The Nazis hated this. A whole housing estate built in Berlin in the 1920s, in the brand-new modernist style, and the clientele wasn't even the aesthetic avant-garde. These were homes for the working class.
But they were un-German. Flat roofs, instead of the folk-style pitched roofs of Bavarian villages.
The Nazis recognised the flat roofs as Mediterranean, therefore Arabic, therefore mostly likely Jewish. I know, don't ask. That's now racism works when you're trying to create a master race and socialist architects come along to mock you.
The architects in question were Martin Wagner, head of the GEHAG building society, set up by trade unions in 1924, and Bruno Taut, a socialist and utopian architect who had a thing for colour.
The roofs weren't the most radical thing about this estate. It's called Hufeisensiedlung, the Horseshoe Estate, because its main building is a single contiguous row of three-storey homes, built in the shape of a massive horseshoe.
A wide flight of steps at the open end leads down into a park: a shared public space with trees, gardens, lawns and a pool in the middle. The apartments all feature large recessed balconies, looking over the park. Other apartment blocks in a more conventional terraced style stand nearby. There wasn't much money for construction, so Taut did a lot with colour: in the balconies, the trim on the buildings, the doors, the entire facades of some of the buildings. There's greenery everywhere.
The Horseshoe Estate caused a furious debate: it was socialist, modernist and working-class, while its enemies were conservative, traditional and middle-class.
It offered members of trade unions decent homes, with communal relations with neighbours, close to the city. A model of density and beauty, an abundance of nature, an abundance of homes and a great sense of community, styled with the clean harmonies of modernist design. "Light, air and sun for all" was the motto.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
When you live so close to everyone, around a central park, as one commentator has observed, your home is an expression of social possibility. These days, we call this "perimeter block" housing.
By the time the Nazis came to power, in 1933, Taut and Wagner had built four more major projects along similar lines and Wagner had become a Berlin town planner. He promptly lost his job; Taut fled the country.
Hufeisensiedlung has long been regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture and in 2008 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site. It's still fully occupied by families, singles, couples and seniors, as it always has been. Few new tenants arrive, because few leave. Many of the original 1920s residents lived their whole lives there.
New housing doesn't have to be a compromise and it doesn't have to be expensive to be good. Poorer people don't have to be pushed out. Old houses and old styles of houses aren't the only buildings with value. When you want to do something different, there will be complaints. Doesn't mean it's wrong.
Design for Living appears weekly in Canvas magazine.