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Niederschönhausen residential complex
Niederschönhausen residential complex © Landesdenkmalamt Berlin, Foto: Wolfgang Bittner

Niederschönhausen - Paul-Francke housing estate

Clear shapes instead of historicist pomp

Mit seiner Wohnanlage in Niederschönhausen durchbricht der Architekt Paul Mebes die herrschende Ästhetik der Gründerzeit.

During the transition from the 19th to 20th century, Wilhelminian architecture dominated Berlin: Large buildings with stucco façades, four to five storeys, and wings grouped around a small courtyard.

The architectural style at the time borrowed heavily from earlier eras, such as the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. The front houses were mainly occupied by wealthy tenants, which is why the façades on the street side were richly ornamented with columns, wreaths, small gables, figurines and decorative bands.

New contemporary taste

Shortly after the turn of the century, there was a change in attitude towards the Wilhelminian style. The exuberant shapes should be offset by more simplicity.

In light of this, the 1908 publication Um 1800 by Paul Mebes had a huge impact. The Berlin architect complained in it about the “highly unpleasant hunt for all kinds of architectural styles belonging to the past”. His alternative: to return to the building techniques and architecture of Classicism, but do away with ornamentation and focus more on objectivity.

You can discover how the architect translated theory into practice by visiting Niederschönhausen. In 1908, the Beamten-Wohnungs-Verein (Civil Servant’s Housing Association) commissioned the building of a new residential complex on Grabbeallee according to the plans of Paul Mebes and his partner Paul Emmerich.

Better living for civil servants

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a housing shortage in Berlin. The city was growing and people in better paid professions, such as civil servants, could also no longer afford decent apartments.

The Beamten-Wohnungs-Verein, which was founded in 1900, was to serve the purpose of helping its members find larger and more comfortable apartments. Five years after it was founded, the association had more than 10,000 members.

The residential complex in Niederschönhausen was already Paul Mebes’ third project commissioned by the Beamten-Wohnungs-Verein after the housing estates in Steglitz and Charlottenburg.

Mebes and Emmerich opened up the property by constructing a curved private residential street, which is today's Paul-Francke-Straße. The design also included courtyards in the southern part of the housing estate. These were characterised by a semi-open design, which was in contrast to the closed, dark tenement courtyards.

A total of 27 buildings with two to three storeys and space for 174 apartments were built on the plot of land.

Niederschönhausen residential complex
Niederschönhausen residential complex © Landesdenkmalamt Berlin, Foto: Wolfgang Bittner

Break with convention

The façades of the Niederschönhausen residential complex featured neoclassical elements, which the architect Paul Mebes extolled in his book on this ideal.

They consisted mainly of red Brandenburg bricks. Only the upper third of the building blocks had plain white decorative bands. Mebes notably broke up the massing by structuring the buildings: loggias with half-round openings, protruding alcoves, and gables gave the houses their symmetrical structure.

Reducing the buildings to basic geometric forms conveyed a feeling of tranquillity, which was further enhanced by the planting. The greenery created a harmonious contrast to the red façades.

Besides breaking with the Wilhelminian architectural style, the focus was also on improving living conditions. The intention was for tenants to be able to enjoy more light and sun in the Paul Francke housing estate, which is why all the apartments were situated in a sunny position and had a loggia overlooking the greenery.

The Niederschönhausen residential complex marked the beginning of Paul Mebes’ many years of design activity in Berlin. He designed numerous building projects together with Paul Emmerich, including other residential complexes.

Our tips for the Paul Francke housing estate

In the immediate vicinity of the housing estate, Berlin shows off its green side. Both Bürgerpark Pankow and Schönhausen Palace are within walking distance and well worth a visit.