Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Berlin: A Testing Ground for Urbanism

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Berlin: A Testing Ground for Urbanism

Article excerpt

IF you want to get to know Berlin you are bound to visit the Kreuzberg district at some time or other. There you will find an audacious mix of architectural styles in a crowded city environment. Modern buildings stand next to run-down tenements. There are workshops in upper storeys and sheds in the courtyards of recently restored apartment blocks. In the streets, the squares and the few open spaces, native Kreuzbergers rub shoulders with punks, Turks wearing headscarves as if in Anatolia, and urbane figures sporting the typical Berlin look. There are many dogs and even more youngsters. Kreuzberg must house more children than any other neighbourhood in Europe. You may also, however, notice a burned-out supermarket on a street corner; for in Kreuzberg, they will tell you, something goes up in flames every May Day--if not a supermarket, then at least a car or two. You will hear of a grim tradition of disturbances and street fighting.

For the story of Kreuzberg is first and foremost that of the conflicts and controversies that punctuate social change in our society. It is a district where extremes clash head-on and urban chaos reaches its peak. In a city that is constantly trying to learn the secrets of peaceful coexistence, Kreuzberg has for generations been a testing ground for urban development.

Lenne's green city

The district's history began with a plan for an ideal garden city drawn up by an architect named Peter Joseph Lenne in 1841, shortly after the revolution brought by the coming of the railway. In Lenne's project, the district was to be called Sudliche Luisenstadt.

After 1850, however, Berlin spread out beyond the ring of boulevards that surrounded the old city to accommodate an influx of newcomers from the provinces. The first expansion was so rapid that before long dwellings were being built even in gardens in the courtyards of apartment blocks. This was when Berlin's Mietskasernen (literally, barrack dwellings) were born. Tenements with tiny courtyards, they were popular with property speculators at a time when housing was in short supply.

The masses flocking to the city crowded into ever-smaller dwellings that often served in addition as cottage-industry workplaces. Then manufacturing industry moved in, and factories went up next door to the tenements. The district that in Lenne's mind had been crisscrossed with broad avenues, canals, promenades and gardens was now overbuilt and overpopulated. It had become a working-class slum.

Eventually conditions became bad enough to stir up an outcry, directed not just against the city authorities but also against the whole development process that had created the slum. Property speculation fell into ill repute and the concept of the garden city was revived. The modern homes of the 1920s were a reaction to the social misery of the old, stone Berlin.

The aftermath of war

Almost a quarter of the city was destroyed during the Second World War. Only ruins remained of the streets in the neighbourhood of the ministry buildings and the Ritterstrasse, where the arms factories had been located. But the working-class district, including Kreuzberg, between the River Spree and the Landwehr Canal escaped relatively unscathed.

Some years later, in 1961, the Cold War resulted in the construction of the Berlin wall, which split the city from north to south and cut Kreuzberg off from the old city centre and traditional leisure areas such as Treptow park, which were situated in the eastern sector of the city. Once a central district, Kreuzberg became peripheral, a dead end.

Yet the damage caused by the war and the Berlin wall pales into insignificance in comparison with that caused by redevelopment programmes between the 1950s and the 1970s. An urban planning competition held in 1957, billed as Berlin, Capital City, launched the idea of a massive motorway network. A four-lane ring road was to serve the business centre, and expressways with stacked interchanges replacing junctions would separate residential islands from commercial areas. …

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