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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.