Special Report: Virginia Tech Goes to Germany (Part 3)

Part 3: Affordable/Workforce Housing History Lesson.

By Diana Mosher, Editorial Director

The “garden city” urban planning movement was born in England in 1898. Created by Ebenezer Howard to provide relief from urban overcrowding and pollution, garden cities were planned communities that incorporated homes, parks, industry and agriculture. Howard’s concept emphasized the importance of “greenbelts” and he was most focused on improving the squalid living conditions for urban dwellers of modest means.

The garden city concept quickly grew in popularity and was adopted by urban planners in many other cities around the world from New York to Berlin. During the May 2012 Virginia Tech “Globalization of Housing and Property Management Tour” students visited one of Berlin’s historic Garden City developments known as the Horseshoe Estate (“Hufeisensiedlung”) in the “New Cologne” suburb easily accessible by subway and other public transportation.

(Click here for Part 1 and Part 2 of MHN’s “Special Report: Virginia Tech Goes to Germany.” And watch a slide show.)

“Completed in 1925 by architect Bruno Taut, the [central block of the] Horseshoe Estate was built around a natural pond and the plan emphasized the green space,” said Sara Ann Carr, a Housing Major at Virginia Tech. “The combination of apartment blocks and townhouses was intended to help with the housing shortage after Word War I,” added Carr.

At that time Berlin was densely occupied by four million people (that’s one-half million more than today). It was typical, during the years of 1910-1920, for a family of six to 12 people to share a one-room apartment. And 90 percent of apartments were without bathrooms, 50 percent did not have toilets and only 0.7 percent had electricity.

Therefore, to improve conditions for working people in Berlin, various co-op housing societies and associations, public housing associations and trade union housing groups were created to build better quality affordable housing. Gehag (“public utility homes, savings and construction company”) was one of the largest and it embraced the newly created “modernist” aesthetic. Bruno Taut, who had previous garden city development experience, was appointed chief architect.

The Horseshoe Estate—which also includes a block designed by renowned architect Martin Wagner—has been described as one of the most outstanding examples of innovative German town planning as well as 1930s modernism in Berlin. In 2008 the Horseshoe Estate was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. Ironically, what was originally built as affordable housing has become very expensive to purchase and/or rent. In 1999 the City of Berlin began selling off public land and so today the apartments and townhouses are privately owned.

While the former “worker” housing is no longer an affordable choice—it is certainly in demand judging by the waiting list. And one Berlin couple has found a way to combine entrepreneurship with their love of architecture. Katrin Lesser and Ben Buschfeld reside in one of the Horseshoe Estate’s modest single family homes and have purchased an additional house which they have restored and furnished in the style of the 1930s. They have named it “Taut’s Home” and are marketing it to tourists looking for accommodations that are off the beaten path. Staying at Taut’s Home allows the design aficionado to travel back in time and soak up all the ambiance of the Horseshoe Estate during a visit to Berlin.

The Virginia Tech students met Horseshoe Estate residents Katrin Lesser and Ben Buschfeld and learned about the arduous process of renovating to UNESCO standards which, of course, limit the aesthetic changes that can be made to the exterior of the buildings and homes.

According to the local architect leading the tour, Taut’s vision was to create compelling architecture for “the common people.” Emerging from the subway, the first view of the Horseshoe Estate is an expanse of bold red. This color was chosen by Taut for maximum contrast with—and to make a statement against— the existing architecture across the street which was a traditional aesthetic. Other primary colors such as blue and yellow on buildings, houses, doors and other architectural details prevent so many nearly identical structures from appearing the same; color also helps break down the scale of the massive housing development. Taut favored dry pigment added to plaster because it lasts longer than paint. Additionally, each street has its own species of tree; for example, Linden, Maple, Beech, Cherry. This assists wayfinding and adds further differentiation between groups of housing in specific areas.

In the U.S. the New Urbanism urban planning movement introduced in the 1990s has been greatly influenced by the Garden City movement. New Urbanism, which gained momentum after the new town of Seaside, Florida was developed, came as a reaction to suburban sprawl and the typical suburban planning that gained popularity in the United States since the 1940s. New Urbanists are in favor of walkable communities, more public transportation choices, and integration of different types of land uses at the neighborhood level. The students were able to see many of these concepts brought to life during their visit to the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin.

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