Hufeisensiedlung – One & One is Three

A list of streets were written by hand into a small notebook. This is much easier to use than any sort of digital device. There is no signing on, no search button, no need for a G4 or wifi connection. The list is important because sometimes you arrive at a place and you are not sure. I looked at the list on the rattling U-Bahn train. And then out of the window.

Berlin moving past in fragmented angles and multi-perspectives. Large buildings from the early 20th century, apartment blocks all glued together in long streets, the modern grot of steel warehouses and storage centres, anonymous glass boxes, the grim graffiti expressions of alienation. The edges of railways and urban transport systems are full of wild nature, only ever considered when it might interfere with railway traffic. Otherwise it’s left alone to do what it likes. It’s vibrant, abundant, anarchic. Waiting for the city to cease to function so it can slowly cover concrete with grasses and flowers and bushes, and break up roads with plants that push through whenever rain and frost create cracks. But now the train is stopping. Again, check the list.

Stavenhagener Strasse

And a note about getting off the U-Bahn at Blaschkoallee.

It feels different again. Berlin doesn’t have one atmosphere but many atmospheres. I’m not sure what it is but I instinctively like it. Let’s try and explain this. Because more than the architecture, it’s this immediate feeling which is worth exploring. And it’s worth remembering that Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner and others involved in the development of this housing were trying to do just that; create places that people would like, that people would feel warm towards, that would feel comfortable with, would feel intimate and private but do this successfully in sharply defined public places where many people constantly pass through.

Is it likeable because so much has been said about it? No. If the starting point is how one feels towards a space, and if one can be honest about how one feels about space, it’s not because anything is being read into it for political, ideological or any other reasons. It feels good. It feels good as a space in its own right. The history is useful, helps to form opinions, but the history in the public domain is at best partial. What did people feel when they first moved here? What were the first two or three years like? What was it like in a summer’s afternoon in 1931?

There is something fantastic about the whole area. The Hufeisensiedlung is superb – more of that in a minute or two – but the surroundings are great too. That makes the whole ensemble even better. Everything is individual but contributing to a greater whole. One and one is three here. The only cloud is knowing that finding out the history of the whole area which surrounds Hufeisensiedlung is going to be a long, arduous task. Instead assumptions have to be made, guesses, possibilities. It’s not much of a method, but in truth, it’s how we interact with urban environments all the time. So back to feelings; this starting point of feelings is a good one. Without the time to study properly, feelings are a good enough starting point.

It made me realise that part of what’s happened here is that it’s about the establishment of principles. Those of licht, luft und sonne. Of light, of air and sun. Those principles had to be established against the power of capital which has always been to build, build, build. To concentrate building and minimise light, sun and air and to maximise profit. To establish principles is important. Principles are good starting points for architecture and urban development. Much better starting points than tax dodging, dirty money, profit margins, money power and political control. And chicanery, lies and hypocrisy.

The political organisations and commercial interests involved in housing development never mention profits and capital investment and loans and debts. They certainly do not publicise where the money comes from. It’s all so dishonest and disingenuous. Better to start with principles based on the people who will live there. Rather than the profits of those who won’t live there and will probably never even make a visit for 20 minutes. Perhaps it’s a sense of principles still hanging in the air with some force one hundred years after the buildings have been completed which is one of those hidden reasons why it induces likeable feelings. These things need to be teased out because there is a huge amount that’s very wrong with current housing provision.

There is a bold use of bright colours, and a bright use of bold colours. That deep blue. And the terracotta red. The red trim around a white door. The green trim around a white door. Only someone who is confident in their ideas could do this. The bright mustard colour next to the white. The lilac bushes, the range of greens in the bushes and mature trees, flowers. These add their own colour palette. Everything mixes up but it all works. The harmony of colours work, and the discordant mix of colours works. Shadows from trees creates dappled effects of light and shade. It constantly moves, to suggest change. But it moves within a certain space; to suggest permanence.

The buildings are solid. They look to have good quality. Designs are varied but all within a certain shared idiom. There is nothing eccentric or egocentric or brash. This is a lovely, lived-in combination of big city living (and big city life) and space that is intimate and private. I don’t buy this stuff that Berlin (or London) is a ‘collection of villages’. You would never get this atmosphere in a village. It’s private and intimate but there’s a powerful sense of city anonymity and city free minded-ness. The U-Bahn will instantly transport even the most casual person to the most extraordinary life of the metropolis of Berlin. Someone who can be in Alexanderplatz or Neukoln or Ostkreuz in twenty minutes is not a villager by outlook, experience or situation.

