Berlin, Germany,Living in

Housing in Berlin: The Tower Block

We are delving into the housing stock of Germany in this two-part series. In our first rendition, we will look at the post-war housing block. The second part will explore modern life in pre-war tenement housing, or, the Altbau. 

Whenever a friend announces that they are moving to Berlin and searching for a flat, at the top of their list of desires is the covetable pre-war Altbau (Old Building). Whenever I gently suggest they consider a post-war flat, their nose begins to crinkle in disgust. At the mere mention of a housing estate, their nostrils flare and a gasp, of horror, is emitted. 

In recent months during the coronavirus, I biked and walked past many examples of post-war tower blocks. Brimming with envy, I observed practically every one of the residents enjoying self-isolation on their sunny balcony. 

Post-War German Housing

You may think the exterior monotony of these housing blocks is ugly, but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, allow me to indulge my subjective feelings and peek inside my plea for the post-war block tower. 

Light, air, space

At the beginning of the 20th century in Berlin, most city residents, particularly the hard-working classes, lived in highly dense tenement blocks. 

Gründerzeit tenement blocks in Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century
Dense tenenment blocks in Berlin. Photo: Aaron Cripps

These ‘Gründerzeit’ flats, built during the 19th-century rapid industrial expansion of Germany, cramped as many buildings as possible on a single block, packed around small courtyards. 

The front buildings and the upper floors housed the more bourgeois tenants. Single flats in the back of the building housed multiple generations of families who shared a toilet in the corridor or in the stairwell with other residents. Often, not even a glimpse of the sky was visible from their windows and air could not circulate. People endured damp, dark and entirely unhygienic living conditions. 

These decrepit urban conditions were highlighted in the Athens Charter, a document published in 1933 by Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier. Based on research conducted by the architect as well as the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), it had a significant impact on post-war urban planning. Notably, it decreed that people should have light, air, and space in their homes, as well as ample access to open, green spaces nearby.

Starting Fresh

When WWII destroyed more than 30% of the housing stock in Berlin, planners in both the East, the German Democratic Republic and those in the West,  the Federal Republic of Germany, were forced to devise extensive housing programs.

Both turned their attention to the golden age of German public housing as a source of inspiration. 

Berlin modernist housing estates
The Siedlung Schillerpark in Wedding is one of six Berlin Modernist Housing Estates.

The 1920’s modernist housing estates, which include the Horseshoe Development, designed by Martin Wagner and Bruno Taut, and the Siedlung Schillerpark, also by Bruno Taut, were celebrated for improving the quality of life in interwar Berlin, albeit for a small minority of citizens.

In fact, six of these housing estates were awarded a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their contribution to democratizing housing. 

Both east and west, no doubt in straight competition, seized the opportunity to create a much more convivial and rational living environment, better designed to suit the needs of modern citizens. While both programs had very distinct political backgrounds and social significance, they shared many architectural and theoretical characteristics. 

As large parts of the population were displaced, many in shanty-towns erected on gardening plots on the periphery of the city, timeliness was of vital importance.

Plattenbauten Paradigm

In the east, the socialist government kicked off a mass housing program with the construction of Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in 1952. Their lofty ambition was to outdo the monumentality of historic architecture by housing their workers, socialism’s most important citizens, in palaces.

GDR housing on Stalinallee: flats built for workers in the. early 1950s
Housing built in the Stalinist Neoclassicist style on the former Stalinallee (Karl-Marx-Allee today) in 1955. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-32583-0005 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

It quickly became apparent that the ostentatious ornamentation of Stalinist neoclassicism, named eponymously after the dear father of the Soviet Union, was too expensive to duplicate as model housing for 2 million east Germans in need of homes. A more rational approach was necessary in order to build faster and cheaper. After Stalin died in 1953, the new leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered state-owned construction companies to adopt an industrialized approach. 

They automated the construction process by using  standardised, prefabricated panel components, prepared in offsite factories dedicated solely to this task, which were later slotted together on the building site. Construction speeds were ramped up and costs sunk. 

The Plattenbau was East Germany’s construction paradigm. The term ‘Platte’ (‘the slab’), denoted the constructive element (the prefabricated concrete slab), the building (the slab block), as well as the entire housing estate on which they were usually grouped. It is rumoured that some of the Plattenbau models could be erected in a sole day. 

While the buildings were always reputed to be low quality, modern-day testing of the materials has proved that the Plattenbauten are up to current construction standards.

The Plattenbau was the standard dwelling experience for the majority of socialist citizens, regardless of their socio-economic class, because it was the next-to-exclusive way of building in the East. From 1950 until 1990, the GDR built 2.2 million Plattenbau apartments. 

The Wonderful Wohnblöcke 

In the West, planning and construction were not centralised and so traditional methods of construction were never completely abandoned. While the degree of standardisation was never as extensive as in the East, many of the Wohnblöcke were likewise built using prefabricated, standardised elements. 

To kick-off the post-war housing boom in West Berlin, the Senate organised a building exhibit under a subsidised scheme with support from the German federal government. Famous architects from around the world, including Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Alto, contributed designs for the Interbau project built from 1954-1957 in the heavily war-damaged Hansaviertel neighbourhood near Berlin’s Tiergarten.

