22 May 2014

Berlin, Baugruppen & Mental Walls

Will we survive the impending anniversary of World War One? Can I stand any more of Michael Gove’s lectures on patriotism, Dan Snow poncing about in old army uniforms, VAD romances on the telly and Niall Ferguson’s flights of historical fancy? One of the best places to go to really appreciate the import of WW1 is Berlin. Here in 1914 was imperial bluster to match Edwardian England but also economic and technical dynamism to rival Chicago. The consequences of defeat were both devastating and liberating; a flowering of arts and architecture before the horrors of Nazism, almost unimaginable destruction, the brutality of Stalinism and then global capitalism’s ‘end of history’. Berlin is awash with British school parties ‘doing’ Hitler but of course the broader lessons of this history is what Little England seems so determined not to learn.

The end of history at Potsdamer Platz (it's a bit empty)

Radio HQ from the the Weimar years (a Maccreanor Lavington favourite)

Berlin is not an easy city to understand, especially from a few short visits. It is a big city but its infrastructure is intended for a much larger population than the current 3.5 million people, less than half that of London or Paris which it used to rival. In places it seems strangely empty, cars racing along wide boulevards whilst the few pedestrians wait for the green man who here wears a distinctive little hat, a cute bit of Ossie nostalgia. Greater Berlin was created in 1920 in an amalgamation of 12 separate boroughs. The Weimar years were exciting for architecture, much more of which survives than that of the brief Third Reich which was either bombed or deliberately exorcised like the bell tower of the Olympic Stadium. The arena itself survives as a modern venue, cold and chaste rather than chilling. The old city centre largely lay east of the Brandenburg Gate so after 1945 West Berlin had to duplicate most of the city’s institutions, creating a yet more polymorphic city.

The generous infrastructure - new Hauptbahnhof

Prenzlauer Berg - gentrification central

Berlin’s architectural monuments are not quite what they seem. Bomber Harris and Red Army shelling destroyed 70% of the city and most buildings were massively damaged. This is obvious and explicit in, for example, Foster’s masterful re-building of the Reichstag and Chipperfield’s utterly extraordinarily brilliant and moving re–imagining of the Neues Museum. But much of Schinkel’s shattered legacy was just quietly reconstructed, as was the Schloss at Charlottenburg. The impact of WW2 and its aftermath is overwhelming and everywhere apparent, but is also very matter of fact; this is just how it was. The theatrically retained ‘hollow tooth’ of the bombed spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is unusual and seems slightly hysterical. The city mostly rebuilt itself pragmatically, not through the hidden hand of the market, but by huge and countervailing political wills. In doing so it became a very different place from its former self or from the rest of Germany. The GDR undertook massive housing redevelopments like Karl Marx Allee but invested nothing in maintenance of older areas which had largely survived bombing, like Prenzlauer Berg. By 1989 half the older properties were vacant. Even before the fall of the wall the authorities had begun to focus on renovation and there was pressure from artists and liberals for city centre housing. A squatter culture developed, first in West Berlin in 1979-82, and then in East Berlin after the fall of the wall. Although both movements were suppressed they established a culture and image of the city. The expected boom post the 1990 re-unification and the re-establishment of Berlin as Germany’s capital did not happen. Instead we got Bohemian Berlin, cheap and easy going and so unlike other German cities. But West Berlin still drips affluence. Potsdamer Platz shows the teeth of aggressive capitalism and formerly Ossie alternative Prenzlauer Berg has transmogrified into gentrification central.

The 12 year Reich (1936 Olympic Stadium)

Crazy mixed up place

The 1,000 year Reich lasted only a dozen years, less than the Weimar Republic. 1945 was Year Zero and the division into east and west seemed immutable, although the city remained permeable until 1961. The wall existed for 28 years. It has been dismantled for nearly as long but is still the enduring symbol of the city. The remnants seem remarkably flimsy; it was machine guns that made it effective. Mostly quickly destroyed, what remains of the wall and its death strip is now either fetishised as living history (and actually very moving memorials) or is being redeveloped for glitzy yuppie apartments. Berlin is a crazy mixed up place.

