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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Berlin Wants to Freeze Rents for 5 Years. Can It Really Do That?

Berlin’s planned five-year rent freeze might be popular among locals, but the city may have trouble navigating a legal minefield to protect the law when it takes effect in January.

That much was confirmed Saturday when newspaper Berliner Morgenpost dropped a bombshell by publishing emails from Germany’s interior ministry to the Berlin head of Angela Merkel’s CDU party. In those emails, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed his belief that the rent freeze is illegal, as it would “distort” national laws.

In a relatively inexpensive city whose housing sector is dominated by rental units— 80 percent of residents rent their homes—the plan has found broad support. The law, approved in October, caps rent increases at 1.3 percent per year (to account for inflation) for all homes built before 2013, while owners of newer homes, including those recently built and buildings planned for the future, are able to raise rents as they see fit.

The minister’s objections paint the issue as a turf war between national and regional powers. The rent freeze won’t fly, Seehofer says, because it would mean the State of Berlin overstepping its jurisdiction under Germany’s constitution. Federal legislators make Germany’s real estate laws on a national level, and a decision confined to only the State of Berlin could risk distorting that national legislation.

The rent freeze, Seehofer’s October 31 email says, would unfairly ban landlords from factoring rising maintenance costs into the rates they charge tenants. What’s more, while rents for new contracts have been galloping higher in the city, not every Berlin landlord has raised their rents to the maximum level. This group would now be prevented from raising rents even though their tenants are now paying substantially below-market rates.

These objections are a problem for the State of Berlin. They aren’t necessarily a nail in the law’s coffin, however, because the national government doesn’t itself decide the law’s legality—and as a body dominated by the right-wing CDU, it tends by default to look askance at policies forged by Berlin’s ruling center-left coalition. Furthermore, as CityLab previously reported, these issues were not entirely unforeseen. Any ruling would be up to the courts if (or, more likely, when) landlords legally challenge the law.

Seehofer’s emails are, nonetheless, a warning sign that courts might rule in landlords’ favor, and will certainly heat up a debate over the law, against which the backlash is particularly fierce. This month, a developer withdrew from a project to build 900 new apartments on the edge of the city, citing the rent freeze. These apartments would not have been subject to the freeze, but the developer claims that rent freezes at its other properties would reduce the amount of cash it had for further investments, and thus make the development unviable. Sections of the media have also gone on the attack. A representative of the center-right party FDP, writing in the business publication Handelsblatt, recently damned the law as an example of “German envy culture,” motivated more by a vindictive attitude toward wealth than a desire to improve market conditions. Others have accused the city of trying to “rebuild the wall.”

That view is not going unchallenged. As an article in left-leaning newspaper Tageszeitung points out, the abuses the law seeks to remedy are real enough. It cites as an example the Swedish landlord company Akelius, which has relied on the legal loophole of  “modernization” as a justification for hiking rents on its 14,000 Berlin apartments. These rent increases can happen even if the actual quality of the supposed modernizations is poor and does nothing to improve living conditions. Meanwhile, other sections of the business media are asking if, rather than being an example of Berlin radicalism, the city’s new laws might become a template for action across Germany.

The debate isn’t over, and it may just be heating up. For now, Berliners are left in a curious position. They can’t be certain that the rent freeze will genuinely make the city more livable. They also can’t be certain, at this point, that it will come into force at all.

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Inside the Controversy Over Rebuilding an Iconic Berlin Store

For city-watchers, there’s something very familiar about the current development debate going on around Berlin’s Hermannplatz. The square, a busy shopping and transit hub in a fast-gentrifying working-class neighborhood, has caught the eye of developers. The Austrian real-estate group Signa Holdings—which also co-bought New York’s Chrysler Building earlier this year—wants to expand a long-established department store it owns there into a shopping mall, creating the usual burst of jobs and economic activity. Many locals are skeptical about the project, fearing it will increase already-rocketing residential rents nearby and cause congestion.

These conditions may ring a bell from other development fights, but the one currently taking place in Hermannplatz has a unique twist. The mall would not be, strictly speaking, an entirely new building. It would in fact be a recreation of a lost building—a Modernist icon of interwar Berlin, last seen intact in 1945.

That lost building was a branch of the (still-trading) Karstadt department-store chain. One of the most unusual and striking retail buildings constructed in early-20th-century Europe, the store might now be resurrected to a new design by David Chipperfield Architects that very closely resembles the original.

