Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Hans Kollhof makes the case that post-war Germany has produced nothing to match East Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee.
What Berlin needs to thrive is more communist-style development. That’s the verdict pronounced by one of Germany’s leading architects this week. Writing in the newspaper Tagesspiegel, Hans Kollhof (responsible for many of the new buildings at Berlin’s central Postdamer Platz) says that Berlin needs a “new Karl-Marx-Allee,” referring to the monumental Stalin-era avenue carved through ruined East Berlin in the early 1950s. Nothing Berlin has built since, Kollhof insists, comes close to its quality, against which today’s constructions measure up very poorly indeed.
“What now comes as luxury in German city centers turns out to be uptight, prettified project housing. Hidden behind a tired packaging of science fiction motifs or Styrofoam classicism…[by contrast] Karl-Marx-Allee is the only example of German urban planning and architecture that continues the great tradition of the 19th century, that needn’t shy away from comparisons with American and other European cities.”
That might sound a little outré, but Kollhof’s views of East Germany’s architectural legacy (or at least a part of it) are actually pretty conventional nowadays. Berliners scramble to get tenancies in the bright, spacious apartments grouped along Karl-Marx-Allee, homes that overlook public gardens, broad sidewalks and pavement cafés—that is, if they can still afford the rising rents. The avenue’s Stalin-era associations might deter some; it was originally called Stalinalleee, and the brutally suppressed People’s Uprising of 1953 started among unhappy construction workers on the site. Still, nothing else built in Berlin at the same time or since has achieved anything like the popular success the avenue enjoys today. So does this show that, when it came to urban planning, East Germany’s communists actually got it right?
Not entirely. East Berlin’s later housing projects are still often seen as alienating and ugly (though not necessarily by their residents), and Kollhoff, a traditionalist whose buildings are often art deco throwbacks, makes it clear he hates them too. What 1950s Karl-Marx-Allee offers is something special: high density, high quality modern housing that nonetheless references older styles and follows the line of the road. What Kollhof and his ilk are specifically endorsing is actually an updated version of the traditional street, a configuration abandoned earlier in the West.
That’s because in many ways, triumphal avenues built in the eastern bloc such as Karl-Marx-Allee weren’t actually that new. Aside from its florid decoration—a kitschy, lively frosting of ornament called Zuckerbäckerstil or “Sugar Baker style” in German—what really sets Karl-Marx-Allee apart from developments in post-war West Berlin is that it looks a bit like a 19th century boulevard. A boulevard on steroids, admittedly. There is something of a sense that these orderly tenements have been fed growth hormone to give them a few extra floors of monumentality.
This seems a world away from the showcase West Berlin was itself creating at roughly the same time: the Hansaviertel district, largely built for the 1957 Interbau exhibition. Created by international architects including Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer and Walter Gropius, this district featured modernist towers and slabs scattered through parkland, giving the impression of concrete tree stumps rising from woodland that protected residents from the streets.
Nothing quite so expensive, scattered and high quality was built again in the West, but there’s an echo of Interbau in later developments like the huge mega-project at Gropiusstadt (so named after its Bauhaus alumnus architect, who also worked at Interbau). Here once again, tree-ringed blocks are sheltered from through traffic so as to create residential islands. Thanks to its huge size and peripheral location, Gropiusstadt is unlikely to be gentrified anytime soon, while vacant apartments on Karl-Marx-Allee’s get locals salivating like shark baited with fresh tuna. Residents don’t mind modern housing, it seems, but they also want to be well connected to the rest of the city and served by businesses located very close.
It would be wrong to get too nostalgic, of course. Built by deeply frustrated workers, Karl-Marx-Allee rose up in a ruined Berlin where new housing was intended mainly for the elite. Still, it’s understandable that the avenue creates a certain yearning in contemporary architects. The idea that a city could deliver a large-scale, high-density housing project made up of spacious, attractive homes designed with an eye to quality rather than profit margins seems like a fantasy today. It’s arguably this, rather than any stylistic features per se, that makes spaces like Karl-Marx-Allee seem so alluring.