Hansaviertel apartment Block by Oscar Niemeyer
The Oscar Niemeyer Haus at the Interbau exhibit in Hansaviertel in 1960.
Photo: Willy Pragher / CC BY

Stiff Competition

This celebrated and highly publicised showcase project was considered West Berlin’s response to the Stalinist neoclassicist housing blocks on the former Stalinallee in the East. Both sides featured their projects on stamps.

A few years later, West Berlin delved headfirst into an ambitious urban renewal programme. The goal was to demolish the derelict 19th-century tenement housing in the inner city and resettle inhabitants onto satellite settlements. Märkisches Viertel in the North, Gropiusstadt in the southeast and Falkenhagener Feld in the Northwest were all built in accordance with the Athens Charter and the ideals of “Urbanität durch Dichte”  or, urbanity through density, promoted by post-war German planners. 

Loved or Loathed?

In the East, the Plattenbau was considered a huge improvement to living standards. They were the pinnacle of modernity and luxury with running water, central heating and private bathrooms. Waiting lists to receive a flat were several years long and priority was given to those who somehow proved their dedication to the socialist cause. It wasn’t uncommon to stoop to flat out bribery to better your position on the list. 

It wasn’t until German Reunification that attitudes surrounding the Platte took a turn for the worse. As many of the citizens of the former East scampered to build new lives across the former border to the West, the flats lay empty. Part of it had to do with some aesthetic neglect, which housing associations attempted to counter by painting them in gaudy sherbert colours when they were remodelled in the 1990s. A large part of it had to do with enduring perceptions that Plattenbauten were relics of the Socialist regime.

Plattenbau in East Berlin
Berliners admiring a newly constructed slab apartment building. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-93543-0001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

In the West, tenant satisfaction with the newly built Wohnblocke was also pretty high. They were likewise profiting from modern amenities which they had been lacking due to mass destruction during the war. The old Altbau flats were still heated using coal-burning free-standing ceramic ovens which created more smoke than warmth so moving into a flat with a modern radiator was quite the treat. 

Rough estimates cite that 50% of Germany lives in modern post-war buildings. A lot of residents in the former East and West, who first moved into their modern flats in the 1960’s, continue to live in the same flats. Often residents merely downsized to smaller flats on the same housing estate once their children were grown up. 

Typologies and Singularities

To the naked eye, it may appear that all Platttenbauten and Wohnblocke are identical. Tall tales emerged that residents struggled to find their entrances in the dark of the night after being unable to distinguish one building from another. However, just because the materials used were identical doesn’t mean the buildings were indistinct: the GDR, for one, was constantly refining and expanding their prefab design repertoire. Architects were pushed to initiate clever solutions, particularly in the city centre. 

The WBS 70 was the most widespread residential building series in the GDR. From 1972 to 1990,  a total of 644,900 WBS 70 residential units were completed. The WBS 70 truly shaped the GDR landscape like no other architecture.  

The series was developed by architects and urban planners Wilfried Stallknecht and Achim Felz in 1970. Its construction pattern may have been uniform, but the WBS70 was a highly flexible design which could be adapted in terms of height and width to specific plots, as well as having a wide variety of apartment layouts. The first WBS 70 built in the city of Neubrandenburg is now preserved as a historical monument. 

Much like the systematic approach they took to the building components, they picked their names with equal rationality. The type names are an indicator of the construction technology. For example, the P2 / 11 is an adaptation of the P2 model developed in the sixties and renowned for their open floor plans.

The name is an abbreviation: P stands for parallel load-bearing walls and wall surfaces. The 2 denotes the arrangement of two stairways in a building. The 11 stands for the number of floors in the building.

Curved Plattenbau at Platz der Vereinten Nationen East Berlin Post War Housing
The inspired Plattenbau type P2/10 at Platz der Vereinten Nationen created curves out of the typical rectangular concrete slabs. Photo: Michael Lindner

In West Berlin, they drew less attention to the fact that they were also building out of serialized components which were also adapted to singular locations. 

In Märkisches Viertel, the aptly-nicknamed “Der lange Jammer” (The Long Lament) is Germany’s longest singular residential building. It was built in 1965 to 1968 out of the same prefabricated materials as the residential complex “Pallasseum” which was built across town in Schöneberg in 1977. While similar, both are uniquely adapted to their locations; the lange Jammer is positioned so that residents have living rooms and balconies bathed in sun for most of the day and the Pallasseum was adapted to straddle the heritage designated WWII high-rise bunker which already existed on the site.

The Pallasseum or the Social Palace West Berlin Social Housing
The Pallasseum sits atop a WWII bunker. Photo: Manfred Brückels / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The monotonous aesthetic of the tower blocks was highly criticized in the West, particularly on larger housing estates populated by waves of “indistinguishable” towers in different heights. This fault-finding was largely the result of media campaigns which slandered the estates and their inhabitants in the late 1960s. 

One solution, as seen in Märkisches Viertel, was to paint the building facades in a variety of colours to differentiate them from one another. I have my doubts about whether residents did actually struggle to find their way home, even after a bit too much Berliner Luft!

