»I don’t mistrust reality of which I hardly know anything. I just mistrust the picture of it that our senses deliver.«

Gerhard Richter

Blog Berlin

Radically Modern in 60s Berlin (7)

Re-visiting modern housing projects in East and West Berlin

  • Welcome to one of West Berlin’s largest modern housing projects: the Märkisches Viertel, built 1963-1974. (All photos by Thorsten Klapsch, taken in July 2015) 1 / 26  Welcome to one of West Berlin’s largest modern housing projects: the Märkisches Viertel, built 1963-1974. (All photos by Thorsten Klapsch, taken in July 2015)
  • Freshly mown lawns and neatly trimmed hedges. In general, Märkisches Viertel has been kept in good shape. 2 / 26  Freshly mown lawns and neatly trimmed hedges. In general, Märkisches Viertel has been kept in good shape.
  • 3 / 26
  • Germany’s obsession with insulation cladding has since found its way into the MV apartment blocks. 4 / 26  Germany’s obsession with insulation cladding has since found its way into the MV apartment blocks.
  • The term “modernisation” takes on a strange new meaning here. 5 / 26  The term “modernisation” takes on a strange new meaning here.
  • The bulky new exterior insulation tried to save the original appearance of the building with its precast elements of pebble-dashed concrete. 6 / 26  The bulky new exterior insulation tried to save the original appearance of the building with its precast elements of pebble-dashed concrete.
  • But the “modernisation” changed the rhythm of the façade... 7 / 26  But the “modernisation” changed the rhythm of the façade...
  • ... As a result, the formerly recessed anthrazit coloured balcony zones have now become white horizontal stripes. 8 / 26  ... As a result, the formerly recessed anthrazit coloured balcony zones have now become white horizontal stripes.
  • Entrance to the tower block in Dannenwalder Weg, the first completed building of Märkisches Viertel. 9 / 26  Entrance to the tower block in Dannenwalder Weg, the first completed building of Märkisches Viertel.
  • Completed in 1964, it’s first tenants moved in straight away although the neighbourhood remaining a construction site for ten further years. 10 / 26  Completed in 1964, it’s first tenants moved in straight away although the neighbourhood remaining a construction site for ten further years.
  • Of the original pioneering tenants from 1964, only three still live here. 11 / 26  Of the original pioneering tenants from 1964, only three still live here.
  • One of them is Ursula Bätz. This is her front door seen from the inside. 12 / 26  One of them is Ursula Bätz. This is her front door seen from the inside.
  • It might look en vogue today, but Her and Frau Bätz bought most of their furniture in the 1970s. 13 / 26  It might look en vogue today, but Her and Frau Bätz bought most of their furniture in the 1970s.
  • Though they were early adopters of the Märkisches Viertel modernism, the Bätz Family’s lives here were neither particularly “radical” nor particularly “modern”. 14 / 26  Though they were early adopters of the Märkisches Viertel modernism, the Bätz Family’s lives here were neither particularly “radical” nor particularly “modern”.
  • The Märkisches Viertel was within spitting distance from the Berlin Wall. At night, the Bätz’s sometimes heard shots fired from the guards’ guns and the spotlights from the watchtowers would shine into their bedroom. 15 / 26  The Märkisches Viertel was within spitting distance from the Berlin Wall. At night, the Bätz’s sometimes heard shots fired from the guards’ guns and the spotlights from the watchtowers would shine into their bedroom.
  • In a glass vitrine in her former bedroom, Mrs. Bätz keeps a piece of barbed wire from the original, hastily erected version of the Berlin Wall.  16 / 26  In a glass vitrine in her former bedroom, Mrs. Bätz keeps a piece of barbed wire from the original, hastily erected version of the Berlin Wall. 
  • Herr Baetz even took out an insurance to specifically cover their windows being broken by gunfire, which in the end never actually happened. 17 / 26  Herr Baetz even took out an insurance to specifically cover their windows being broken by gunfire, which in the end never actually happened.
  • The Bätz apartment features many historical layers, like the 1980s wooden panels in the kitchen area. 18 / 26  The Bätz apartment features many historical layers, like the 1980s wooden panels in the kitchen area.
  • 19 / 26
  • Adolf Baetz also used the bathroom as dark room for his hobby: photography. 20 / 26  Adolf Baetz also used the bathroom as dark room for his hobby: photography.
  • 21 / 26
  • 22 / 26
  • Ursula Bätz showed us her original rent contract from 1964. 23 / 26  Ursula Bätz showed us her original rent contract from 1964.
  • 24 / 26
  • Ursula Bätz looking out of her window in 2015... 25 / 26  Ursula Bätz looking out of her window in 2015...
  • ...and looking out of that same window in 1964 in one of her old photographs. 26 / 26  ...and looking out of that same window in 1964 in one of her old photographs.

