Constructed between 1929 and 1931 to house the 60,000 workers employed in the Siemens factory, the Siemansstadt housing estate is located in the Berlin suburbs of Spandau and Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Working to the masterplan by Hans Scharoun, a number of the world’s most innovative architects of the time, including Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, Hugo Häring and Paul Henning, came together in a collaborative project that produced a highly successful and varied set of buildings and communal spaces. Unlike the nearby Hansaviertel, built between 1957-61 as a show-case of Western modernism with little or no social ambitions, the Siemansstadt estate was designed as a not-for-profit working community, and still thrives as one today.
One of six modernist housing estates located around Berlin that are recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the residential neighbourhood accommodates a number of commercial and communal facilities, including restaurants, shops and laundrettes in the ground floors of the blocks, as well as the seemingly effortlessly simple but beautiful landscaping and trees by Lerberecht Migge.
The estate represents a turning point in urban thinking – from low-rise garden city projects with individual gardens, to high-density and more communal and collective forms of living. The collaborative nature of the design team resulted in a masterplan that gave equal importance to the spaces between the buildings as to the buildings themselves. Although clearly revolutionary, the buildings were designed in the service of the residents, and not competitively jostling for attention in their desire for novelty – like the Hansaviertel estate and so much of contemporary architecture.
The UNESCO heritage area extends only to cover the buildings from the early period, but as we walked around the estate we found ourselves exploring beyond and into a set of further housing estates that clearly came from a later period. As it turned out, these were also by Hans Scharoun, but from the 1950s, constructed before the Berlin Philharmonie (also by Scharoun) and clearly from the same thinking. I was struck above all by the relationship of the buildings to the landscape, which gave much of the estate an almost rural or wooded setting. The masterplan was excellent, as were the designs for the individual buildings; but what impressed me most was how much care and consideration had gone into the maintenance of the buildings and landscape – something which, once again, distinguishes them from the neglect and managed decline of housing estates in the UK. Siemansstadt demonstrates that modernist housing estates are anything but come to the end of their lifespan – as we are constantly told by councillors, developers and architects intent on their demolition and redevelopment; and that with the maintenance, refurbishment and investment that any building requires, they can continue to serve for decades to come as the low-cost, high-quality, publicly-owned housing the UK so desperately needs.
Architects for Social Housing