A Walk in Berlin: Bruno Taut’s Falkenberg Housing Estate

IUD recently visited the Treptow-Koepenick borough of Berlin to walk around the Falkenberg Gartenstadt (Falkenberg Garden City) with new friend and historian of the everyday, Andreas. Falkenberg is comprised of three streets, Akazienhof, Am Falkenberg, and Gartenstadtweg, with 128 homes developed by the modernist architect Bruno Taut between 1913 and 1915.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD image.

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Originally planned to house 7,500 residents in 1,500 homes the estate’s construction was prematurely terminated at the start of World War I.

This is the first in a series of accompanied walks we intend to make over the next few years, in a variety of places, but focusing more than anything on Salford UK. The format of these walks will be variable, some will have more or less structured routes, or be based around interviews, or pre-set schemes to record particular things or ask certain questions. IUD have been walking in a self aware or studious way, for many years now and occasionally created tours or collaborative walks. In this new phase we want to deepen our experience as practitioners in conjunction with more focused study of mobile research methods.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD Image.

A fine rain greets us at Grünau station. Andreas stops a woman to ask for directions to the Falkenberg estate, because she looked local, he tells us afterwards. The woman is in her 60’s and carrying a brown bag made of thick, oily looking imitation leather, that could double as both shopping and hand bag. Perhaps this is a false memory, an embellishment, as I hardly saw the woman. Still, details like the durability and dimensions of a bag used for daily errands, a style of coat, sturdiness of gait, the quality of gaze radiating from eyes of a particular age and so on, must have come together for Andreas to make this judgement.

The three streets of Falkenberg are not far away. We pass the regional savings bank, the book shop with a poster advertising Pasolini film screenings. In no time we reach a t-junction. In either direction the road is lined with sturdy homes. I seem to recall lots of mesh fences. To the right the colours intensify, orange, purple and so on.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. Close up from an external wall of a worker’s house. A lifelong painter Taut is distinguished from his contemporaries by his strong use of colour which helped give his work a sense of individulaity. IUD image.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. The estate later became known as Tuschkastensiedlung, the “Paint Box Estate” because of its strong use of colour. IUD Image.

But this is not Utopia, this is a bourgeois place! Andreas says this, or something like it. I have to agree that the place looks steadily middle class, settled and perhaps a little smug or maybe simply disinterested in others. I wonder if Andreas thinks we really expected to find Utopia at the end of a Berlin train line on a dreary morning in 2015? Perhaps we seem naïve, or idealistic? Delusional, even!

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Berlin, Germany; 2015. Factory workers in the early twentieth century often lived in small confined flats in in four or five storey-buildings tenement buildings. Their rooms were often dark as they were situated at the back of buildings. These privately owned flats were often without bathrooms. IUD Image.

As the colours intensify we are drawn to the cul-de-sac on our left by the presence of a sign-of the kind erected to alert tourists to the presence of ‘heritage’. As we try to get our bearings…I am looking at a sign in the window of one of the houses that says “Alex’s house”, flower pots and ornaments, decomposing garden string, a decorative windmill, a handwritten notice telling anyone who needs to know to: “knock around the other side”…and the rain is getting heavier… I am thinking we will need to take shelter as a man walks towards us along the narrow path bordered by garden fences. He is directing us along an even narrower path between back gardens and out-houses towards the rest of the Bruno Taut estate, and stops to talk to Andreas. I understand no more than one word in every sentence, and the conversation races ahead, without me, although I keep nodding encouragingly. As we make our way between the gardens, Andreas tells us that the man’s accent is a very strong and typical of Berlin. We learn that the man’s grandmother was one of the original inhabitants of the estate. The man recounts his Grandmother saying that Taut asked the workers what kind of environment they wanted to live in and they had replied that they didn’t want everything to be uniform, so Taut set some of the houses back from the others, varied dimensions, colours and so on. It is not clear from this whether the grandmother had this conversation with Taut herself or whether this was received history of how the estate came to be designed. We are curious to know more about this “consultation” process. What kind of occasions were they? Did Taut gather opinions in a meeting or did he speak to individuals? What kind of questions did he ask the workers? Did he return to present designs to them? What did Taut think of the estate as it matured etc etc?

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. Taut, a strong believer in the Garden City movement, wanted to provide workers with gardens. That way they could enjoy the sunlight, fresh air and outdoor space and be in part self-sufficient by growing their own food. IUD Image.

We are walking between the overwintering back gardens and the diminutive outbuildings. A glimpse of allotments to our left, a fruit tree in a rectangle of grass which is blotched with mole excavations, then a pause to look at a barbeque. Andreas tells us this design is a product of the ‘second shift’ during socialism-when workers were permitted, or maybe their actions were purposefully overlooked-to use materials and tools in the workplace to create things for themselves. The second shift bbq has a single leg from which a sort of metal hood funnels outwards and sturdy handles.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD Image.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD Image.

We emerge onto Gartenstadtweg, which curves up on our left. Here the Taut estate terminates on the crest of a hill, where a sign announces the arrival of a new development. Andreas thinks homes here will be sought after by people escaping the density of Berlin.He also points out the roof windows, a particular feature of Taut’s design, which intended the loft spaces to be used for drying and airing clothing and household textiles. A single row of Taut houses flanks either side of Gartenstadtweg. They are smokey-black with red and white window frames; deep orange-on the vibrant side of terracotta; aquamarine tinged with fresh lime. There is also a pulsating poster blue house- this ‘Taut Blue’ cuts through the drab day with a violence that takes your breath away. It seems possible to achieve this depth of colour only by the application of multiple layers of pure pigment.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD Image.

We stand around talking and John takes photographs. An unwanted blue office chair has been left out on the street. The blue of the chair looks obvious and inadequate by comparison to the Taut Blue house on the rise behind it. We keep stepping into the path of the postman’s bike as it careers down the hill. It’s time to go looking for lunch, coffee.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. GDR garages. IUD Image.

In his work The City Crown (1919) Taut argues that the role and function of architecture is perceived in too narrow a way. “To view architecture as nothing more than nicely designed functional forms or as ornamental wrappings around our essential needs is to assign it to the role of a craft and places too little value on its importance [in our lives]”. For Taut architectural forms need not only be functional but also connect with the imaginative, cultural and creative in order to “to increase the enjoyment of life”.

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Berlin, Germany: 2015. IUD Image.

Taut reminds us to decouple ‘utopia’ from the utterly fantastic and unattainable. His version of social dreaming attempts to use creative and technological innovations together as the basis for a reformed humane, everyday and possible urbanism. Walking on the estate makes it possible to consider the traces of an early vision of social housing, not the monotonous grey concrete monocultures of identical architectural forms but an architecture of hope, playfulness and colour.

We formed IUD in part because of what we felt was the necessity to visualize new alternatives, alongside exploring past experiments in alternative dwelling. On the train back to Berlin, we talk about the way walking around the housing estate is an encounter with the synchronic quality of lived space. Walking also produces this materiality, as we discover it, there. We experience the volume (both all encompassing size and cacophony would apply here) of everything all at once. Maybe our task is to untangle all this? Or perhaps we need to evolve a different way of accounting for material co-existence, such as the amalgam of hope with its apparent absence.

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