In the 1950s, the divided city battled out the Cold War in the field of housing construction too.
After the Second World War, Berlin was largely destroyed. The western part formed a tiny island in the communist Eastern bloc and there was a lack of living space throughout. It was precisely at this time that the SED regime in the Soviet-occupied eastern part of the city pulled off a PR coup: it promised the city of the future – with modern and affordable housing for all.
Along Stalinallee in Friedrichshain residential blocks for workers were springing up in no time at all. And these were not just any blocks: these buildings looked exactly how many people imagined princely palaces to be. The exteriors boasted classicist façades, while inside the furnishings were of high quality at a reasonable rental price. It was quite clear: these luxurious residential buildings were also intended to convince West Berliners of the victory of socialism.
West Berlin had to find an answer to this, but one that expressed democracy.
In 1953, the city organised a design competition. The concept presented by architects Willy Kreuer and Gerhard Jobst prevailed: buildings in line with the ideas of New Objectivity, widely-spaced in the urban environment and with lots of green in between. A place was quickly found: the old Hansaviertel (Hanseatic Quarter) had been completely destroyed and provided a space for the architects to implement their ideas.
An exhibition of superlatives
Otto Bartning was a renowned master builder and president of the Association of German Architects. He invited 53 colleagues from 13 countries to construct modern buildings in the Hansaviertel. The response was tremendous – architects from all over the world came to build in West Berlin, including such greats as Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Aalto. When Interbau 57 opened in 1957, the public didn’t see an ordinary exhibition: visitors didn’t marvel at models or drawings, but finished residential buildings, even real high-rise buildings for social housing.
Unlike in East Berlin, the architects didn’t build with bricks, but with reinforced concrete. For the façades, they were guided by the function of the buildings, doing without historicist cladding. And the possibility of fitting more apartments into high-rise buildings than in traditional buildings meant that there was plenty of space for green areas.
The interiors were also carefully thought out. Alvar Aalto developed the concept of “Allraum” for his building (Klopstockstraße 30–32): the apartments did not have a hallway, but rather a large living room branching off directly to the bedrooms and children’s rooms. Aalto, like Oscar Niemeyer, wanted to promote mingling between residents by planning common rooms. In practice, however, the tenants hardly used them at all.
The most famous high-rise building in the Hansaviertel is the 17-storey “Giraffe” (Klopstockstraße 2). Like the large cloven hoofed animals in the nearby zoo, it towered above everything else. The design showed that modern building was not immune to a reactionary understanding of roles. The Giraffe consisted of one-bedroom apartments. The architects Klaus Müller-Rehm and Gerhard Siegmann designed separate wings for women and men. While the women’s units were fitted with a fully-equipped kitchen, the men’s apartments only had kitchen cupboards. These traditional allocations were already outdated in 1957, and women and men moved into the apartments regardless of the separation.
In the Hansaviertel, however, not only high-rise but also detached houses and atrium bungalows were being built for private building owners. The building at Händelallee 59 is particularly unique: a special wake-up window was inserted so that residents would be gently awakened by the light of the morning sun.
However, there were not enough private building owners. Ultimately, only 36 of the planned 45 properties were built in the Hansaviertel. One of the free spaces at Hanseatenweg 10 was given to the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts). The Kongresshalle and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation were realised by the architects outside the Hansaviertel.
Small town versus grand boulevard
The Hansaviertel was not only an alternative concept to the Stalinallee in terms of the construction method: it functioned like a small town. Above and beyond the apartments there were also small shops, a cinema, a shopping centre and its own underground station. The Hansabücherei in the open glass building was one of the first German libraries with an open access area.
Two new churches were also built, both of which did without historicist stylistic elements: the Protestant Kaiser-Friedrich Memorial Church and the Catholic parish church of St. Ansgar.
No victor in the exhibition fight
When Interbau 57 opened, it became a magnet for visitors. Everyone wanted to see the show apartments with Scandinavian furniture, Italian fabrics and Bauhaus tubular steel armchairs. More than anything, no-one wanted to miss out on the cable car ride over the Hansaviertel.
In the end, neither the monumental workers’ palaces on Stalinallee nor the modern designs of the Hansaviertel would prevail. Both were simply too expensive for price-oriented mass housing construction. Money ended up bringing about an unintended rapprochement during the Cold War: new housing estates in West and East Germany would soon look very similar.
Grand Tour of Modernism
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus in 2019, the Bauhaus Association developed a Grand Tour of Modernism that takes architecture fans all over Germany. The Hansaviertel is part of this theme route.
Grand Tour of Berlin Modernism
Our tips for the Hansaviertel
If you wander through the Hansaviertel you should visit the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) – and not only for the opening festival of Bauhaus100. The Grips-Theater, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019, is located directly at Hansaplatz underground station. Since 1986, it has put on many successful plays, including the musical “Linie 1”. The Teehaus im Englischen Garten (teahouse) is located within walking distance of the Victory Column in the Tiergarten. The Konditorei Buchwald (confectionery), where delicious Baumkuchen has been baked for 160 years, can be found at Bellevue underground station. From nearby Moabiter Bridge, you have a good view of the listed industrial buildings of the former Meierei C. Bolle (dairy), and of the St. Johanniskirche, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
Practical information from visitBerlin
If you want to find out more about the history of the Interbau 57 exhibition and the Hansaviertel, there are a number of guided tours to this former showcase of West Berlin. art:berlin or TICKET B, for example, uncover the history of post-war modernism and tell of the dual Berlin during the Cold War. The Bürgerverein Hansaviertel e.V. also offers regular guided tours.
You can reach the Hansaviertel by taking U-Bahn line 9 from Zoologischer Garten to Hansaplatz. By S-Bahn you can go from Zoologischer Garten or from Friedrichstraße via the S-Bahn station Bellevue to get to the Hansaviertel. To explore the city, we recommend the Berlin Welcome Card for public transport. This will give you a discount of 25 percent on art:berlin tours, for example.