'Doing Hitler' - the popular beginning of history at the Reichstag

A whole generation has grown up since the fall of the wall, but the triumph of neo-conservatism proved more problematic than the ‘end of history’ anticipated. Agata Pyzik in her fascinating ‘Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West’ explores the tensions and contradictions embedded in the whole concept of western ‘normality’ and the expectations that the east should or can conform to this. Berlin represents in a sense a privileged version of the tensions of eastern bloc countries like Poland, sheltered by the strength and power of the Federal Republic from the full cultural and economic shock of privitisation and de-industrialisation. It is the capital again but remains peripheral to the economic, financial and real political power of West Germany, still clinging to an exceptional status.

Spartacist uprising memorial - the alternative history is a lesson for us all

The ‘alternative’ pedigree of Berlin back to Wilhelmine Germany and the Weimar Republic, but post war is a culture grown in the laboratory of the strange half life of a semi de-populated city with its vacant tenements and factories and wilderness plots, vividly evoked in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Here left wing alternative politics meets financial institutions which see their role as enablers of social and economic objectives – a concept unimaginable in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is why Berlin is a poster-boy for the Baugruppen model of collective custom build housing.

Ideological and belligerent - Wilford's rented British Embassy 

Britischer Architekt - Chipperfield's magnificent Neues Museum

In Blighty an intellectually impoverished, ideologically obsessed and consequently delivery-impotent government thrashes around in the morass of its housing failures. Bandwagons, gimmicks, sound-bites and scapegoats are the order of the day. How to deflect scrutiny from the government’s dismal failure over – everything really, but especially housing policy and especially the lack of social and affordable housing? Boles invents a ‘right to build’ as useful flak to draw enemy fire. Which is a shrewd move as custom build is seductively libertarian and appeals across a wide spectrum. In fact it is such a good idea it deserves to be taken seriously not treated as a gimmick. And of course the government can't resist casting local authorities as a phantom enemy with a new ‘right to sue’, which is extraordinarily disingenuous even by the standards of the Coalition. In fact it is more often local authorities who champion collective custom build, as in Lewisham, Bristol and many other places. Meanwhile the government’s own Homes and Communities Agency support is not even lukewarm.

But will the neo-liberal wall ever come down?

But local authorities actually control very little development land – is the point. It would be far more effective to require big house building companies to deliver a small proportion of their land holdings for custom build, but that is not going to happen is it. The lack of public control over housing land is a fundamental problem for delivery not just of custom build but of all affordable housing and the pre-conditions which make self (or custom) build successful in Holland or Germany don’t exist in England because of, err, Tory ideology - as Andrew Lainton explains. There are some welcome bits in Osborne’s budget package like funding for ‘up to’ 10,000 serviced plots for custom build. But – do the math – this is small beer in the context of the overall shortfall of house building and the collapse of affordable housing supply. And it is such a characteristically bizarre and anti-democratic idea that you empower local people by encouraging complex ad hoc ‘community’ arrangements and at the same time disempowering their elected local authorities.

Ok Britain, this is how co-housing works (Spreefeld)

The Baugruppen model does have a lot to teach us if we are willing to learn the real lessons. A recent study tour to Berlin organized by Sam Brown of the University of Sheffield and Ash Sakula proved very instructive. There housing co-operatives provide about 10% of the housing stock and 10% of new build, which is astonishing and impressive. Historically land and rents were very cheap in Berlin and there are rent controls. But both land costs and rents are rising fast, although still only a fraction of the absurd London values. However this is a big problem for the co-operative housing movement. In particular, Berlin is saddled with €60bn debts from the post unification binge and so the cash strapped local authority is no longer able to provide cheap land.

We've got plenty of this is in Britain - tick

There are about 200 Baugruppen projects in Berlin, representing about a tenth of new co-operative housing provision – a small but significant part of the city’s housing mix. Some of these projects have very strong communitarian ethics, owing much to Boho Berlin and the philosophy of the earlier squatter movement. The Spreefeld Genossenschaft project is in the Kreutzberg area which, according to the Rough Guide, is a magnet for left-wing anarchists, gays, Turkish immigrants, hipsters and tourists. It certainly takes itself very seriously. The development is on a backland site next to the River Spree looking out towards the East Side Gallery section of the Wall with its rich political symbolism. It adjoins a disconcertingly well organised colony of hippies in yurts.

