A Commentary: Walter Gropius, On Large Housing Estates

Walter Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, in Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby (eds.), Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), pp. 484-486

 Following the devastation of the First World War, Germany looked towards housing reform as an answer to the social, political and economic problems of the day.[1] The utopic visions of the Expressionists formulated immediately after the war, evolved into rational and functionalist designs throughout the 1920s.[2] The architect as spiritual leader, combining all the arts, became the architect as engineer.[3] Such a transformation was motivated by sobering hyperinflation between 1919 and 1923, and only after the stabilisation of the mark in November 1923 could housing reform become a built reality.[4] Complimentary to economic stability, the creation of a single administrative entity uniting all of Berlin, which followed coherent and rational planning principals made the large housing estate proposed by Gropius and his contemporaries possible.[5] Gropius responds to the contemporary housing crisis, at the end of the war the housing shortage in Berlin was estimated at 100,000-130,000 dwellings.[6] Between 1924 and 1930, 135,000 social housing units were completed compared to just 9000 between 1919 and 1923.[7] The catalyst for the building of social housing was the trade-union movement, the unions invested heavily in large housing developments and also recruited leading modernist architects to design them.[8] The prime ambition of the GEHAG was to achieve the lowest rents possible through the most efficient, often standardised building practices.[9] Gropius’ text is not merely a theoretical tract on estate building, it is a plan responding to the desires of the trade-unions, a blueprint on how best to produce affordable housing to cope with and last beyond the crisis.[10]

Gropius in his 1930 piece asserts that through regulation and the linear plan mass housing can ensure the wellbeing of both its residents, and the wider city- long term. He seeks to design an estate that finds the balance between financial demands including land price and building costs, and the need for space in the crowded capital city.[11]

Gropius presents an estate plan responding to the ‘basic requirements’ he believes a large residential development must and can fulfil, mirroring the regulatory language of the Greater Berlin administration.[12] He cites limited population density as one such requirement, realised through the ‘building regulations of recent decades’ and contemporary regulation limiting commercial exploitation of residential building land, and so avoiding the creation of city slums created through ‘unscrupulous land development’.[13] The 1925 Reform Building Ordinance introduced zoning of industry and housing, which Gropius incorporates into his plan, with his placing of commercial enterprises and facilities likely to generate noise like schools and playgrounds in ‘relatively isolated positions’, with noise further buffered by the conservation of existing woodland.[14] [15] Gropius blends adherence to regulation and focus on the resident’s welfare to create ‘exceptional tranquillity’ within the estate.[16]

Gropius hints at the tensions within high modernism- the battle of standard, anonymous blocks and organic form, which was characterised by Manfredo Tafuri as ‘one of the most serious ruptures within the modern movement’.[17] Leo Adler in his 1927 criticism of the Horseshoe estate in Berlin by Taut and Wagner asserted that in all aspects of ‘building engineering’ reason must rule. Gropius in his piece favours the standard, anonymous block and celebrates the linear grid plan.[18] The estates Gropius advocates are all north-and-south aligned with individual apartment blocks laterally separated, resulting in consistent sunshine and air flow through every apartment.[19] Gropius cites the lack of sunlight and air circulation apparent in both old courtyard and modernist perimeter block designs, providing a solution by removing transverse blocks and corner apartments within the blocks of the estate.[20] Contextually, the 1925 Ordinance also banned transverse buildings and side wings putting an end to the format that had produced Mietskaserne in Berlin since the 1870s.[21]