My notes rarely match the writing. There’s all sorts of stuff in the notebook. But now I’m writing up thoughts and ideas the memories are already different. The size of the blocks. They were big, solid and powerful. On the Fritz-Reuter-Allee side they are painted in a terracotta red on rendered walls. I assume – but could be wrong – that there’s bricks underneath the rendering? In which case why do the rendering at all? Why not leave the brick facings (unless it’s concrete?).

But on the other side, away from the road, the facade is softer and much more humane. There are balconies and the colour tones are warmer. This side is looking out over a great deal of open space. And not just lawns. Gardens, trees, bushes, flowers, swing chairs, children’s slides, cultivation. This is well lived in space with a relatively high density of people. This is the difficult trick. How to add a lot of people to relatively small amounts of space. To keep a lot of people within touching distance to the city centre and to their places of work. This still hasn’t been satisfactorily resolved in a lot of places. But this is a very good attempt to answer the question within the obstacles and limitations imposed by the 1920s.

Part of the overwhelming impression is how green it all is. Little alleyways that run through the blocks. Just about wide enough for one person. Here and there the local children have used multi-coloured chalks to map out games and slogans. These should be the starting points for political manifestos. I stand still and close my eyes and listen. The sound of birdsong and people talking and laughing, the vague background noise that cities make, an occasional motor vehicle, the sound of water running, as if a bucket is being filled. It could be a soundtrack from the year 1930. Perhaps it is. A small tear in the space-time continuum. Let’s get in there fast and try to stop the catastrophe from coming. But too late, the gap has closed again. But wait, perhaps we must jump more deeply into our own time to stop the new destruction forming.

There are hornbeam hedges which provide a certain type of understated strength. Hornbeam is a good wood. It has certain qualities and a history of being appropriated into human affairs. It’s an effective barrier. But barriers are useful too. We need barriers, lines in the sand, demarcations, walls and hedges. Don’t assume such things are wrong. Walls provide protection against sea surges, barriers prevent tides from creating floods, walls provide different kinds of space, we like the walls of our homes and the wall that separates the kitchen from the bedroom.

Hedges provide habits for birds and insects, act as wind breaks and mark the differences in places. This area becomes for flowers, this part of the landsscape for playing ball games. Marking out space helps to create certain divisions, of starting and ending points. These demarcations can add flavour. If we ever manage to get to a state beyond capitalism, a socialist state, all these things might change. But perhaps for a time we will remain nostalgic for a past-tense; perhaps we will try to refine the nostalgia, to create a past based on how we would have liked that past to have been.

All this is scalable. It’s on a human scale. Five stories is high enough. It’s just about the limit that a reasonably fit person can walk a couple of times a day. But there needs to be social arrangements. If a person on the top floor can’t walk up and down so much, a fitter person on a lower floor should swop. But it’s also scalable that in using this template of blocks being similar, but not the same, more and more blocks and open spaces can be added to. It’s clever, intelligent and witty.

Christopher Alexander would suggest that this is possible because the ultimate underlying pattern language has been identified and understood. I would very much like to know about the surrounding estates and buildings because they seem to fit in very nicely too. It’s difficult to know if they’re older or newer. But the underlying pattern language all fits. Blocks, a row of houses, a path that leads into a wooded area, there are children’s play things and play spaces and the backs of the blocks of housing. Places where the children live, so they can play and feel secure that mum and dad – or equivalents – and Oma und Opa – are all close by. And Tante Ruth lives there and a friend lives over there. How are these things measured? How a child feels about where they live? Would it not make sense to base all housing on this principle? For surely housing is most important to the child? So should this not become one of the main principles of the provision of housing? How does it provide for the child?

Or should all housing provision be about making money?

I keep coming back to the sensation that the Hufeisensiedlung is fantastic – but so too is the surrounding area. There is such a good balance between building and green space. I write in my notebook, in a rather contrived way perhaps, ‘a generosity of space will make for generous people; meanness in space will make for meanness in the people’. Well, it was just a thought that came to me.

Something else I realise is that it’s not just the general aspect, but how multiple angles and perspectives form a whole. What is the view from each balcony and window? This is so well executed that it feels almost impossible that this was properly worked out in a time before Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Computer Aided Design (CAD). In fact, I have never seen anything created by BIM and CAD which is remotely as good as this. And those technologies have the power to process every view and angle thousands and thousands of times. But create nothing to equal this.

There are two teenager girls listening to music behind one of the buildings. One is wearing a headscarf, the other has long black hair, jeans and a red top. There’s a lot going on there. They are slightly self-conscious. But what is going on there? I wish I’d gone to talk to them. I became self-conscious and tripped over something. I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps someone else needs to visit and talk to them. And I for one would really like to hear what they have to say. Because I bet they hold one of the many keys to unlock not just Hufeisensiedlung but the whole of Berlin and beyond.

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