The community room is not quite ready yet (Spreefeld)

Spreefeld Genossenschaft is a co-operative with about 120 members, mainly middle class with quite a lot of older people but there are also many people with children. The development consists of three blocks of flats, each designed by a different small architectural practice, although externally they look very similar. The ground floors will be for various communal uses or workshops. There are about 60 flats in total and each block has a slightly different tenure structure, from essentially conventional to providing significant communal living, including shared kitchens and living rooms. Managing the different requirements/specifications for individual flats and blocks is very complex and time consuming so there are sub groups of about 10 flats/20 people. A core group manages the project.

Spreefeld interior 

Funding is via a public ethical bank which supports sustainable housing; experience shows that ‘Baugruppen’ housing has a very low default rate and banks are happy with this kind of project, so different from the British experience. It is a shared ownership scheme with a maximum 50% ownership and this share cannot be used for speculation. If co-op members leave, the value of the share is assessed independently and repayment can be up to 2 years, allowing time for another acceptable co-op member to be recruited. This could not be more different from the acquisitive ‘housing ladder’ model beloved of Britain’s right wing press.

The generous and utilitarian balconies 

The overall budget is €17m, but it is not really clear what comparative costs are, partly because of the variety of units and the complex menu of works. Land is much cheaper than in Britain, especially London, and is said to represent only about 20% of overall costs. The average flat has 60 m2. with pro rata 30 m2 of communal space. It is claimed that there are savings of 15-20% by taking out risk and developer profit, but the bespoke nature of so much work must push up costs. The shell is built to Passivhaus standards. Internally finishes are very basic and the structural layout allows maximum flexibility, although kitchens/bathrooms are in service stacks. The flats we saw were satisfyingly minimalist with concrete walls, few partitions and very basic fittings, an ethic and lifestyle that evidently appeals. Self fitting out can potentially reduce overall project costs significantly. There is a small communal heating plant and the development is car free but belongs to an electric car club and has 200 bike spaces.

The R50 Project - probably the most successful 

Spreefeld Genossenschaft is undoubtedly impressive but the unusual nature of its communal requirements makes delivery of this project especially challenging. Distant memories of shared student flats made it hard for me to buy into the idealism. A fascinating exposition by a founder member of one of Berlin’s few surviving ‘legal squats’ from 1989 ended with the admission that he left over arguments about who had eaten whose breakfast. But Baugruppen projects are usually more straightforward. The R50 project also in Kreutzberg seems to offer a more practical, replicable approach. This provides 19 flats ranging from 70 to 130 m2 and is explicitly about cheap build and flexible space. The exterior looks very basic with plywood cladding, galvanised metal balconies and mesh and would probably struggle with British planning. Internally the spaces are well considered and attractive. The interior exhibits a strong industrial ethic which is celebrated by some (mostly architect) residents although others go for much more conventional finishes. The project incorporates 25% of the overall floorspace in communal spaces – a lounge/meeting room in the semi-basement, laundry, bike storage and communal balconies and roof garden space. It is not clear how much the basic specification and self fit out have reduced overall costs but it seems a robust and businesslike project that the residents really enjoy and value.

Not always popular with the locals

Not all custom build schemes are so successful. Some looked like standard developer apartments and were apparently unpopular with existing communities in what is evidently the highly fractured politics of the area. One block was repeatedly vandalized and this was partly blamed on ‘insensitive’ design although other blocks looked fairly similar.

Living on a co-building site (Spreefeld)

Can the Baugruppen model be translated to the broken British housing market? Certainly such projects can provide a quality of space and community ambience which is very attractive to the cognoscenti. The greatest benefits of custom build seem to be the engagement of residents in the process from the outset, their ownership of the project in the widest sense and the ability to at least partly create the spaces they want rather than adapting to someone else’s idea of a dream home. The ‘I made that’ tag is hugely important, even if you almost certainly did not build it yourself. But I’m sceptical about the claims that custom build is cheaper. By stripping out developer profit there are clearly savings but volume house builders will have much lower costs in materials and supply chains whereas custom build usually ends up being expensively bespoke. So realistically you may expect to get a better house for the same cost, rather than a cheaper one. System building a standard shell may reduce costs and self-fitting-out can make the process more affordable and income-flexible, although it does require living in a semi-building site for an extended period, as at Spreefeld Genossenschaft.