Berlin is no stranger to major historic-reconstruction projects. Right now, it is midway through a rebuilding of its vast, war-damaged City Palace, the former seat of Germany’s Kaisers. Karstadt Hermannplatz nonetheless stands out because it is not some old baroque pile, but a less-than-100-year-old work of Modernism. An ostentatious, unapologetically commercial Modernism at that.

Currently, the plan is in deadlock, albeit far from dead. The local  borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, controlled by a left-leaning coalition headed by the Green Party, has said no to the initial proposal, but the developer is going on a charm offensive, promising to adapt the project to better suit official advice and to deliver not just the usual retail chains, but a genuine mixed-use space with local social assets. And with millions of euros to invest, Signa may ultimately prove difficult for the borough to resist. But is the plan a good idea?

Aesthetically, the building would certainly be a reminder of the forward-looking glamour of Weimar-era Berlin, a period that features heavily in the city’s self-mythology but whose landmarks were largely swept away by the war. Completed in 1929 to a design by Philipp Schaefer, the original Karstadt Hermannplatz was a wonderfully ornate building. Capped by stepped, bunny-ear towers and grooved with proportion-stretching vertical limestone ribs, the store was less reminiscent of Bauhaus influence than of the glossy American Art Deco stylings of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Uniquely for Berlin at the time, the store had a direct entry from the subway (something the current building on the site retains), plus 21 escalators and 20 elevators to whisk customers up to its panoramic roof garden.

Looming above an area of grimy proletarian tenements, this condensed skyscraper must have seemed dazzling, almost hallucinatory, when it first appeared. When the SS dynamited the building’s cellar in April 1945, to prevent its supplies falling to the swiftly approaching Red Army, Berlin lost something unique. After this destruction, just one façade of the gutted hulk remained. It was substantially rebuilt on fewer floors, but still as a Karstadt store, in the 1950s and 1970s, and became essentially unrecognizable.

If someone is to resurrect this old monument, then Britain’s David Chipperfield might be the best person to do so. His practice has made a specialty out of the skillful rethinking of historic landmarks, including the new James Simon Gallery, which provides an austerely beautiful entrance for Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island without any hint of architectural cosplay. Sure enough, Chipperfield’s preliminary renderings of the new Karstadt Hermannplatz look both faithful to the original and rather delightful.

There is, however, a major “but.” The new store’s site isn’t just anywhere in Berlin. It is in the neighborhood at the heart of the most intense gentrification spurt in the city, whose influence has spread to pretty much everything. Lying on the boundary of the boroughs of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Hermannplatz’s backyard is an ultra-dense district of pre-World War One tenements that was a former stronghold of Berlin’s working class. Now highly desirable, its rents have been galloping ever higher, making it the site of numerous public fights over displacement, both of people and of businesses.

How Karstadt Hermannplatz’s roof terrace might appear after construction. (Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects)

Much of the pushback has come from the borough itself (Berlin is divided into 12 boroughs). To maintain some level of affordability in the area, the borough is employing discretionary powers to cool the market down and keep existing residents in place, buying up buildings at risk of steep rent increases to become public housing and making new landlords sign no-rent-hike agreements on many other tenements.

This backdrop is relevant to the Karstadt project because the borough worries it will spur further displacement. This is, after all, the same neighborhood where Google withdrew plans for a campus after a local backlash. In an area heavily marketed to international real-estate investors, any major plans are eyed with justified suspicion.

The Chipperfield-designed building might be spectacular, but since renovation costs would be high, the rents for the commercial units inside would be as well, fear borough leaders. Not only does that imply the development would be of limited use to lower-income locals, it also risks making the building a honeypot for businesses catering to wealthy incomers. This would perhaps give them more reason than before to move to the area, adding pressure to rents the borough is striving to keep under control. Add to that the added congestion caused by a retail cluster the size of which the area hasn’t seen for over 75 years, and some of the shine comes off it.

Given the project’s support from Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, and the developer’s promises to be flexible, the reconstruction may well see the light of day in some altered form. Turning down this level of investment might seem insane when viewed from the outside, but the borough may be right to block the plan now, if only to get something with more obvious social utility. Cities aren’t just backdrops for arresting architectural set pieces. They are living, breathing organisms whose balance needs to be maintained if residents’ needs are going to be met. For now, it’s understandable that the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg doesn’t see this magnificent but potentially disbalancing development as the kind of oxygen its citizens need.

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