havel even designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surrounded by forests and waterways, with plenty of space for exploring and walking - and yet only a stone's throw away from the city centres of Berlin and Potsdam.
The village of Kladow has existed since at least the 13th century, and Scharoun saw the necessity of preserving its individuality, while still maintaining the connection to the big city. He aimed to disrupt the landscape as little as possible with these houses, to blend them in as far as he could.
This was achieved in a number of subtle ways. The window elements are designed according to the law of the golden ratio, an aesthetic reminiscence of nature in which the elegant proportions are reflected, for example, in the arrangement of leaves or petals of numerous plants. The stylistic device of the oculi (i.e. circular or oval windows as façade elements), already common in antiquity, also underlines the organic, harmonious claim of architecture. Here they were used as circular “window” cut-outs in the balcony, which were themselves clad in wood, to further the connection with the natural world.
The symmetry and proportions of the façade, plus the arrangement of the buildings in relation to each other and the space created by this, all show another side of organic architecture. External space has a strong continuity with internal space, particularly through the mediation of the balconies. Several of the buildings appear connected through adjoining balcony elements, though they are in reality free-standing. Thus the buildings connect to one another, plus the interior to the exterior, through a subtle and harmonious blending of different functional areas. Everything relates to one another, reflecting the symbiotic ordering systems of nature.
This is a very subtle exploration of organic architecture, and there may be another reason for the relative restraint Scharoun showed in the exterior of these houses. The Nazi regime was famously and ferociously against modernism, abstraction, or anything that smacked of “decadence”. In 1936, this extended to architecture. In fact, in Berlin at this time, Adolf Hitler personally signed all building authorisations. Many of Scharoun’s friends and colleagues fled Germany during this period, but he opted to stay. (To the question “What did you do during Nazism?” Scharoun supposedly replied: “Nothing. I waited. I drew. Indeed, I knew it could not last.”) By disguising his revolutionary approach beneath a more standard, rectilinear outward design, Scharoun could express his rebellion against Nazi constraints covertly.
Scharoun went on to have a momentous career. Following World War Two, he was named director of the Department of Building and Municipal Housing. He developed a concept for the complete redesign of the whole of Berlin, involving a rigorous redivision and decentralisation of the city. Though his (admittedly ambitious) plan was rejected by magistrates in 1946, his plans led to the beginning of what would become Stalinallee, East Berlin’s grand Socialist processional boulevard.
Several years later, in the mid-1950s, Scharoun began work on what would become his masterpiece: the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall. Internationally recognised as one of the most successful buildings of its kind, with its world-famous, strikingly asymmetrical roof shape and flowing appearance, the concert hall is the epitome of Hans Scharoun’s expression of organic architecture. The building is so distinctive that it even forms the basis of the orchestra’s logo. Yet the ‘tent’ form of its ceiling is directly drawn from the houses he built in Kladow, here given free rein to be more extravagant.
Hans Scharoun died in 1972, highly decorated and repeatedly awarded honorary citizenship of the city of Berlin, whose architectural fate he decisively influenced throughout his life. His ideas and works were not always uncontroversial but with his work he triggered fruitful debates on urban development and town planning, which have lost none of their topicality to this day, as well as designing some of the 20th century’s most iconic buildings.
The Scharoun Houses are available for purchase now, as are the new-build extensions of the project, the SOMA houses, which you can read about here.