Living together in Berlin – Architecting new Housing Approaches

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An article for the Italian magazine DOMUS reflecting on the housing situation in Berlin. Terrassenhaus Berlin, IBeB and the Wohnregal show how alternative approaches in architecture open up new possibilities.

10.9.2018: Wedding District Court

A plot of 482 square metres is up for auction on Grüntaler Straße, not far from the courthouse. The property, used to date as a repair shop and in part already occupied by a garage, has planning permission for up to 723 square metres of housing laid out across 5 storeys. The market value of the property is 224,000 euros, minus the demolition costs. The auction starts today at 174,000 euros. About 100 potential bidders crowd the courtroom, including some young architects who are here partly on their own interest and partly on behalf of clients. They all start the auction with the same calculation: given the planning permission, the price of the lot implies an initial cost of 240 euros per square metre of potential living space. Some 25 minutes later the auction ends. The property has been knocked down for 1,100,000 euros plus taxes and commission.

Those present leave the room with a mixture of astonishment, amusement and indignation that echoes down the stairwell in the form of speculation on what the buyer’s intentions are for a project saddled from the start with an a priori cost of 1,520 euros per square metre. This is a symbol, rather than a snapshot, of the Berlin real estate market. Ownership of building plots becomes the privilege of the few who, unburdened by a sense of responsibility or social needs, see land and housing as an investment and stake their claim to it. Article 14 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany seems to have fallen into oblivion. Among other things, it states, “Property entails obligations. Its use must also serve the common good.” (Art. 14. 2 GG). The questions “To whom does the land belong” and “To whom does the city belong?” are critical to an understanding of our built environment, as the ownership of both land and real estate have an impact on our understanding of society as well as the availability of accessible public and common spaces. With the commodification of our cities and their growing privatisation, this power relationship is being increasingly questioned. Architecture has to choose. Can and will it decide to reject all compromise? Or will it continue following the same logic, which keeps reproducing the same kinds of spaces and environments? All this raises questions of a systemic nature.

New housing in Berlin today

The trend of prices exemplified by a recent case in Berlin has shown that the construction of building projects, unaffected by the rule of maximising profits, is now possible only if the conditions change. Neither establishing cooperatives nor other associations of private developers (Baugruppen) or models of funding for the common good will make it possible to buy land in Berlin, whether sold by the city or purchased on the open market at exorbitant prices. And when land is acquired, it will end up being refinanced by transferring the cost to the end user, which makes it difficult to provide housing for all at affordable prices. We need to develop living spaces that match our needs as individuals, that are affordable and ensure quality of life, while going beyond the standard of a nuclear family and the rigid separation between life and work, which no longer reflect the times we live in. To do this, we will have to foster a more energetic discussion between architects and a deeper understanding of the economic issues, as well as of the housing needs of future residents.

Methods of design that include the ideas of the future inhabitants in the planning stage and, at the same time, offer new economic approaches to construction require a high degree of competence and flexibility by all concerned. As shown by the three projects that follow, this additional effort by the designers is worthwhile. The approaches chosen demonstrate that even in complex structures and with difficult basic conditions, it is possible to create space capable of fulfilling the current needs of our society.

We need as many structural models as there are points of view, with close ties between housing and the workplace, apartments large and small, which can be combined, so that they respond to different individual needs. We need communal areas located in the prime spaces of the building, with premises for social bodies and accommodation for tenants with little money. We also need to cater for owners whose interests do not end at the thresholds of their homes. And we have to deliver all this with some form of creative freedom.

The three projects selected are: Terrassenhaus Berlin / Lobe Block; Integratives Bauprojekt am ehemaligen Blumengroßmarkt (IBeB); and Wohnregal. These are exemplary projects for new approaches to residential building in Berlin, combining ideas for an urban policy related to alternative forms of the economics of communal living and the question of the power of architecture as a community process.

Terrassenhaus, 2018

In 2014, when looking for an architecture firm, the gallerist and entrepreneur Olivia Reynolds met architects Brandlhuber+ Emde, Burlon in the building for workshops and offices that they had designed at Brunnenstrasse 9. The building matched the client’s ideas about architecture and its objectives, so the decision was quickly made to develop a design concept together. With funds of her own, Reynolds acquired an old brownfield site, a former scrapyard. Because of complex planning constraints, the site was unattractive to classic investors. Not so for the client, who understood the potential of the plot and staked the project on the architects’ ability to creatively manage the restrictions imposed by the laws and planning regulations.

At the start of the design work there were no current development plans available. An old planning rule from 1958 only permitted commercial buildings to be erected on the site. On the other hand, there was a growing demand for housing as well as clauses guaranteeing the residential use of neighbouring buildings, suggesting a possible future change to the intended use of the site. The team of designers considered this situation as an opportunity to devise a building intended initially for commercial premises and subsequently for housing. Different depths of use for the units and interior designs reduced to the minimum would allow a potential programmatic conversion of the building.

The six-metre-deep terraces, facing south-west, form a cascade of external spaces framed by two flights of steps. They can be used by both occupants and visitors, in a new form of coexistence programmatically inscribed in public space. Use of space changes on a daily basis. On the spacious terraces that give the building its name, furniture can be set out or cleared, and gardening or other activities can take place.

Visitors move as if on a stage in front of the curtains of the actual spectacle. This “stage set” is based on a project that not only complies with the existing building regulations but also envisages the building’s future residential use. At the same time, it manages to leave a space open and accessible to the public. Inside the building, thanks to the staggered floors, units are created with depths varying from 11 to 26 metres and given diverse functions corresponding to various exhibitions.

The pitfalls of the market also played a part in the creation of this terraced housing. The process of adaptation was long and complicated, as was the operation of upgrading the general conditions to enable the working model to meet the needs of all parties involved while remaining faithful to the original concept. At the time of the building’s inauguration, it was evident that the investment and risk taken by the private client had been worth it. At present it is managed through a cross-financing model. Temporary rental units offset the additional costs, making it possible to continue building and designing the outdoor spaces while offering affordable long-term rental homes.

Integratives Bauprojekt am ehemaligen Blumengroßmarkt (IBeB), 2018

With the IBeB development – an integrated construction project on the site of the former wholesale flower market – the architects ifau + Heide & von Beckerath rethink the provision of long-term affordable rental housing in terms of urban policy and community participation.

Incorporated into the creative district of southern Friedrichstadt, the building integrates affordable living space with creative businesses by introducing this mix of socially and ecologically sustainable uses in the neighbourhood. Next to Frizz23 and the Metropolenhaus, together with the new headquarters of the newspaper taz, the building is a model project for the alternative development of a Berlin neighbourhood.

The sale of the property was detached from the market, and took place based on the concept of the project – one of the first such procedures in Berlin. Instead of offering the three building plots to the highest bidder, as usually happens, the municipality sold the plots surrounding the area of the former wholesale flower market below the market price, favouring a design concept that would enrich the neighbourhood with an enduring added value.

The IBeB project is notable for two primary objectives. One is the linking of life and work, with the consequent response to the spatial needs of its users. The second is the very specific combination of different forms of ownership, which in an elaborate three-dimensional system are closely entwined and no longer distinguishable from each other. There are spaces for workshops and private living spaces, alongside accommodation managed by cooperatives and apartments used by social bodies, supplemented by retail spaces on the ground floor.

The relatively low price of the plot, reflecting the conceptual principle on which it was established, was deliberately used to promote a rich social mix. Subsidised housing and workshops managed by cooperatives were made possible by the profit gained through the sale of privately owned properties at market value.

Particular attention was focused on involving the owners and representatives of the cooperatives in the decision-making process. This allowed the community to collectively define its spatial and social priorities and set shared standards and structures. Given the size of the scheme, there were some restrictions on individual floor plans. As with a city, the architects worked on the development process with different types of housing. Residential units of different sizes were laid out, equipped with spatial options and building methods that enabled the inhabitants to make their own alterations at a later date.

The courtyards with internal skylights are a distinctive architectural feature, shedding additional daylight inside the home units to increase their range of use. The drive, also lit by light wells, is connected by two stairways with internal stairs leading to different horizontal paths through the building. Like a rue intérieure, it links the apartments with the urban neighbourhood. From the interior, the building offers opportunities for daily meetings and community life without barriers in the urban setting through the spatial design of the 66 home units and 17 workshops.

Wohnregal, 2019

The Wohnregal project by FAR frohn&rojas also started with the problem of the site. The search for a suitable space took two years, until a vacant plot was found in the centre of the Berlin quarter of Moabit. It was built up as a sequence of perimeter city blocks with internal courtyards. Until not long ago undesirable for living, this site has been transformed in recent years into a much sought-after location.

This six-storey residential and commercial building differs sharply from the heterogeneous context of Moabit, a low-density Berlin quarter, characterised not only by post-war terraced housing but also by industrial buildings of the Güterbahnhof in the north and by those of Westhafen.

The contrast is heightened by the building’s smaller prefabricated concrete structure. Typically used for commercial spaces, this material is given a different use, stimulated by the potential and freedom of systemic construction. What degree of freedom do prefabricated elements allow, and what kind of quality can they produce?

The principle of industrial building is applied to housing through repetitive modular juxtaposition. Two floors form an independent static system consisting of two-storey modules with two rows of supports fixed on the long sides, a ring anchor on each floor and, resting on it, the false ceiling with T-beams.

The load-bearing structure and the facade are given a very static expression due to the limitations of the prefabricated parts and their dimensions, in contrast with the free-standing structure in both the commercial and residential areas. On each of the five upper floors there are two residential units – respectively a rental apartment on the west side and a small workshop on the east, which can be planned individually as a result of the flexibility in subdivision and size.

Unlike the other two projects, this one embodies a structural approach to current issues of residential building, above all with the use of cost-saving construction elements. The project rests on a profound understanding of industrial manufacturing applied to civic architecture. The design work took a year, and a further year was spent on construction detailing. In contrast, the bare shell was completed within six weeks. The aesthetics of the rough construction that emerged from this – with overlapping grid facades facing east and west and generous floor plans – are all features determined by the prefabricated elements. Moreover, they also relate to various structures in Moabit while reflecting the social values adopted by the architects to provide homes and workspaces at affordable prices.

Observation of all three projects reveals a basic point, one that today should be at the centre of the architectural discourse and public debate about the creation of quality living spaces. We urgently need a greater number of courageous, experimental projects, community-based and diversified, in which architects can think outside the box, offering new ideas and visions, ignoring conventional approaches, while working with users and investors. Today this only seems possible when the architects themselves take on the role of clients while accepting the risk potentially bound up with it. It is also important to transfer innovative concepts that have already been successfully tested in smaller projects to a larger scale. There is a clear need for public and private clients who entrust large-scale building commissions to architects who are ready to work on bold new design concepts. It is a political question to set the right course to ensure better housing for everyone in Berlin.

Tagged: architecture · Berlin · Bodenfrage · housing · Wohnungsfrage

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