If you’ve ever spent a day wistfully scrolling through WG-gesucht or ebay-Kleinanzeigen looking for a place, you may have noticed that Altbauten – 19th-century buildings – tend to be in especially high demand.
Berlin’s façades are a hallmark of the Gründerzeit – a prosperous period in 19th century Germany.
But it might surprise you to learn that their stately stucco façades weren’t always so beloved. As Modernist design philosophies took hold in the 20th century, Altbauten across the country were stripped of their ornate decorations for a sleeker, more contemporary look.
If you’re clutching your pearls at the very thought, you’re not alone. Today, such drastic redesigns of historic buildings seem almost sinful.
But that’s why it’s worth taking a look at the cultural and economic developments that led to this shift in aesthetics. Join us on a tour of Berlin’s architectural history, from the first façades of the 19th century to the design revolutions in the 20th and beyond.
Signs of the times
Berlin’s façades are a hallmark of the Gründerzeit – a prosperous period in 19th century Germany. But by the 1870s, the economy was on the downslope, ushering in the first critiques of this decorative design trend. What were once seen as sophisticated stylistic choices were suddenly crass and over-the-top. Architects rejected the Historicism of Gründerzeit buildings as little more than derivative imitations of previous aesthetic movements.
Altbauten-façades increasingly fell out of favour, with critics contending that their garish stuccos not only indiscriminately copied from preexisting historical models, but also anachronistically and arbitrarily combined elements from different epochs. The resulting hodgepodge was deemed functionally and artistically hollow.
The façade of façades
Those criticisms may sound harsh, but they speak to some even harsher socioeconomic realities. See, it’s all well and good to have a fancy façade slapped on an apartment building in theory, but it can seem tantamount to a slap in the face if the people inside are living in dire conditions – and they often were.
These palatial stuccos seemed to be façades in more ways than one, with some arguing they were covering up the buildings’ true purpose and the social status of the people who lived there as if they were something to be ashamed of.
The elaborate ornamentation also obfuscated the buildings’ actual construction, for example by including plaster columns that weren’t the least bit load-bearing – a seemingly pointless departure from their original function in antiquity.
This criticism in particular reflected sensibilities that would go on to form the bedrock of the Stahlskelettbau (‘steel skeleton building’) movement, which made previously hidden elements of construction visible from the outside.
Out with the old…
Modernist architects like Erich Mendelssohn and Bruno Taut came of age in the midst of this discourse, dreaming of skyscrapers, commercial façades, and glass palaces. This was the beginning of Neues Bauen (‘new building’), an architectural movement characterised by an emphasis on practicality through sleek, simple forms.
The resulting hodgepodge was deemed functionally and artistically hollow.
Unfortunately, times were tough around 1918 and there was no money available to realise these lofty architectural goals. So architects did the next best thing: They stripped buildings across Berlin of their outmoded stuccos, giving the city a more modern look without actually having to build from scratch – an approach that was arguably just as facetious as the former façades were.
…In with the ads
The biggest wave of renovations took place from 1925 to 1929. Only this time, they weren’t motivated by aesthetic sensibilities, but commercial ones. With cars becoming more ubiquitous, the stucco façades were stripped away to make room for huge commercial billboards and posters that motorists would be able to see as they drove past, because god forbid you’re not being advertised to every waking moment of your life.
But unfortunately, that was just the beginning. The Nazis continued this trend, stripping entire streets of stuccos not just in Berlin, but in other cities like Danzig, Stralsund and Lübeck. Their goal was to create a homogenous architectural image by ridding buildings of perceived decay, a project disturbingly dubbed Entschandelung (‘decontamination’).
The removal of these façades continued even after Germany was divided, albeit for different reasons. In an effort to prevent their houses being torn down wholesale, some homeowners in the West gave them a more modern appearance by stripping them of their ornate exteriors. In the East, getting rid of the stuccos was a cost-effective compromise to building modern-looking houses from scratch.
Rethinking the renovations
By the 60s, people were beginning to reconsider their stance on stuccos, in no small part because of an apprehension towards postwar architecture. And with appreciation for Gründerzeit buildings back on the rise, the preservation of historic façades became a priority.
Since then, de-stuccoed Altbauten have either been renovated to match the spirit of their original designs, become canvases for social commentary through street art, or left as they were. But whatever conditions they’re in now, they’re a testament to the transience of trends in art – and how social, political, and economic circumstances play a role in shaping them.
This article has been adapted from the German by Seraina Birdsey.