Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gropiusstadt und weiter

Partly in honor of the recent riots or émeutes (which reached my neighborhood in the center of Paris briefly one night) -- and which the New York Times has semi-seriously claimed were the result of architecture, in a piece titled "Revolting High Rises" -- I visited one of the earliest Modernist High Rise developments in Europe, Gropiussadt.

Gropiusstadt is just one section of Neukölln (a neighborhood in Berlin that I happened to live in for a year, of David Bowie fame -- just listen to Hero -- as well as fantastic Turkish, Afro-German, Polish, Russian, and Vietnamese mixing -- in my old area, not in Gropiusstadt, you could buy baklava by the kilo). However, it has roughly 50,000 inhabitants, more than many small towns. All of them live in modernist functionalist Gropius-designed houses which were built between 1963 and 1973 -- experiments for a new utopian living. Space for the proletarians! And this was in West Berlin.

Apparently the actual slogan at the time for it was: "Licht, Luft, und Sonne!" I find it amazing that they were able to use so much space in the little fenced-off island that was West Berlin -- 264 hectares. Of course many of Gropius' original intentions were changed by financial practicalities and/or the lack of space in West Berlin:

Gropius sah als Elemente der recht einheitlich gestalteten Großsiedlung kleinere, überschaubare Wohnviertel mit eigenen Geschäftszentren vor. Seiner Idee war die Einbettung von Elnfamilienhaussiedlum gen, zum Beispiel die Hirtsiferzeile, am Gaudigweg oder am Lenzelpfad, zu danken. Gropiuus hatte für die BBR eine Zonierung hinsichtlich der Wohnungsgröße angestrebt. Die kleinen Wohnungen sollten an der Peripherie entstehen, während die größeren Wohnungen zur Mitte hin orientiert werden sollten. Denn dort, im Umfeld des Wäldchens, gab es die besten Spielangebote für Kinder. In der Praxis entstanden die größeren Wohnungen allerdings schwerpunktmäßig am Rande der Großsiedlung.
Das städtebauliche Konzept von Walter Gropius sah - in Anlehnung an die nahe Hufeisensiedlung - kreisrunde Baukörper mit maximal fünf Etagen vor. Durch die Insellage änderten sich ab 1961 die Entwicklungsbedingungen West Berlins grundlegend. Der Mangel an Bauland zwang dazu, viele Projekte neu zu überdenken.

Which is mostly to say that the city built the buildings higher than Gropius wanted, denser, added some parking places, and eliminated some of the large green spaces he envisaged.

But it's still awfully green. I walked through it and kept thinking of contrasting public projects which are now being torn down, particularly Le Corbusier's Garden Cities and Towers in the Garden in Paris and Marseilles.
Revolting? Not so much. These buildings have an awkward beauty of their own -- and I don't feel alienated thanks to all the trees and winter berries hanging on stems. To me, more, it seems like a lost opportunity for high Modernism -- a road not taken, the clues for a corrective rather than an outright rejection of high-rise buildings, and affordable projects for workers and other people to live in. After all, the dream of affordable housing for all and high-density living (to slow down the sprawl of habitation in the natural world, and make cars less necessary) wasn't so bad now, was it?

Here, unlike in Le Corbusier's dreams, you walk between high-rises instead of driving. You can also take the metro, and some Plattenbau actually have grocery stores inside them, on one of the lower floors. (Although a monstrosity called the Gropius-Passagen was built -- it is a shopping mall, snore). You could take a subway which makes several different stops throughout the complex (U7), but you can also just walk. I don't know how long that would take people, since the project is very large, but I got the feeling you might see a lot of neighbors on the way -- really wish I had had a chance to hang out there around the time that commuters would be coming home from work.
There's mixed-level and income housing, allowing for the "housing career" of potentially upwardly mobile income earners (which Le Corbusier did not consider, as the NY Times points out -- so less ghettoization or feelings of humiliation at being trapped in a bad quartier -- as well as ways for the economically mobile to move around without leaving should they so choose).
And did I mention how green it was?
Lucky mushrooms, Glückpilze.
The weather is colder in Berlin than Paris, so the leaves changed color more, and there were bushes full of sparrows roosting together to stay warm, and twittering when you walk past. And then a dusting of snow fell. Almost Schubert Winterreise weather, in the Plattenbau.


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