Why do mid-rise tenements dominate Berlin? The Mietskaserne, or “rental barracks,” have shaped the city’s culture and its counterculture.

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 here.

Berlin’s older residential districts could scarcely be laid out more differently than those in London. Whereas residential inner London typically consists of low-rise houses built on shallow plots, Berlin’s older homes are tall, hefty tenements divided into apartments, lining streets like canyon walls and concealing behind their often elaborate facades deep complexes of courtyards that stretch far back.

These tenements—long reviled but now intensely sought after—bear the distinctive name of Mietskasernen, or “rental barracks,” and have over the years done much to shape both Berlin’s culture and its counterculture.

(Josh Kramer)

The typical Mietskaserne might feature equally-sized rooms grouped variously as a square, an oblong, or an L-shape around a corridor, with one room typically now split into a bathroom and kitchen (to make up for the building’s previous sanitary shortcomings).

Spacious and plain, with rooms that can suit many purposes, the apartments are essentially a blank slate. That is further enforced by the German habit of renting apartments completely unfurnished for open-ended leases that can last decades. Under these bare-bones but secure conditions, it’s not uncommon for renters of such apartments to install their own kitchen when they move in, and then remove it when (or rather if) they leave.

The tenements were thrown up with incredible speed mainly in the period between German unification (1871) and the First World War. After the old kingdom of Prussia, with Berlin as its capital, became the center of the newly formed country, urban industry boomed, luring hundreds of thousands of migrants. They arrived in a city whose shape and character had been pre-shaped by an overarching plan.

When the still modestly-sized city demolished its enveloping customs wall in 1861, it commissioned a master plan by planning czar James Hobrecht that ordained the city’s future expansion along broad radial avenues linked by ring roads. Building heights within this new plan were capped, and Hobrecht advocated lining street frontages with middle and upper class housing. What was built behind that, however, was left largely unregulated. Courtyards big enough to allow fire-engine access were deemed necessary. Otherwise, developers took the opportunity to pack in as many apartments as possible, struggling to meet demand in a city whose population quadrupled in the second half of the nineteenth century.

As a result of this pile-’em-high scrabble, the Mietskasernen were criticized as miserably overcrowded, dingy places. They were, the mythology went, filled with poor recent arrivals from the countryside who, thanks partly to their living conditions, were not uncommonly rickets-ridden and tubercular. This image was of course simplistic—many relatively lavish buildings of this type were also built in richer areas—but the buildings’ arrangement and apartment floor plans did tend to mean their poorer residents got worse light and sanitation.

Built to a height of five or six stories, the tenements did have spacious, light-filled apartments overlooking the street, sheltered behind often elaborate facades encrusted with factory-made plaster decorations. To pass through the main archway into the courtyard behind, however, was to enter a starker, more utilitarian space, one even now more likely to house communal trash cans than trees or flowers.

These tenements in East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district gained balconies during a luxury renovation, a controversial trend many Berliners fear is being used to drive out lower-income tenants. (Getty)

The further back and higher you went back in these complexes (many had two or three successive courtyards), the worse conditions got for early residents, with toilets shared among a whole floor. In some areas of the city, the tenements also contained artisan workshops towards the back. Developing a reputation for dinginess, the Hinterhof (back court) became an icon of Berlin poverty, celebrated in songs and paintings both as the heart and the bane of the city’s working-class life, busy with brawls and and organ grinders, damp and sooty.

Given this bleak depiction, it might seem odd that these buildings have now emerged as places where Berliners clamor and pay high prices to live. So what changed?

According to Brian Ladd, an urban historian at the State University of New York and writer of the forthcoming book The Streets of Europe, 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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