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(2021 - Winter Issue)


On a cold but sunny January morning I meet architectural historian and tour guide, David Varnold, on a corner of Berlin’s most popular inner-city park, the Tiergarten. We walk through a bustling and graffitied underpass then emerge in front of an expanse of green grass, and an extraordinary collection of modernist apartment buildings, and single-family homes.

Together, this somewhat hidden architectural treasure chest, built on the burnt and bombed-out ruins of the Berlin neighbourhood known as the Hansaviertel, might just be the greatest outdoor museum of the mid-20th century.

For a modern architecture enthusiast like myself it feels a little like entering Oz. The first building we see is a C-shaped concrete apartment with noticeably narrow sides where curved façades seem to wave us into the neighbourhood. Colourful, sail-like vaulted balustrades appear to be puffed out by the wind, contributing to the liveliness of the façade that sets the uplifting tone to this neighbourhood.

Known as the Gropiushaus, it was designed by Berlin-born Walter Gropius, who is considered the “Father of Bauhaus.” A pioneer in minimalist architectural design, his revolutionary form-follows-function design concept carved a path in an architectural movement that would permeate around the globe throughout the 20th century.

Next to this architectural period piece looms another high-rise by famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto that, depending on the angle, looks like one building or two separate houses. Its neighbour, designed by another fellow titan of modernism, Oscar Niemeyer, is supported by V-shaped pillars that create a sheltered walkway. In all, we are surrounded by dozens of angular, striking edifices that represent the most renowned names of modern architecture.

The Battle of the Blueprint…

The architectural legacy of this quiet neighbourhood is tied to one of post-war Berlin’s most fascinating chapters of history. The Hansaviertel was decimated in the Second World War like much of central Berlin. When it came time to reconstruct the urban residential quarter to rehouse families, the Cold War was in full swing. In response to the enormous Stalinesque workers palaces that were springing up in Communist East Berlin, the burgermeisters of West Berlin devised their own housing project. They announced an international competition known as the Interbau, a model housing plan that would introduce the “City of Tomorrow.” The ideals of West Germany’s social democracy would be built into each architect’s design for this grand exhibition.

More than 50 renowned modernist architects from around the world were invited to construct modern residences. Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen are among the greats who signed up to deliver a high-rise dwelling, bungalow or detached house which, together, turned modernist dreams of urban living into reality. Every building has its own green space to play or hang out in. Every family has their own balcony!

…Ends in a Draw

My guide David tells me that the Hansaviertel project captured the imagination of all West Berliners. Actress Marlene Dietrich even helped raise money for the project. When the Interbau exhibition finally launched in 1957 a million people came to see it.

Sadly, after its promising Berlin debut, the “City of Tomorrow” was never fully realized. Only 32 of Hansaviertel’s 48 designs have ever been completed. Cost overruns came into reality. The hugely influential Swiss modernist Le Corbusier ran into municipal battles over design elements of his Unité d’Habitation building. The monumental workers palaces along Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin ran into similar cost problems.

In the end, at the height of the Cold War neither side of the Berlin Wall could declare total victory in the blueprint battle.

A Journey Back to the Cradle of the Bauhaus

A few days before my excursion to Hansaviertel, I had hopped a train from Berlin to the historic city of Weimar. In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School of Design there, favouring functional shapes, industrial materials and streamlined design that largely sidelined ornamental flourishes. Six years after its founding, the Bauhaus was relaunched in the nearby city of Dessau, which commissioned Gropius to design his model Bauhaus Building with its now iconic glass curtain walls. (The building, which is on the Dessau University campus where Gropius taught architecture, was recently renovated and opened its doors to the public two years ago for the Bauhaus centennial.) The liberal-thinking school then relocated to Berlin in 1932 where it was promptly shut down when Hitler came to power one year later. Its exiled disciples spread across the globe.

Bringing Nature Indoors

After my foray to Weimar and Dessau, I see these Bauhaus ideals play out in the Hansaviertel. While all of the Hansaviertel homes are not strictly Bauhaus, certainly most are imbued with Bauhaus principles, especially the idea of harmoniously balanced geometric shapes and glass walls that allow for light and the possibility of seeing greenery within a building. My guide and I ambled over to the apartment designed by Aalto. I oohed at the way the Finnish architect designed the building so that natural light filters through to every apartment. I also lapped up how the column-supported, open and covered alfresco atrium connects opposite sides of the buildings and crescendos to generous views of green space. I half-jokingly asked David if we could stay long enough for a resident to invite us inside to see their place.

A Harmonious Ending

Before the tour wrapped up, we headed to another of Hansaviertel’s famous buildings: an all-concrete 17-storey high-rise that rises above a crop of trees. The “Giraffe,” as David tells me it’s called, was designed by Klaus Müller-Rehm and Gerhard Siegmann. The whimsical nickname of this minimalist building, given because it protrudes from the trees like the long-necked animal in the nearby zoo, made me smile. The brown-trimmed windows even reminded me of a giraffe’s spots.

Looking at all the Bauhaus-inspired buildings, even on a cold January day, when there were no children playing on the green spaces designed for them, I couldn’t help feel just how much the neighbourhood captures the imagination with its progressive ideals and sense of possibility.

Now, how about this for a happy ending to a story about rivalling design ideologies? Berlin’s Hansaviertel and the Karl-Marx-Allee in the former East Berlin are together being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site status to be designated in 2022.

Travel Planner

Lufthansa flies daily to Berlin from several Canadian cities

Pullmann Berlin Schweizerhof and the Ku’ Damm 101 are two boutique hotels in the Bauhaus style, not far from the Hansaviertel and the Tiergarten.

visitBerlin and art:berlin offer walking tours of the Hansaviertel and

In Dessau, take a guided tour of Gropius’ seminal Bauhaus Building

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