Maintain, Refurbish, Invest: Siemensstadt Housing Estate, Berlin

Constructed between 1929 and 1931 to house the 60,000 workers employed in the Siemens factory, the Siemansstadt housing estate is located in the Berlin suburbs of Spandau and Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Working to the masterplan by Hans Scharoun, a number of the world’s most innovative architects of the time, including Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, Hugo Häring and Paul Henning, came together in a collaborative project that produced a highly successful and varied set of buildings and communal spaces. Unlike the nearby Hansaviertel, built between 1957-61 as a show-case of Western modernism with little or no social ambitions, the Siemansstadt estate was designed as a not-for-profit working community, and still thrives as one today.

One of six modernist housing estates located around Berlin that are recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the residential neighbourhood accommodates a number of commercial and communal facilities, including restaurants, shops and laundrettes in the ground floors of the blocks, as well as the seemingly effortlessly simple but beautiful landscaping and trees by Lerberecht Migge.

The estate represents a turning point in urban thinking – from low-rise garden city projects with individual gardens, to high-density and more communal and collective forms of living. The collaborative nature of the design team resulted in a masterplan that gave equal importance to the spaces between the buildings as to the buildings themselves. Although clearly revolutionary, the buildings were designed in the service of the residents, and not competitively jostling for attention in their desire for novelty – like the Hansaviertel estate and so much of contemporary architecture.

The UNESCO heritage area extends only to cover the buildings from the early period, but as we walked around the estate we found ourselves exploring beyond and into a set of further housing estates that clearly came from a later period. As it turned out, these were also by Hans Scharoun, but from the 1950s, constructed before the Berlin Philharmonie (also by Scharoun) and clearly from the same thinking. I was struck above all by the relationship of the buildings to the landscape, which gave much of the estate an almost rural or wooded setting. The masterplan was excellent, as were the designs for the individual buildings; but what impressed me most was how much care and consideration had gone into the maintenance of the buildings and landscape – something which, once again, distinguishes them from the neglect and managed decline of housing estates in the UK. Siemansstadt demonstrates that modernist housing estates are anything but come to the end of their lifespan – as we are constantly told by councillors, developers and architects intent on their demolition and redevelopment; and that with the maintenance, refurbishment and investment that any building requires, they can continue to serve for decades to come as the low-cost, high-quality, publicly-owned housing the UK so desperately needs.

Geraldine Dening
Architects for Social Housing

4 thoughts on “Maintain, Refurbish, Invest: Siemensstadt Housing Estate, Berlin

  1. Street properties on our road that are three times the age of housing estates slated for demolition. Many of these terraced homes were municipalised in the 70s. None are to be demolished. Not built in 1970 or 1930 but 1860.

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  2. Inspiring example, but perhaps anti-urban, and therefore another instance of marginalized housing. There is an urgent need for social integration everywhere, but most significantly in the urban core. For, is it not the case that genuine social integration requires that it take place in concentrated and central urban environments, precisely because they provide what everyone wants and needs? Perhaps the image of “estate” is limiting. An estate can be lovely, or not, but it is distinct from a city, and distinct from an urban neighborhood. Filling in bombed out districts with large clusters of desperately needed housing, was essential and appropriate after the wars in Europe. In North American urban centers were not bombed by militant aggressors, but abandoned by the middle class and upper middle class – who chose to “the city” as a quasi-ruin, inhabited by those “others” willing and able to live there, whether by choice or not. Now “the city” is being reclaimed, redefined – re-colonized in many cases – as the posh pinnacle and parade of local and global possessors of wealth, as it is, with equal aggression, purged of all the heterogeneity that made it an enjoyably diverse, surprising, and somewhat risky, place to live. This pertains to atmosphere. But also to extent to which a population has access to the public space and the sites of civic power and cultural expression.

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  3. Siemensstaadt is a wonderful example of social housing done properly – assisted by post-war state and federal housing laws which are punitive of landlord neglect – and respected by residents and local authorities alike. Even the towers in Marzahn – formerly used to exemplify the “hive” mentality of East Germans – are now held up as examples of spaciousness and thoughtful design. I visited both (and many others) with my late wife, as we shared an interest both in Berlin (we’d both individually visited West Berlin, and day-tripped into East Berlin during the late 80s, and subsequently visited post-reunification) and in social housing architecture and use. The mietshaus idea – well-designed, landscape friendly tenement blocks – has been of proven value in Germany, where some “new” tenements are 60+ years old, and some old ones are 150+ years old, and are still lived in and loved by residents. My wife and I usually stayed in a short-rental (we usually visited for a month at a time) in Moabit, a working-class suburb whose streets are – as elsewhere in the city – lined with tenement blocks. The residents of the block we stayed in, on Rostocker Strasse, were effusive in their fondness for their homes, their neighbourhood and their history – the Rostock kiez had been home to a significant working class red anti-fascist element in the late 20s and early 30s – and couldn’t fathom people wanting to live in terraced housing.

    Now the city administration has cracked down on short rentals, and legislated a city-wide price rise caps on rents (now being adopted by other German metropolises), and a good thing too, even if it costs me more to stay there now! Where the UK does apartment blocks, we have tended to go to one of two extremes: Cheap, shoddy housing for the proles, or “luxury” housing for the bourgeoisie. The Germans found a “happy medium” between those two extremes, to the extent of them being the predominant form of urban housing. If only we could replicate that in the UK…

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