The Hansaviertel: West Berlin’s Answer to Karl-Marx-Allee

While East Berlin was building the prestigious Karl-Marx-Allee, something equally ambitious was happening in the Hansaviertel of West Berlin. Both parts of the severely damaged city wanted to show their strength and resilience after the war, both parts wanted to introduce a new view on architecture and housing. The result couldn’t be more different, however: Karl-Marx-Allee is a typical example of monumental architecture, whereas the Hansaviertel is modernist.

My focus is usually almost exclusively on Berlin’s east. I’m tempted to state that it’s the more interesting part of the city, especially since the former East Berlin still houses so many traces of that fascinating, “disappeared” GDR. In this blog post I’d like to make an exception, however, and take you to the West. This part of the city also had to reinvent and rebuild itself after WWII. 300 of the 343 buildings in the Hansaviertel, a neighbourhood directly next to the Tiergarten park, were so severely damaged that they had to be taken down. This made room for an area that showed Berlin’s will for innovation.

The Only Exceptions

In the years after the war, it was decided that the entire city of Berlin had to be decentralised and newly designed. 500,000 houses had been destroyed in the years before, so there was plenty of room for new ideas about housing and architecture. Green and spacious designs were key. However, due to a lack of money and the urgent need for housing, it soon turned out that there was no time for idealistic and radical plans like these. Houses that weren’t too badly bombed were quickly renovated and simple buildings were constructed to fill the gaps. But there were two exceptions: the Hansaviertel in West Berlin and the Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in East Berlin.

After carefully studying Soviet architecture, the GDR had already started to build Stalinallee in 1950. The ‘Hochhaus an der Weberwiese’(a high-rise on a street behind Stalinallee) was the first building to be ready and represented everything the new Allee was supposed to be: neoclassical, impressive and clearly inspired by the Stalinist style of building. West Berlin and West Germany couldn’t lag behind and organized the International Building Exhibition ‘Interbau’ in 1957. 53 architects from 13 countries came up with plans to reshape the Hansaviertel in a modernist way.

From Taut to Gropius and from Niemeyer to Aalto

The list of names is still impressive: Max Taut, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Arne Jacobsen, Egon Eiermann and Alvar Aalto were among the architects. Their ‘city of the future’ followed the plans that had originally been made for all of Berlin: there had to be plenty of space and plenty of green – so actually anything but the cramped tenements that typified pre-war Berlin. As Le Corbusier had described in his Athens Charter (1933), living, working, leisure and traffic had to be strictly separated. Major garden architects were involved in the Hansaviertel project from the start and gave the neighbourhood a true park feeling; it feels as if the adjacent Tiergarten is seamlessly integrated into the new development.

The architects designed 35 properties altogether, among them residential buildings with 1,160 apartments, a shopping area, cinema, library, kindergarten, church and subway station. The residential buildings can be divided into three groups. The first one consists of low-rise one-family houses grouped around open courtyards, four of them built by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. Their playful construction makes you feel as if you were walking around in a small village rather than in the heart of Berlin.

The second group of buildings are ‘Zeilenbauten’ (line structures), rectangular shaped and consisting of four to ten floors. The constructions by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer (V-shaped and with detached elevator shaft) and German Walter Gropius are the best-known. The third group of buildings are the “Punkthäuser”, point houses. They’re square-shaped and over ten floors high; because of their height they are the most visible part of the Hansaviertel.

Go See It for Yourself

Even though the Hansaviertel was revolutionary in the 1950s, these days it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Karl-Marx-Allee. Without knowing the background and story of the Hansaviertel, it is easy to regard it as just another area filled with prefab high-rise buildings. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Interbau exhibition and we now know that the design of the neighbourhood wouldn’t turn out to be the ‘city of tomorrow’.

At the same time the Hansaviertel is still an excellent example of city planning after WWII and modernist design by some of today’s most famous architects. Just like Karl-Marx-Allee, it clearly shows the ideas of a political and historical period. Without the Cold War and corresponding competition between East and West, neither of them would exist.

Tip: Take the S5/S7/S75 to Bellevue and use the (50-year-old) information sign on the Bartningallee, on the outer edge of the Hansaviertel, to orientate yourself. Just walking down this street will already bring you to some of the neighbourhood’s most iconic buildings, but you might also want to make a circuit on Händelallee or head to Altonaer Straße to see Niemeyer’s building. From here it’s a short walk into the Englischer Garten, part of Tiergarten, where the lovely Café am Neuen See is waiting for you with a great terrace or a warm fireplace, depending on the weather.