»Tradition is a dare for innovation.«

Alvaro Siza

Blog Building of the Week

A House Less Ordinary

Berlin Townhouse by X-TH architecture

  • Townhouse B14 by X-TH architecture is part of a development of 16 townhouses, built directly at the Berlin Wall Memorial. Both neighbouring houses were designed by X-TH as well. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 1 / 21  Townhouse B14 by X-TH architecture is part of a development of 16 townhouses, built directly at the Berlin Wall Memorial. Both neighbouring houses were designed by X-TH as well. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The dark materials of the façade is a reaction to the fact that materials such as wood and plaster were not allowed so close to the memorial site. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 2 / 21  The dark materials of the façade is a reaction to the fact that materials such as wood and plaster were not allowed so close to the memorial site. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • While the back of the house is a little friendlier. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 3 / 21  While the back of the house is a little friendlier. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The interior is composed as a diagonal sequence of zones rather than rooms stacked on top of each other. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 4 / 21  The interior is composed as a diagonal sequence of zones rather than rooms stacked on top of each other. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • Light fills the rooms from both glass façades and from the skylights above. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 5 / 21  Light fills the rooms from both glass façades and from the skylights above. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The slanted walls underline the diagonal connections, yet still create comfortable zones for living... (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 6 / 21  The slanted walls underline the diagonal connections, yet still create comfortable zones for living... (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • ...or for taking a bath. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 7 / 21  ...or for taking a bath. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • To develop this unusual space, the architects took the section as their starting point, working mostly with 3D models instead of floor plans. (Drawing: XTH architects) 8 / 21  To develop this unusual space, the architects took the section as their starting point, working mostly with 3D models instead of floor plans. (Drawing: XTH architects)
  • Their unusual design also features unique solutions to the many challenges caused by the diagonal walls. Like these lifting doors for two of the bedrooms. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner) 9 / 21  Their unusual design also features unique solutions to the many challenges caused by the diagonal walls. Like these lifting doors for two of the bedrooms. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The doors have to be lifted by hand, yet they are light enough to be lifted by the two children whose bedrooms these are. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner) 10 / 21  The doors have to be lifted by hand, yet they are light enough to be lifted by the two children whose bedrooms these are. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner)
  • A curtain separates the bathroom from the main space. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner) 11 / 21  A curtain separates the bathroom from the main space. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The strange staircase on the ground floor is reminiscent of walkway up a mountain or the gangway up to a ship. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 12 / 21  The strange staircase on the ground floor is reminiscent of walkway up a mountain or the gangway up to a ship. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • Yet the mountain bike has to stay downstairs. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects) 13 / 21  Yet the mountain bike has to stay downstairs. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects)
  • The angle of all slanted walls is always the same: 35.5 degrees, which is the angle of a fairly normal staircase in German housing. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 14 / 21  The angle of all slanted walls is always the same: 35.5 degrees, which is the angle of a fairly normal staircase in German housing. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • The top floor houses the kitchen and offers a spectacular view down into the house and out across the green strip of the Berlin Wall Memorial... (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 15 / 21  The top floor houses the kitchen and offers a spectacular view down into the house and out across the green strip of the Berlin Wall Memorial... (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • ...and in the other direction over the big terrace towards the iconic TV tower of Berlin. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 16 / 21  ...and in the other direction over the big terrace towards the iconic TV tower of Berlin. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • Inhabitants of the house: Liva, Helle and Dan Schröder. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner) 17 / 21  Inhabitants of the house: Liva, Helle and Dan Schröder. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)
  • It’s up and down a lot in this house. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects) 18 / 21  It’s up and down a lot in this house. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects)
  • But up and down is the fun of it, and Helle Schröder says she hasn't grown tired of it yet... (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects) 19 / 21  But up and down is the fun of it, and Helle Schröder says she hasn't grown tired of it yet... (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects)
  • ...nor have her children. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects) 20 / 21  ...nor have her children. (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects)
  • It is such an individual house offering so many distinctive spaces that maybe one never gets tired of them (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects) 21 / 21  It is such an individual house offering so many distinctive spaces that maybe one never gets tired of them (Photo: Anja Büchner / XTH architects)

A generic solution was not what architects Helle Schröder and Martin Janekovic had in mind when they designed their own house, which flows as a continuous space from floor to floor. Florian Heilmeyer met Helle Schröder at the house, which has a site that is equally unusual: overlooking the Berlin Wall Memorial and the former death strip.