Just how “radical” was the modern architecture in East and West Berlin in the decade following the building of the Berlin Wall? This is a core question of the exhibition Radically Modern at the Berlinische Galerie, and also the core question for uncube’s mini-series of articles and interviews that we have had running on our blog for the past six months since the exhibition’s opening. How to better evaluate this question than by looking at two of the most ambitious and politically loaded 1960s housing projects from East and West Berlin: in Leninplatz (today: Platz der Vereinten Nationen), Berlin-Friedrichshain and in the Märkisches Viertel, Berlin-Reinickendorf respectively. For the closing two episodes of our series, we sent photographer Thorsten Klapsch and author Luise Rellensmann to re-evaluate just how “radical” these schemes appear today. This week, we start with their visit to “Märkisches Viertel” where they began by encountering local resident “Liz Taylor”:

Liz Taylor glides along the sidewalk between the freshly mowed lawns and neatly trimmed hedges of the Märkisches Viertel (MV). Curious about our camera equipment, the dark-haired septuagenarian stops her senior scooter for a brief chat and to tell us about the film doubles agency she once operated out of her mezzanine apartment further down the road, and which earned her a bit of local fame as the “Liz Taylor of Märkisches Viertel”. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time today to listen to her life story, as we are actually heading to hear another life story closely attached to one of West Berlin’s most radical modern housing estates. Here we have an appointment with Ursula Bätz in the tower block on Dannenwalder Weg, patterned in striped aggregate concrete, which was the first building built in the Märkisches Viertel. Appropriately, it was also the first of the complex to be renovated recently with new thermal insulation, while for the surrounding buildings in the neighbourhood remedial measures are still underway.

The bulky new exterior insulation tried to save the original appearance of the building with its precast elements of pebble-dashed concrete.

Between 1963 and 1974, around 17,000 apartments were created here for some 50,000 inhabitants, at the northwestern periphery of what then was West Berlin. Their purpose was to provide modern living conditions for broad segments of the population still housed in the dilapidated old building quarters of the inner city. Yet despite its humanistic ideals, the Märkisches Viertel was enveloped in scandals related to numerous shortcomings – mostly its cheap construction and the lack of public infrastructure – well before its final completion in 1974. With the first inhabitants already moving in in 1964, and thus being condemned to live on a huge construction site for the next ten years, the Märkisches Viertel quickly became the bad example of modern city planning. This is an image which it has managed to keep until today, with its architecture still being held responsible as breeding ground for social problems. Apparently that’s also why some of Germany’s worst rappers like Sido or B-Tight cite the MV as their origin and home.

Ursula Bätz showed us her original rent contract from 1964.

But how was it – and is it still – to live in this 50-year-old “radical modernism”? Ursula Bätz is one of three remaining original tenants in Dannenwalder Weg. In 1964, she arrived here with her husband, Adolf, an auto mechanic, and their two sons. “As a family of four we moved here from a two-room apartment. In the 94-square-metre apartment, each of the boys now had his own room. That was already a quantum leap,” recalls the 88-year-old, as she sets out home-made cake and filtered coffee for her guests.

Both sons, as well as a granddaughter, were raised in the apartment. The seating area in the spacious open-plan kitchen was always the family’s favourite spot. They still appreciate the layout of the flat, whose open-plan kitchen and living room foster the apartment’s convivial atmosphere.

Life on the estate has changed dramatically with the times. Even today, Frau Bätz and her son can recall the smell of pig manure from the farm that once stood nearby. The farms were later removed when the longest housing block of Märkisches Viertel was built, an one-kilometre-long concrete slab, which due to its monotonous design quickly became known as “Der Lange Jammer”: “the Long Complaint”.

Though they were early adopters of the Märkisches Viertel modernism, the Bätz Family’s lives here were neither particularly “radical” nor particularly “modern”.

Until German reunification, the borough of Reinickendorf belonged to the French sector in divided Berlin. In Spring and Autumn, the family were regularly startled awake at 5 o’clock on Sunday mornings by a loud horn sounded by the Allied troops, who were hunting rabbits in the surrounding fields. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were 16 children living in the building. Frau Bätz’s granddaughter and her friends used to love trying to catch the attention of the border guards in the nearby watchtowers. Today, however, no one plays in the hallway, or outside along the Nordgraben trench that ran along the side of the Berlin Wall until 1989.

The stories that Frau Bätz recounts make life at Märkisches Viertel seem idyllic, far removed from the dramatic picture that has pervaded the public mind, especially during the 1960s. Although the lack of infrastructure and shops was a problem for many tenants during the early years, Frau Bätz regrets that the housing estate has been unable to shed its negative image: “There was never a ghetto here”, she says.

Would she ever consider moving elsewhere? The answer is an emphatic “No! Never! We are lucky to be able to live here.”

– Photos by Thorsten Klapsch, text by uncube contributor Luise Rellensmann

The exhibition Radically Modern. Urban planning and architecture in 1960s Berlin
 runs until October 26, 2015.

uncube are media partners of Radically Modern. This article is part of our mini-series of articles dedicated to the question as to whether architecture and urbanism in East and West Berlin in the 60s were particularly “radical”. Other articles encompassed revisiting East Berlin’s TV Tower or West Berlin’s FU Berlin; interviews with Daniel Libeskind and Georg Kohlmaier, inventor of moving walkways through West Berlin (unbuilt), and an essay by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe, who commuted from Chicago to West Berlin in the 1960s whilst he was supervising the construction of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie.

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