Step Inside

From afar, the post-war tower block rises up the Berlin skyline in an assortment of delicious colour combinations. Even the low-rise buildings, sandwiched amidst an eclectic offering of different architectural eras and styles, have facades patterned with vivid balconies and window frames.

The estates on the fringes of the city are, in my opinion, strikingly beautiful, painting the landscape in contrasting shapes and colours. The post-war tower block aesthetic has been capturing the attention of many photographers in recent years, yet, many people still claim they can’t see their beauty. 

Planners and architects balanced the often lamented serial monotony with a high quality of life indoors. So, I invite you inside:

Entrance to a tower block in Hansaplatz. Photo: pablocanen

The experience begins at the entrance, which often feature windows and beautiful houseplants, lovingly tended to by long-term residents who express pride in their place by diligently cleaning commons areas, sometimes on a rotating schedule. 

Some of the higher blocks are equipped with lifts to access the upper floors. However, a number of the Plattenbaus have lifts which only stop at every other floor; surprisingly, this was an ingenious solution to creating space for double level maisonette flats and saving a bit of money.

Entering the flats, there is usually a dedicated hallway or entrance area, some even with covetable built-in storage spaces for jackets and shoes. 

The floor plans are rationally arranged around this space, meaning you’ll never have to pass through one room in order to access another which is typical in older flats.

The rooms feel proportionate and are uniformly square or rectangular, permitting more creativity with furniture arrangements. The windows are as no-nonsense as the rooms, well-insulated from outside noise and open wide for fresh air. 

Perhaps the most enviable feature of these buildings cannot be fully appreciated from the building facade which only offers a glimpse at the generosity of having outdoor space; whether a deep balcony or terraces, cascading down the sides, residents can enjoy their full sunlight in privacy. Whether used to grow tomatoes, hang laundry or have a cup of coffee, recent events have proved these oases are invaluable for urban happiness. Access to the outdoor space is usually through a glass door leading off the living room. 

Your views naturally depend on your location, but upper floors have penthouse-like vistas of purple & pink sunsets, treetops or even glimpses of the Fernsehturm. 

While a rarity in older flats, standard practice in the heyday post-war housing construction was to directly fit in a kitchen, instead of leaving it to tenants to sort out.

The state of the bathroom depends, of course, on whether it has been renovated. However, those who appreciate a long soak in a tub on a cold, Berlin winter’s night will delight that in most of these buildings, a bathtub was included in the prefabricated compact bathroom unit.

Much like the beloved Ritter Sport, these flats could best be described as quadratisch, praktisch, gut! For anyone bemoaning the lack of any period embellishments, I say, it at least keeps the dust away. Plus, the ample sunlight naturally kills germs.

Spectacular Specimens

Medieval Plattenbauten in Nikolaiviertel

Many people don’t realise that the Nikolaiviertel, a quaint, central district in Berlin, is almost entirely fabricated out of the platte. The preserved medieval alleys in Berlin’s oldest residential quarter––originally founded in 1200––were sadly destroyed during WWII bombing. 

As part of the city’s 750 anniversary, the GDR decided to restore the historic 16th-18th-century buildings. They created a faux-historic village using the classic WBS 70 series, fitted with historic-looking design elements such as gables and ornamentation to give a semblance of reconstruction. 

Nikolaiviertel Berlin list of Monuments
The Nikolaiviertel is a medieval village built out of Platte. Photo: Mark Ahsmann / CC BY-SA

The Nikolaiviertel was added in 2018 to the list of Berlin monuments, not for its historical value but as a prominent example of the evolution of construction in the GDR. The facades appear historic to tourists snapping photos while residents enjoy the modern comforts of the WBS 70 floor plans.

Living above a highway on Schlangenbader Straße

To date, the Schlangenbader Straße housing complex in the former West is the only place in the world where housing uses a metropolitan traffic route. Even more incredible is that it is one of the largest residential buildings in Europe with a total of 1758 residential units on the site.  Built between 1973–1980 atop a four-lane motorway, cars race underneath while residents above can barely discern the noise. 

Schlangenbader Straße housing complex Berlin
Residents of the 600 meters long complex are more apt to hear birds than cars.

Aside from its daring design and urban integration, the architects also incorporated sophisticated green spaces for the benefit of residents, including cascading terraces. The megastructure has been protected since 2017 and apartment vacancies are incredibly rare.

Sunset on a Hafenplatz building terrace

Let’s face it: the post-war building will likely never be the popular kid on the housing market. Some, including the complex at Hafenplatz built in the 1970s, are being readied for demolition and the residents now face inevitable goodbyes.

Hafenplatz tower block redevelopment
The Hafenplatz housing complex will be demolished and replaced with a building of remarkably similar design. Photo: Artprojekt Group 

I recently watched the sunset from a friend’s terrace in this very building, along with seemingly every other resident with outdoor space. While the hallways show neglect, the flat itself seemed to be in its prime, bathed in golden hour light. 

Old-world romance might not be one of their attributes, but the post-war building echoes the ethos of democratic housing for all, and for that deserves a second glance from even the snobbiest Altbau aficionado.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *