Most of the good stuff about housing, urban topographies, planning, environments, living space has already been written. Jane Jacobs, Catherine Bauer, Christopher Alexander, Raymond Unwin, William Morris, Bruno Taut, Camillo Sitte and many others. I doubt anyone is going to improve much on that substantial mass of work. And if even 10 percent of what those writers, thinkers, housers, architects and designers was put into practice, housing would be a very different to how it currently is.
No, it’s not new ideas about housing that are needed, it’s new ideas about power, control, class interest, workers and tenants rights and governance. Whether housing is a home or just a source of profit. And an understanding that the dynamic forces which are active in the realm of housing are all to do with capital, the expansion of capital, the accumulation of capital, the making of money, the collecting up each week of substantial profits. Without grasping that, most housing policies are not going to work. For such is the power of capital in the built environment that you have to search hard among the political parties – including the Labour Party – to find even miserly and timid reforms. Elected mayors and local councillors across England are mired in pushing through the sale and destruction of council housing, approving planning applications for more dizzy-height towers and allowing private landlords to both receive huge amounts of public money and operate with almost unchecked behaviours.
There is nothing new about most of this. It’s been going on for more than 100 years. There were serious, and successful, programmes in Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, Karlsruhe, Amsterdam, Zurich, London, Poland and elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s to build good quality, low cost housing aimed at working class people. The backlash this created among speculators, property developers and landlords in Germany and Austria became a building block of fascism. Their power was briefly curtailed but a fatal mistake was made in not smashing it completely. There was a great deal at stake. But the capitalist interests understood this much more clearly than the reformist socialists.
One needs a database of all the housing blocks and estates in Berlin with the historical dates of construction, how the buildings were financed, whether it was the city council or private interests which built it, how the land was purchased, to what extent was labour unionised , what was known about corruption, did strikes take place? What did the tenants think when they moved in and what sort of rights did they have? How much was rent in proportion to the mean wage in each area? The computing power and big data could produce some interesting reports – if the data exists in the first place.
And the same methodology could be applied to housing in all cities today. Where is the money coming from? To what extent are shell companies and tax havens being used? Is the building labour organised and unionised? What rights do tenants have, what direct and indirect subsidies do the landlords and housing management companies receive from the state?
The walk started in the direction of Charlottenburg S-Bahn station. It’s a substantial piece of railway infrastructure and in this part of Berlin is all above-surface. There are many bridges over the roads. Underneath these, there are groups of homeless people with all their possessions. One man is half sat up using a laptop, a woman is reading a book, she has nearly finished judging by the way she has the book opened. Another couple of people are lying half-obscured. It’s not clear if they are resting or asleep. There are a couple of bikes, a dog, a shopping trolley. All the bedding is dirty and mattresses are accumulations of pieces of sponge, old clothes, layers of cardboard. There is a bad smell in places and the traffic is loud and never ending.
Each person has a story about how they ended up here. It would be useful to carry out a building audit of Berlin to find out how many empty properties there are, how many second and third homes and to what extent ‘buy-to-leave’ has taken a grip. Some of these people might need a fair bit of TLC to get them back on their feet but none of it’s impossible. Germany is an advanced industrial nation. One of the biggest economies in the world. There are construction sites all over the city. There must be some resources to provide a home for everyone. Isn’t there? Perhaps there hasn’t been enough Powerpoint presentations. Maybe someone lost the spreadsheet which showed the number of beds in the city and where they are and the number of people without a bed. Perhaps there isn’t enough glossy brochures about opportunity, community and sustainability. That must be it. There has to be an answer somewhere.
At the end of the underpass there’s a fruit and veg shop with a stall outside. The name of this is in Russian. The staff have ‘Team Russia’ on the back of their jackets. I momentarily stopped to look at this and then noticed that there was a Ukrainian flag on prominent display. And that they had a Russian and a Ukrainian flag next to each other. It was a moving act of solidarity. How such things can change thoughts, emotions and hopefully deeds.
Kantstrasse is great fun. Full of restaurants, bars, shisha lounges, barbers, nail bars, shops selling all that stuff which you can never imagine anyone buying. It’s lively and full of people, many eating very early lunches. The first building I’m looking for is Kantgaragen which was built in 1930 and is one of the few Bauhaus industrial buildings still extant. It’s a building site at the moment. There’s a guy on a mobile phone. I really want him to move out of the way so I can take a photograph and I want to ask him some questions. This doesn’t work out. He keeps looking at me warily as I hold the camera. He moves out of my sight line and I take the pictures. But he’s still there talking to someone and now moves right away. I don’t think he wants me to hear the conversation. I would have liked to ask him what was going on with the building.
The S-Bahn from Savignyplatz takes me up to Westkreuz and I change to the U-Bahn to Westhafen. I spotted that the other day from the train. Containers, large storage tanks, warehouses, canal docks, a line of train wagons that look as if they might contain oil or chemicals. . All the industrial stuff that’s always worth a look. It’s not clear whether this space is publicly accessible or not. But there was nothing to stop the casual pedestrian from walking forward.
I sensed the man coming toward me before I saw him. This sort of sixth sense is intriguing. I turned around and knew he wanted to talk to me. We quickly established that his English was much better than my German.
‘Do you have permission to take photographs here?’
‘Er no…I’m in Berlin to do some research about the city…’
‘Do you have a contract to take photographs here?’
‘No, do I need one? And if I do, how do I get one?’
He told me to come with him and we walked alongside the containers and big dark brick buildings. He was friendly and explained that there is a lot of filming here for TV shows and films, ‘particularly crime’ he adds. We went into the building and he takes me to his office.
Once we’ve sorted out the contract he shows me some fascinating photographs of the history of the buildings on his computer. These include bomb damage from the Second World War and women typists in the 1930s and men in work coats counting and sorting goods and men in overalls unloading barges. One of the photos is of the rebuilding after 1945. I am struck by how many women are in the picture, working on the reconstruction. These are the Trümmerfrau (rubble women). There’s been some research apparently that suggests they didn’t have that much of an impact on the reconstruction of Germany. But I don’t buy that. What’s being measured and how? Every pair of hands must have been important given the huge amount of damage and the desperate need for housing, hospitals, schools, shops and infrastructure.
‘Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the whole site’, he says.
‘I’d like to come’, I say, rather hoping that I might get an invitation.
‘We have to go and see my colleague now’, he says, handing me the contract to be signed. We walk through the corridors and I peek inside all the offices. This is fascinating. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Monday afternoon. The offices are exactly the same as those in England. Desks made of MFD, Plants here and there, Dell monitors, HP computer base units, keyboards, mice, docking stations, calendars and postcards stuck on the wall, piles of paper on desks, photographs of loved ones and family members, cups and mugs with silly slogans on them, tins of biscuits, a newspaper and magazine here and there, declarations of loyalty to football clubs and ever lasting love to pop stars and celebrities.
His colleague is a woman who takes my fifteen euros and hands me a pass. I wish now I’d checked how long this pass lasts for and exactly what it covers. Her office was full of purple and white orchids and a large black and white calendar. The month of May was on display featuring a man wearing nothing but a pair of silk shorts looking sultry and oiled. I bet offices in Russia are like this, and those in Ukraine too. It’s something to think about. How this universal experience of the working class might be organised into a universal political movement against capital.
On the other side of the bridge is a coal-fired power station. I watch a man unload a coal barge. He sits high up above it in a metal and glass cab and moves a lever. The big metal scoop goes down and opens. He moves the lever again and the scoop closes. One more move of the lever and the scoop is hauled into the air by several thick metal chains. The power cables are intertwined. The scoop is manouvered and then opened and the coal falls into a great metal hopper. From there I guess it’s fed into the power station itself. It must be monumentally boring to repeat those actions over and over and over again. Tied to the machine and governed by the clock all day. Day after day, month after month, year after year. It looks like the sort of work which isn’t monotonous enough to allow day dreaming which means the worker has to concentrate in a semi-automatic way. It’s the worse of all worlds. There’s not even anyone else to talk to. No exchange about the weather or the behaviours and activities of the pedestrians or the people by the side of the canal who drink beer, smoke dope and generally lie about and idle.
There’s a friendly looking cafe across the road. Some people are sitting and chatting, others are typing away on phones and laptops. One person reads a book and at least half a dozen people don’t seem to be doing anything at all except enjoying the sun and day dreaming. (What is all this ‘doing things’ all the time?) I don’t know how, but I end up in a conversation with one of the women who work in there about why I’m in Wedding on a Monday afternoon. I briefly outline modern housing in Berlin in the 1920s. I explain I’m going to visit Siedlung Schillerpark and Wiess Stadt.