Gropius also contributes to the contemporary discourse on standardisation of housing, which gained momentum within the realms of architecture and interior design throughout the 1920s. [22] Ludwig Hilberseimer championed standardisation of the tenement block in 1926, asserting that standardisation represents an effort and solution to reduce costs, perfect design, and addresses the needs of the user (the tenants) first. [23] Gropius represents another supporter of standardisation, believing that it ‘is not an impediment to the development of civilisation’ but one of its prerequisites.[24] Standardisation became championed by the trade-union building departments, as it was seen to ensure both equality and good economics.[25] In Gropius’ estate plan no apartment is in a better position than another, there is no marker of class, wealth or stature present within the design. No decoration individual to a block is described, and Gropius asserts that the ‘natural accidents of the terrain’, alongside trees and vegetation planted around the estate will ‘relax and and enliven the grid plan’.[26] One can see in this comment a defence of urban modernism contemporary to the backlash against functionalist modernism that was gaining pace by 1930, and that found national, administrative support after 1933 in the Nationalist Socialist ideology that damned modernist architecture as Bolshevist and funded architecture reflecting the ‘simple life on German soil’.[27]

In terms of efficiency and cost-saving within the estate, motor roads are designed to intersect only at right angles past the ends of the blocks, which are further distanced from the noise and dirt of the roads by grass areas, there are also access footpaths reserved for pedestrians, and estate traffic is entirely separate from general city traffic.[28] Gropius’ design of transport systems within the estate ensures overall tranquillity and also ‘reduces the estate’s road-building and access costs’ echoing Hilberseimer’s belief that standardisation is a solution to reduce costs and address the user’s needs.[29]

Gropius’ estate plan was realised through developments such as the Siemensstadt estate, where Gropius and Bartning created blocks that were both rational and anonymous.[30] With the gathering pace of the economic crisis and the discontinuation of house-building subsidies in Berlin in 1931, the working man soon found no support in the architectural ambitions of the administration, and the modernist designs of Gropius and others fell out of favour.[31]

[1] Iain Boyd Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 463

[2] Ibid, p. 463.

[3] Ibid, p. 463.

[4] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 463.

[5] Ibid, p. 464.

[6] Ibid, p. 463.

[7] Ibid, p. 464.

[8] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 464. E.g. The establishment of a central agency in 1923 within the German Trade-Union Congress (on the initiative of Martin Wagner) with the purpose of funding cooperative housing, and the establishment of the GEHAG (the Berlin arm of DEWOG) in 1924.

[9] Ibid, p. 464.

[10] Walter Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 485-486.

[11] Ibid, p. 486.

[12] Ibid, p.485.

[13] Ibid, p. 485.

[14] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 464.

[15] Gropius, “Large Housing Estates, p. 485.

[16] Ibid, p.485.

[17] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. (Cambridge: Mass, MIT Press, 1976), p. 117.

[18] Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, p.485.

[19] Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, p.485.

[20] Ibid, p.485.

[21] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 464.

[22] Christine Frederick, Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. (Chicago: American School of Home Economics, 1920). Through Frederick’s book, the housewife becomes the engineer, and the kitchen of the home is her control room. The concept of Taylorism already employed in the factory, became employed in the domestic sphere- ultimate efficiency and time management became the ultimate goal. The architect and interior designer could aid this efficiency by carefully planning how one would complete tasks within certain spaces.

[23] Ludwig Hilberseimer, “On Standardizing the Tenement Block”, in Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, eds. Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 480.

[24] Walter Gropius, “Standardisation” in The New Architecture and The Bauhaus, trans. P. Morton Shand. (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1935), p. 34.

[25] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 464.

[26] Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, p. 486.

[27] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 467.

[28] Gropius, “Large Housing Estates”, p. 485.

[29] Ibid, p. 485.

[30] Ibid, p. 466. Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. (Cambridge: Mass, MIT Press, 1976), p. 117.

[31] Whyte, “Chapter 15: Housing”, p. 466.

 

 

Bibliography

Books

Adler, Leo. “Housing Estates in the Britz District of Berlin” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 482-484. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Boyd Whyte, Iain. “Chapter 15: Housing.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 463-467. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Frederick, Christine. Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. Chicago: American School of Home Economics, 1920.

Gropius, Walter. “Large Housing Estates.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 484-486. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Gropius, Walter. The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. Translated by P. Morton Shand. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1935.

Hilberseimer, Ludwig. “On Standardizing the Tenement Block.” In Metropolis Berlin 1880-1940, edited by Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby, 480-481. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Cambridge: Mass, MIT Press, 1976.

 

 

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