How Berlin’s Once-Reviled ‘Rental Barracks’ Became Coveted Urban Housing

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection , it was partly a reaction against the Modernism that came to dominate both the Eastern and Western sectors of postwar Berlin. Compared to the tidy, boxy flats of postwar developments, people felt “that these buildings were non-conformist and thus provided more opportunities for individual freedom and expression.”

That idea that these tenements, conceived as dormitories for industrial workers, promoted individualism came mainly from their neglect. Most citizens who could opt for better-equipped newer apartments did so, and division caused many to leave the city. So older neighborhoods where tenements had survived wartime bombing started to hollow out. Many Mietskasernen became available for squatting, attracting an alternative population of dropouts in the 1970s and ’80s. In West Berlin, they also attracted a mostly Turkish immigrant community that otherwise might have struggled to find affordable housing.

This was nonetheless not only a Western phenomenon. “East Berlin’s tenements in particular were totally neglected by the state’s centralized construction industry, one that was essentially incapable of renovation, even though it tried to change,” says Ladd. “So you had these terribly deteriorated buildings, with barely livable, officially abandoned apartments, and a dissident scene of people who wanted to disappear from sight—something that was sometimes accepted by the state and sometimes not, though the Stasi always knew. There was thus a more extreme dropout dissident scene that you get only in the East, which contributes to the enduring mythology of the Mietskaserne.”

By the 1990s, many East Berlin Mietskaserne were as derelict as this one in Prenzlauer Berg, pictured in 2008. (Cyril Iordansky/Reuters)

As these buildings were repopulated, their new occupants discovered something that had gone unnoticed. The apartments’ spaces were in fact generously sized and quite flexible. “Older buildings were built with less specific purposes in mind for the rooms,” says Ladd. “They are also a lot bigger than in Modernist blocks because the efficiency of Modernism meant that they could be smaller because they were so carefully designed—so the adaptability wasn’t there.”

People also started to fall back in love with the facades’ ornamentation, which could include anything from neoclassical pilasters under the roof to Art Nouveau masks over the doorway. So many buildings had been lost to wartime bombing that remaining courtyards got a little more light, due to repeated gaps in the urban fabric. And at street level, cheaply rented retail units were taken up for a myriad of community uses, from small shops to art spaces and informal bars, creating vibrant activity in the buildings and the streets they faced. By the end of the 1980s, architectural opinion had swung back in their favor, and Berlin was building neo-Mietskasernen that blended into older streets with ease.

The Mietskasernen still shape local ideas of what a desirable home is. It’s just as likely to mean high ceilings, polished wooden floors, and generously proportioned rooms as a house with a backyard and a private entrance. Post-reunification, these buildings have become increasingly expensive; some boroughs are even buying them to prevent new landlords from raising rents and displacing tenants.

Within the buildings, the hierarchy of spaces has changed. Increased noise from cars means that on major streets, the street-facing apartments are not always the most desirable, even if they are larger. Fancier Mietskasernen have had elevators installed, making upper floors more desirable. As a result there has been a boom in new penthouse apartments on top of them—modern, open-plan units with sweeping views, capping what were once working-class buildings.

Therein lies an ironic reversal. One-hundred years ago, living on the top floor of a Berlin tenement might have been something to hide, a sign of being so poor that you had to accept hauling your groceries and winter coal up six flights of stairs. Nowadays, if you concealed from casual inquirers that you live on a tenement’s top floor, it would  more likely be to avoid exposing yourself as a gentrifier.

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at the canal houses of Amsterdam.

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