The Britz ‘Horseshoe’ Estate, Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner

Another sunny day, and a trip to one of city’s Pioneering Modernist Works. I phrase it like this, because I have a list of all the buildings and places I should see, but don’t often make the effort, because I come across so many other interesting things just wandering randomly through odd parts of the city.

Anyway, the Britz estate was built to designs by Bruno Taut (with a block by Martin Wagner), between 1925 and 1933, and is known as ‘the horseshoe estate’ (Hufeisensiedlung) due to the horseshoe-shaped design of the central block. A good summary on the page here, and a page from the always-handy Housing Prototypes here.

I took quite a few images, all in a Flickr set here.

Like much early modernist design, you’re struck by how, well, very modern the buildings seem, I guess in part because of so much later modernist pastiche. But what surprised me was that actually much of the architecture, interesting though it is, is of secondary importance to the kind of place the Britz estate is. The overall impression I got was a much stronger connection with the English Arts & Crafts and Garden City movements than with pioneering German modernism, despite how much we’re taught about the links between the two.

Much as I knew I should be looking at this sort of thing

…I was equally fascinated by this other sort of thing:

– by the slightly mysterious maze of pathways between the private gardens. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia; I can imagine what it must be like to play here as a kid (unlike the UK, children are still allowed out in Germany, without the security of a Humvee or other military vehicle).

Having said that, I didn’t really see anyone much that friday morning, child or adult.

Although the architectural style on the Horseshoe estate side was markedly different from those across the street, the mood seemed quite the same. Peaceful, quiet, neatly trimmed gardens; an old fashioned, well established working class neighbourhood.

One side:

and the other:

Having read what a shame it was that many of the building’s original detailing had been lost, I couldn’t find any evidence. There seemed to be quite strong enforcement of window replacement etc, including colours, which in the case of the windows are clearly important on some of the low rise block designs, where all frames have identical De Stijl-like designs.

These particular houses are arranged in terraces with access via their southern orientated gardens. You can therefore walk along pathways giving access to the gardens/houses on one side, and look into the gloomier rear of the houses in the next row. I noticed several were empty or being refurbished; in the end property, recently redone, were clear signs of a middle class design-aware type moving in, their attempt to use period furniture strangely incongrous (a good commentary on that sort of thing here, by the by).

An almost rural feel within the horseshoe itself, designed around a pre-existing pond, apparently. I stood and watched as a lone heron took off from the water and settled in a nearby tree.

The main entrance route to the horseshoe, which has the feel of an abandoned Olympic stadium structure:

And what I’m guessing is the row of Martin Wagner-designed houses:

Anyway, tempting as it is to witter on like someone showing you their holiday slides, I’ve put the rest here.

Post-blog note:

Of course, this is an rather superficial commentary, based entirely on my personal response to the place. If this was a proper blog, I would have explained the background; that to understand the ideas behind the estate, you have to understand that its first residents would have largely moved from utterly squalid, overcrowded conditions, have fought through a disastrous war, crippling inflation and economic collapse, and that such a place could have seemed like heaven on earth in a place a unstable as Weimar Germany. I also make no comment on the appeal of the emerging ideas of modernism and how well they fitted with the need for cheap construction by local housing authorities, or attempt to reconcile Bruno Taut’s outlandish theorising at the time with the calmness and practicality of his housing designs.

Which all goes to show that if you really want to know about something, best to get hold of a good book about it.

An interesting article here about the protection of Berlin’s modernist estates, by the way.


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