‘I’ve always lived here and never been’ she said laughing, ‘just like a local not to see what’s round the corner’.
It’s a really delicious piece of cherry cheesecake and a welcome cup of black coffee. I study my phone too, trying to work out exactly what streets the housing is on.
When I leave she smiles and says, ‘you know as soon as I get time I’m going to visit those places’. I hope she does.
There’s so much good housing to see on the way. But unless the buildings have dates on them or the date can be accurately verified it can be difficult to work out the age just from appearances. Stuff is copied, derived from other things, styles change or don’t change. And just from appearances it’s impossible to tell if an apartment block is council owned, privately owned by a company, owned by individual tenants or some other arrangement. Nor is it possible to determine the levels of rent, what that rent is in relation to wages and what sort of rights the tenants and the landlords have in relation to each other. And nothing can be learned about the density of unionisation in the building trades in Berlin, what levels of corruption there might be and much else. And these are the really interesting issues about housing. Nonetheless, it is possible to form immediate impressions (aware that these might subsequently change) and as Christopher Alexander says, what are your feelings about it?
My initial feelings about a lot of it are positive. Impressions are formed of quality, of the immediate surroundings, of access to parks and open space, of the amount of light the buildings receive in the late afternoon. Of the variation in buildings and design. There are lots of trees, the birds are singing. Three blocks which were built in 1950 (ithere are plaques which state this) look to be good quality and have individual bits of detail and ornamentation. That’s class, and quality, given the huge pressures on labour, resources and housing need at the time. Even in such times, provision was made to ensure the buildings had some style as well as substance.
There are some interesting continuities too. The Nazi period was cataclysmic in Germany. A breaking of the time-continuum fabric. A darkness so vile that even now it’s stomach churning. But there was an earlier Germany. That of a large vibrant social democracy, of a philosophical and cultural tradition. There were plenty of German people who hated the Nazis and wanted nothing to do with them. Those people deserve a continuity to their lives instead of always feeling they have to live in the shadow of a great monstrosity. Berlin had been a city with a large communist and socialist working class before 1933 with radical traditions. That history shouldn’t be forgotten.
In Schillerpark people are playing games and having picnics and kids are running about. All sorts of people. It’s mixed, multi-cultural and multi-racial. You need to go yourself to see it. And across the park and through the trees the Siedlung Schillerpark designed by Bruno Taut in 1924 and helped to its completion by Martin Wagner who played a major role in Berlin’s modern housing programme. There are copies of these designs and ideas all over Europe. And some good copies too. But here is the primary object. The first time it was done in this way. Three stories, balconies, lots of open space. It’s well looked after and solid looking. And it has a very powerful atmosphere of being a place that people live their lives. It doesn’t feel like a place where people just exist. Dreading going to bed because of noise from anti-social neighbours, worried about going out because of taunts and jeers because they’re perceived as different, bothered by minorities of yobs and louts. It doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels matter of fact and well organised with a creative core and a well governed wrap around.
I stood for a long time just taking it all in, trying to work out what this atmosphere was. It had a solidity to it but not in a controlling way. There’s a lot of green and open space and colourful flowers, plants and trees. The three storey height feels human. The balconies have all the sorts of stuff that people put on balconies. Flower pots, multi-coloured streamers, wind chimes, stuff that doesn’t really fit anywhere in the house. It feels well organised but also well lived in. A man in blue overalls is getting stuff out of his car and taking it into his house. He makes a couple of trips. But despite this public space it feels intimate and private. I don’t disturb him. He has the air of someone that’s too infrequently met. Of socialist, organised, unionised labour. Such people are rarely shy. But they take a little bit of getting to know. And when you do, then once again you might discover the revolutionary working class. It’s still here and always has been.
There is a lot of attractive housing to pass on the walk to Weiss Stadt. This demands a Pevsner like approach – but actually in more detail than Pevsner and more emphasis on the social history. It’s an impossible project for one person. It needs a large, motivated group of people to properly research. London could benefit from something similar. In fact, all cities could. An audit of all the buildings and who owns them and what they’re used for and how much emptiness there is and how much profit is being made. It reminded me of this article in the Guardian of a housing block in Liverpool. Where flats are owned by dirty money based in all sorts of dirty places. For even in poverty there are profits to be made. That’s why housing matters. If housing is degraded, it’s easier to degrade the people. But if people’s housing is properly organised, then the people can organise more effectively. Perhaps that’s why the Tories work so hard to un-organise housing and make it a horrible, expensive experience for so many. That explains the Tories. But why should Labour go along with this? What exactly do they fear of the organised working class? That it may start to demand real reforms and push aside the hand-shake politics that now dominates the Labour Party?
