Like many areas of the German capital at the end of the Second World War, the western section of the Tiergarten – known as the Hansaviertel – was severely affected by the Anglo-American air raids that took place from 1940 until 1945.
Perhaps due to the flight path of these bombers, that would bring them into the city from the west – engaged by the air defenses of the Nazi capital, in particular the massive bunker fortification at Zoologischer Garten – the panic-stricked crews would deliver their payload before making it into the heart of the city. Marginally closer to their bases, West Berlin was certainly not spared the wrath of these flying armadas.
Following the division of Berlin in 1945, this area would fall under the control of the British occupation forces – and four years later become part of Cold War West Berlin. As relations between East and West continued to deteriorate, the different sectors of Berlin remained united – at least in cause – in their urgency in dealing with one major factor affecting the people living in the ruined capital. Beyond the matter of ensuring food supplies, the issue of suitable and sustainable accommodation would have to be confronted.
Both sides of the divided city would embark on post-war housing construction projects to address this shortage as they entered a period of new normalcy.
The momentous task of clearing the way for these new projects would fall to the women of the country, as in 1945 and 1946, all women between the ages of 15 and 50 were ordered to participate in helping tear down those parts of buildings that had survived the war, but were unsafe and unsuitable for reconstruction. In many cities Schuttberge (debris mountains) were created from leftover materials and the term Trümmerfrau (rubble woman) would enter the lexicon to describe the women tasked with this work.
Once the dust had finally settled in the 1950s, the governments in East and West Berlin would embark on flagship construction projects, intended to project their values – and the perceived superiority of those values.
The damaged Hansaviertel would be the focus on the 1957 Interbau project – gathering more than 50 architects from across the world to produce a visionary ensemble of residential structures as part of a masterpiece in urban design – the ‘city of tomorrow’.
In East Berlin, the construction of an ambitious boulevard leading right into the heart of the socialist capital was started in 1952. Dubbed Stalinallee, this would contain spacious apartments for workers – so-called ‘worker’s palaces’ – complete with central heating, elevators, intercom systems and indoor plumbing. All considered modern amenities that would distinguish these new dwellings from the old industrial era Mietskaserne mainly found across the city – Berlin’s typical working class accommodation.
Monumental eight-storey structures, designed in ‘Wedding Cake style’, would line this two kilometre street, stretching from the twin towers at Frankfurter Tor (reminiscent of the two churches on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt) to the square at Strausberger Platz. The projection of soft power here was apparent, this bold project was a propaganda statement from the East designed in such a way as to impress upon the visitor the magnificence of the people and politics responsible. Intended to represent the strength and engineering skills of the recently established German Democratic Republic.
The West would take a slightly different approach with the Interbau 57 competition. While the Stalinalle project in the East relied on homegrown architects, overseen by their Socialist counterparts in Moscow to ensure adherence to a particular architectural style reflective of the values of the Eastern system.
The Interbau project would see 53 architects from 13 different countries chosen to bring their vision of modern living to an area of prime Berlin real estate.
A special housing law, the LEX IBA, was even created to ensure that the competition be an open forum for ideas that otherwise might not be compliant with local building code of the time.
The West Berlin Congress Hall - designed by US architect Hugh Stubbins - was also part of the Interbau 57 project. Because of its unique shape it has been dubbed 'the pregnant oyster' by Berliners.
While some prominent German architects would be involved – many of the main architects would be non-German. Including Dutch architect Jo van den Broek, who had been influential in the rebuilding of Rotterdam after World War II, the Brasilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – who travelled to Europe for the first time for the competition and would later become the first person to have his work recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site in his lifetime for the design of the Brasilian capital, Brasilia.
Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius would also be involved. Resurrecting his earlier style through the prism of American acceptance, re-imported to post-war Germany as ‘Internationalist’ style. Perhaps the most emblematic contribution to IBA 57 and the way that the theme of resurrection would be incorporated. An essential return of a European approach following the carnage of the Second World War and the opportunity for central European architects to re-establish their relevance in the arena they had previously known as their playground.
The Scandinavian branch would be represented by Finnish designer Alvar Aaalto and Danish Functionalist Arne Jacobsen. Jacobsen had seen his career interrupted by the German occupation of Denmark, as Nazi racial laws meant that due to his Jewish background he was forced into exile in Sweden for two years. The small, single storey houses designed by Jacobsen for the Interbau project, stand in contrast to the high-rise structures that mainly dominate the ensemble.
Not all of the structures built for this project, however, can be found in the north-western area of the former royal hunting ground of the Tiergarten – neighbouring the Bellevue train station.
Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, would contribute a version of his Unité d’habitation (Housing Unit), that was completed near the Olympiastadion in West Berlin. This modular living space was first introduced in Marseille, where Le Corbusier’s design there – constructed in béton brut – is often cited as the initial inspiration of the Brutalist architectural style and philosophy. His work in Berlin would be reflective of the overall concept of the modern social housing – although yet despite the promises of the West Berlin government to ease building restrictions Corbusier’s interior design would be heavily modified, leaving him merely in charge of the exterior.
To wander through the IBA 57 housing project now, is to witness a utopian post-war vision implemented on a grand scale.
Although despite the huge effort of the West Berlin government to draw attention to the exercise in the 1950s – with around 1 million people attending the opening – it would eventually be so well integrated into the city that many Berliners and certainly visitors to the city now could pass through or near it without paying much attention.
The location of this collection of residential structures has kept it largely out of focus in the city, obscured by the leafy mass of the Tiergarten central park. Beyond its obscurity; it has also not been without its critics.
The name of this district dates back to when it was owned by a real estate company from the Hanseatic City of Hamburg – thus Hansaviertel – it would serve as pastureland for the cows of farmers from Berlin’s southern Schöneberg area, with the swampy ground, which in parts reaches two metres deep, traditionally limiting the construction in the area. That would all change with the Second World War, when the 160 buildings in the area were largely destroyed in one night in 1943.
At that time, around 6,500 people lived in the Hansaviertel, whereas the new Interbau project was designed for some 3,500. A significant reduction considering one of the premises of the exhibition was to provide buildings that cater for the needs of the city and its population.
Beyond the amendments made to Le Corbusier’s apartment complex at the Olympiastadion, amendments also had to be made to other structures – sunshades were removed from Oscar Niemeyer’s apartment block and an elevator access point had to be redesigned, seven stories were chopped from Italian architect Luciano Baldessari’s complex, and some exterior colours of buildings changed – all to ensure the buildings complied with the straightjacket of ‘social housing’ at the time.
Regardless of its success – or current relative obscurity – it could be said that the Interbau project was actually more reflective of an old German builders joke: “That we don’t build as well as we can, but as badly as we have to”.
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