Unité Berlin: Social housing in demographic change and the acceptance of modern architectural icons
a guest contribution by Philipp Funke
Among architects, the Unité d'Habitation represents a milestone in architectural thinking. For many, however, the reason for this is not apparent. They do not like the gray concrete, the size of the building, the fact that 530 apartments were housed in a single block. Examining the original function in the temporal context of the genesis is a key step to be able to understand things better. Why is the building still considered today an outstanding example of social housing? How has construction evolved over the past 60 years, why is its present use far from its original purpose and why is that – at least from an architectural point of view – not only bad?
If one stands precariously in front of one of Le Corbusier's ‹living machines›, without background knowledge, without design education, without knowledge of the architect's intentions and the ‹Zeitgeist› of the genesis, the reason for its assessment as one of the most important residential buildings of the modern age is not necessarily apparent. A monstrous concrete volume piles up in front of you. Admittedly, the colour applications break through the monotonous concrete gray – nevertheless, the over 500 residential units comprehensive cuboid (in Berlin) has nothing to do with the usual dreamhouse. Prof. Jonas Geist defined this dream in one of my first lectures in architectural history, describing it as «a single family house around which one can walk around, with a garden and without the possibility of neighbors looking over the fenc». The craftsman whom I met on my last visit to the Unité Berlin told me how unconceivable the idea to live in such a block was for him. He lives in a house on Müggelsee and prefers to spend an hour more to get to work every day than having to live like this. However, the Unité d'habitation was never intended to conglomerate condominiums as it is today. It was based on the idea of a new type of living, a social environment and a vision of living together.
Ms. Goldmann has been living in the Unité since 1998 and implements cultural projects under the umbrella of the condominium association. Speaking of the appearance, she tells me: «Especially the roads (as the access corridors are called) often trigger unpleasant feelings because of their length and the repetition of the doors.» The colours break the monotonous image and create a recognition value. Nevertheless, the optical homogeneity that promotes social equality quickly leads to associations that are the opposite of comfortable living. So where is the genius in Le Corbusier's design?
The ‹living machine› in Berlin was built in the frame of the Interbau 1957. After World War II, the city was still largely in ruins. In the Hansaviertel next to the Tiergarten, a urban concept was developed, which in many ways inspired the Charter of Athens (1933). Modern, urban living was defined by a mix of offices, apartments, shops, businesses, schools and green spaces in the same district. In addition to that, it was important to maintain to socially acceptable price structures. The economic miracle was still at its premises and many people were far from having recovered from the losses of the war yet. For many people, social housing was the only way to relate to the needs of appropriate housing. Le Corbusier, who was already in charge of drafting the Athens Charter, also became part of Interbau 57. His Unité d'Habitation included – in one single building – everything that modern city planning and architecture used to provide for a whole neighborhood. The dimensions of the large volume made a placement in the Hansaviertel impossible and Le Corbusier felt that the Olympic Stadium, because of its proportions, was suitable to fit the neighborhood of its construction. Thus, the Heilsberger triangle was chosen as the scene for the establishment.
Similar to the Unité in Marseille, the Berlin counterpart was to receive predominantly family apartments with 3 rooms. The Berlin building administration defined the need differently because the war had left many widows and childless couples. The apartment structure of the house therefore had to be adjusted accordingly. Even if the shopping street was mainly turned into one-room apartments and doctors offices and bureaus serve as living spaces today, the spatial structures have remained the same, with few adaptations to this day. What has changed though, at least in part, is the social structure of the residents.
The investor group ‹Neues Heilsberger Dreieck› made the completion possible in 1958. Those interested had to apply for the subsidized apartments. As usual at that time, unmarried couples barely had a chance to be in the final list. The apartments were popular and were rented within short time. The new floor plans, which are reminiscent of stacked terraced houses, enabled contemporary living with all necessary infrastructure in the immediate vicinity. A luxury many others who were living away from the new IBA buildings didn’t have access to. In the sense of social housing, some people managed to create attractive living conditions.
In the 1960s, the entire building was sold to the Berlin film producer Ilse Kubaschewski. The apartments were still rented until 1979, when Willi Bendzko acquired the building for 25.6 million marks. Kubaschewski's profit of around 24.6 million (purchase price was around DM 1 million) was to be recovered by Bendzko, branded as a ‹speculator›, by converting the units into condominiums1. The social purpose underlying the draft was not of any interest to Bendzko. In his mind, the rents were too low, just considering the upcoming renovation needs. Residents of middle class followed the purchase offer, but part of the (rather low-income) tenants had to leave the house. The 530 residential units are currently owned by approximately 430 owners, more than half of them living in the house themselves.
Today, the rental price for the apartments still on the market generally amounts more than the rent index calculated by the senate. There are no subsidies as it was formerly the case in social housing and the apartments that are often equipped with design classics rarely match the image of social housing in the post-war period. Demand for the acquisition is still high as the still perfectly usable floor plans are particularly appealing to those with a penchant for modern design. In addition, the possession of a ’Corbusierwohnung’, at least in these circles, also stands for a certain status.
We should analyse both sides of this whole process. On the one hand, it can not be denied that the way in which the Corbusierhaus is today partly marketed no longer corresponds to the basic social idea of its origin. This is also the case in many other buildings of both the Interbau 1957 and the 1984 and 1987 International Building Exhibitions (IBA). On the other hand, it is propably exactly the conversion to condominiums that generates the financial means to maintain the building in its present state. The inclusion on the list of monuments of the Land of Berlin in 1995 also contributed to the protection of the building. The appreciation of architectural icons must be accompanied by appropriate financial means for their permanence.
I can only guess at this point, but I believe it has been hard to understand the craftsman of Müggelsee when the moment came to invest tax money to maintain such a type of building. Therefore, I am glad to see that a design and art affine community is preserving the cultural heritage of the 50s to 70s. In addition, it shows how flexible the usability of Corbusier's work is – even 61 years after the building’s opening.
©Les Couleurs Suisse AG
1 Source: Karl Christian Führer – Die Stadt, das Geld und der Markt, 2016, Walter de Gruyter GmbH
(Ms. Goldmann is a certified media pedagogue and freelance photographer. Thank you very much for the conversation that took place on February 17, 2019. She is the owner of one of the apartments with the original form and manages the website: www.corbusierhaus.org)