My feet are sore and my brain is full of housing and maps and talking to people and trying to work out dates and styles and formats and where to research all these things. There are four more places still to visit but I won’t make them all today. I need to be able to walk 100 miles tomorrow too, and 100 miles the next day and the day after that as well. But I am definitely going to visit Weiss Stadt. And I am not disappointed.
There is much more about the estate here and it’s history. So all I will add is a few thoughts on walking around on a sunny May day in the late afternoon. I thought it was fantastic. It has real quality about the design and the actual structures. Geometric lines are offset with the seduction of curves both at the street level and occasionally of individual buildings. Blocks are hidden by mature trees and greenery seems to climb to the edges of the buildings and then up the buildings themselves. But not in a neglected sort of way. It’s as if the buildings and the greenery are really all part of the same thing; that they are complimentary to each other in the provision of a well lived in and enjoyable environment. A place for people to live in the comfort of their homes and then to step out of that (the pattern language of the ‘door’ and ‘entrance’ as Christopher Alexander would put it). So well expressed and created. Seeing it here makes one realise that it is rarely done as well as this.
Oh mortal body why doth thou let me down? I still had loads of places to go but my feet were throbbing and my legs were giving up. I pushed on, for one last estate which was the Siedlung Paddenpuhl. This was built by a private company and described as ‘expressionist’ architecture. I have no idea what that means but something else to research should I ever get bored. This was the estate where I got to speak to seven different people who all told me different things. Such is local knowledge. They all agreed it was privately owned and they paid rent. There was a differences of opinion on what actually consituted the estateThey all liked living on the estate. Three people thought it was build in the thirties (some of it was built between 1927 – 29 some between 1936 – 37 ). One man said it was much quieter now that the airport (I assume Templehof?) had closed.
There was a strange coda to all of this. One part of the Paddenpuhl estate seemed more forlorn and neglected and shabby. I didn’t want to mention that. I felt I’d been let down. But later when I read through the history again I discovered that part of the estate had been built between 1935- 36. Was it those blocks?
A young guy smoking a spliff asked me a question in German. I couldn’t make it out at all. We switched into English. He’d asked me if it was a DSLR or analogue camera. I need to be quick, sharp. Exchange the pleasantries but then ask questions which don’t sound like those of the police.
‘Do you live here?’
‘Do you live here?’
See how differently they sound?
I asked the latter.
‘Yeah’, he said. I would have quite liked a drag or two on that spliff.
‘What’s it like?’
‘Yeah, it’s good. The flats are small – maybe two rooms. But it’s cheap and it’s near the city centre. And there’s a lot of nature’.
We were standing next to the large pond around which the estate had originally been built.
‘I’ve got to go’, he said, ‘I’m in a hurry’.
But it was good talking to him.
I walked a little more and found myself at the U-Bahn station. There it was. Right by the estate. I needed to sit down anyway. Travelling through Berlin in the early evening golden light. Past Westhafen again. The city all spread out and it looked at me differently. And I looked at it differently. It’s housing projects and red brick factory buildings and big bold S-Bahn stations and the people with their big city ways. The young women with huge shoes and achingly cool attitudes, the Turkish men with pristine white t-shirts and black leather jackets, the three women who stepped on the train with vibrant coloured head scarves, the workers with their grey and black trousers covered in dust and grease and all the ingredients of industrial production, the office workers dressing down to annoy their managers, the railway workers wearing the same boots that railway workers wear from Shanghai to San Francisco and everywhere in between, the Ukrainian and Russian labourers on the same building site who agree between them that they have never been enemies and never will be, the man who pushes his bicycle onto the train, the young Kurdish woman who is helped off the train with her pram by the young Black guy. It’s all here. The world is here in Berlin. It’s past, it’s present and its potential future.
And everyone on the train drenched by the golden sun pouring through the windows of the rattling carriages, saturating the entire city with its yellow light. And how we respond to the golden light is up to us. And what that potential future is – why, we can decide that too.