The R50 entrance and bike storage

The two big problems for custom build are organisational complexity and land costs. Baugruppen schemes are inevitably going to be complex; it is in the very nature of the beast, a collective building project with many individualistic clients, usually idealistic and inexperienced. Project management has traditionally been led by architects but the German experience suggests that the different skills of a facilitator and enabler are required to see the project over a development timescale which can be 3 to 5 years. It is a long haul, and only the fully committed will succeed. Potentially ‘ethical’ or niche developers can bring experience, development skills and essential disciplines required to reduce costs and delivery times. The concept of shell and façade with customised and potentially literal self build behind is a seductive one, drawing on the successful Georgian tradition (Bath and Edinburgh for example). But there is a danger that commercialising custom build can reduce the concept to choosing the fancy dress for standard builders' products, as we saw in Almere.

The R50 community room is ready

The cost of housing land, and its availability, is the elephant in the collective custom build room and especially in London. Of course orthodox believers maintain the market would resolve this little problem if it weren’t for planning. And planning’s obsession with detail rather than overall structure is a problem for custom build which requires more flexibility than the standard developer products (which usually turn out to be dire despite the shed loads of planning conditions). Using planning to collect development tax rather than land tax is also a big issue for affordability, but the central problem is really planning's hopelessly emasculated powers vis-à-vis big landowners and developers. Thatcherite, Blairite and Bolesite housing policies over decades have privatised the enhanced land values as a result of planning permission, rather than captured this for the public benefit. We could adopt, for example, the Amsterdam model where land for development is acquired at existing use value by the public authority and publically commissioned masterplans form the basis of land disposal for appropriate developments. But hang on, that is what we used to do before the neo-con putsch, isn’t it? Well, sort of; that was the idea in the 1947 Planning Act but it was quickly compromised. The mechanisms are still there but the political will isn’t.

Well he's happy with the R50 interior and so am I

If land costs can be reduced and land made available through a planning system that really controls the release of land, then Baugruppen schemes will become much more realistic and deliverable. That would be great, but even in Berlin collective custom build only represents 1% of new housing. It can only therefore be a small subset of what is required to tackle the terrifying housing crisis facing Blighty. Public control over development land would be a game changer for all types of housing provision, but requires a counter-revolution in thinking – an escape from the fear and tyranny of the market God.

Pretty damn good - the Armoured Cruiser at Siemensstadt

Take your pick. High quality social housing abounds in Berlin

Berlin of course has seen dramatic political swings but what has survived remarkably well is the legacy of social housing from the Weimar era. Two World Heritage sites provide some of the best examples. The Siemensstadt Ring at Charlottenburg-Nord is an urban tour de force, part of a self contained industrial suburb around the huge functionalist Siemens factory complex with its chimneys deliberately evoking a traditional German Rathaus. The estate was designed by Gropius and others for low wage workers and built in 1929-31. The flats are small and standardised, laid out it long blocks, but with great subtlety and care. At the entrance to the estate is a moderne extravaganza known as the ‘armoured cruiser’, but most blocks are architecturally undramatic, just very well handled, with subtle curves deflecting their length and visual drama provided by arching over roads, all softened with parks and greenspace. Gropius’s apartments with their great modernist windows and roof terraces are much more striking, as are the nearby blocks with protruding curved balconies.

Britz, by Bruno Taut

Joyful - lets do more of this

Britz was a greenfield suburb designed by Bruno Taut and Otto Wagner in 1925 and completed in the annus horribilis 1933. This was a prototype for low cost construction to be affordable for working people and was designed around idealistic principles of community. The centerpiece is the Horseshoe of 1,000 flats, explicitly modern but with a very humane and neighbourly character. Dramatic use of colour enlivens the elevations and also spare details are made to count, like the attic windows and the brickwork of the entrance arches. Other blocks make dramatic uses of features like stairwells and balconies, creating strong geometric patterns. Behind the Horseshoe are terraces, almost garden city in inspiration but without the whimsy, and again making excellent use of colour and spare details. Traffic and parking are subservient, there are local shops, convenient U-bahn stations, gardens and public spaces are generous and everything seems well maintained. Britz is a pure joy, a re-affirmation of faith in collective action and society, a triumph of careful planning and design. And this was possible in the economically devastated Germany following defeat in WW1. Compare and contrast with the TINA defeatism of today.

Britz, but it could be Letchworth, or Aspley

Berlin has a lot to teach us, about history, about social housing and about custom building. The thing is that we often take from it only those things we want to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Weimar years were exciting for architecture, much more of which survives than that of the brief Third Reich..." Do you have a source for that? Because I know of 100+ examples of 1936-42 architecture in Berlin and the surrounding area that are still standing.