One of the many problems with capitalism is that – for the sake of cost-efficiency and thus profitability – it constantly tends towards producing standardised solutions. This is particularly tragic in the vast field of “housing” where architects and urbanists have tried for many years to come up with solutions to fit everyone – which in the end fit no-one at all. Ways of living are just too manifold, even more so in a time of continuously growing individualisation.

The private home that Helle Schröder and Martin Janekovic (X-TH Architecture) have designed for themselves and their two children almost fell victim to these standardising forces of capitalism, for when they applied for a loan the banks refused at first to grant it to them. “They had all sorts of arguments against our concept”, remembers Helle Schröder smiling. “They were telling us, that our design reduces the floor area and therefore reduces the value of the house, too. They also told us that if there is no elevator just all these ramps and stairs, it gets harder to sell the house as it isn’t fit for elderly or handicapped people. Finally they were also asking how we wanted to live in the house once we ourselves grew old. While all we wanted was to create a house that we want to live in now!”

The slanted walls underline the diagonal connections, yet still create comfortable zones for living... (Photo: Andreas Meichsner)

Inside, this remarkable house definitely feels very much like now! Its interior spaces are composed as a continuous space reaching from the entrance diagonally upwards through the building’s entire height of 12 metres: from entrance hall and play area, to a music level, to a living room with an open bath, to a reading area, to a kitchen with a wide roof terrace. “Floor plans never interested me very much”, says Schröder. “They have always seemed like a completely inadequate means of depicting a room.” Instead, she and Janekovic started the design of this house from the section, working mostly with models to create a diagonal sequence of spaces instead of rooms. “Stacking rooms on top of each other is quite boring. Our home was meant to function differently.”

To develop this unusual space, the architects took the section as their starting point, working mostly with 3D models instead of floor plans. (Drawing: XTH architects)

The only spaces that are separated from this main space are the two volumes which enclose the three bedrooms in raw concrete. Adding to its unusual vertical space(s), the house has been built on a trapezoidal lot of only 118 square metres. It is part of a small development of 16 townhouses, each with four floors, which are arranged in two terraces to form a dense village-like structure right at the former site of the Berlin Wall between Berlin-Mitte and Berlin-Wedding. The houses actually look out onto the site of the Berlin Wall Memorial, a context that makes these brand new houses look even more strange and displaced.

Yet it is this context which explains the houses rather grim façades. The exteriors of all the houses had to take the neighbouring memorial into consideration – which meant that “friendly” materials like wood or stucco were not permitted. X-TH chose a glazed façade structured by rather heavy steel girders spanning over the entire width of the building. The odd fringy draperies that have been placed before the ground and second floor are supposed to serve as a light screen to increase privacy in the building which is rather transparent on all other floors.

Their unusual design also features unique solutions to the many challenges caused by the diagonal walls. Like these lifting doors for two of the bedrooms. (Photos: Andreas Meichsner)

“We installed curtain rods above all windows, thinking we might get tired of being on display, especially at night”, says Schröder. “Yet until now we haven’t installed any curtains. I still like the way it is. When the tourists wave at us, we just wave back.” After all, visitors swamp the memorial only from nine to five. Afterwards the kids from the neighbourhood take over, playing soccer or hide-and-seek – which some people call “disrespectful” on a site where just a few years ago people really ran for their lifes. On the other hand, this is clearly how a city has to deal with its history, if it wants to remain a living organism instead of an open-air museum.

Somehow the house of Helle Schröder and Martin Janekovic offers a similar feeling inside: it is a decent playground. With all its stairs and ramps, and with its fair-faced concrete and light timber, it feels rather like a mountain or a ship. Within the light-filled spaces one can easily imagine growing old here. Hopefully the people from the bank now realise this too.

– Florian Heilmeyer

www.xth-berlin.de

www.andreasmeichsner.de

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