Save Berlin: The silent scream

Berlin is finally trying to solve its housing crisis... with ugly new buildings awkwardly crammed into hallowed historical sites. Hooray? Our urban columnist weighs in.

Image for Save Berlin: The silent scream

The Mutter Mochow Haus. Photo by German Palomeque

Dan Borden on how Berlin’s attempt to solve its housing crisis is only resulting in more outcry.

It’s a classic nightmare scenario: trapped in the back seat of a slow-motion car wreck, you scream but no one’s listening. For almost a decade, Berliners howled about rising rents while the city government dozed blissfully at the wheel. In 2017, things are turning around: bulldozers across the city are clearing ground for new, affordable housing projects. We may be finally veering away from the cliff, but now there’s a growing outcry about our new path’s collateral damage – to things like beauty, history, and open space – that’s falling on deaf ears.

The current uproar over one Zehlendorf project isn’t so much a case of ‘not in my backyard’ as ‘not in my hallowed wooded space with a dark Holocaust history.’

Mayor Michael Müller has committed to building 30,000 new flats in the next four years… but where? Developers bought up the best building sites while the government was napping. On top of the usual neighbours protesting losing their views to new tower blocks, add the complication of Berlin’s tortured past. The current uproar over one Zehlendorf project isn’t so much a case of “not in my backyard” as “not in my hallowed wooded space with a dark Holocaust history.”

On tree-lined Potsdamer Chaussee in the Nikolassee area of Zehlendorf sits a quaint little building with a suitably twee title: the Mutter Mochow Haus. Built in 1796, it served as a roadhouse where two generations of Frau Mochows provided truckers with home-cooked meals and short-term rest. In the pre-CB radio days, it became a de facto nerve centre for Berlin’s road transport system where lorry drivers planned routes and exchanged messages.

As World War II ended, the US Army turned the Mutter Mochow Haus into a different kind of nerve centre: this is where survivors of the Nazi concentration camps gathered to register and wait for news of their loved ones. When the rows of barracks were cleared away in 1948, the open space behind the former roadhouse was designated a park named after Yehudi Menuhin. The violin maestro had been the first Jewish musician to come to Berlin after World War II, bravely performing with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947. He died in Wilmersdorf 52 years later.

For the neighbourhood, the Yehudi Menuhin Park is a prized slice of nature, even sacred ground. For officials scouting housing sites, it was a soft target.

In November 2015, Berlin announced the first round of new construction, 4400 flats on 43 sites across the city. Among them were 180 new apartments at Wiesenschlag 3, the northern chunk of Yehudi Menuhin Park. How can they put buildings on a city park? During the Cold War, the plot had been re-zoned for a never-built public pool.

Berlin-based architects Thomas Müller and Ivan Reimann won the competition to design Wiesenschlag 3. On their website, they stress that the wide variety of architectural styles in the neighbourhood granted them freedom to design something exciting and new. In reality, housing in Nikolassee has one distinct architectural style: two- and three-storey buildings, most with sloped tiled roofs. The new towers’ modular design, resembling pastel-coloured shipping containers stacked six floors high, couldn’t be more alien. It’s likely a tweaked version of one of the architects’ many other housing projects, optimised for cost-effectiveness and dropped in Mutter Mochow’s backyard like a UFO.

Residents of Gartenstadt Düppel, the low-rise 1920s housing community surrounding the park, banded together to protest the boorish newcomer. The Steglitz-Zehlendorf building council responded to their complaints – clashing style and height, inadequate parking, loss of green space – by announcing the project was growing from six floors to seven, from 180 flats to 195.

Like most Berliners, those grumbling neighbours would welcome new housing – if it fits in. Across the city, apartment blocks are being crudely jammed into awkward sites, with designs so sterile and robotic they make East German Plattenbau towers look elegant. The city insists that, in this time of crisis, this is the best we can do. We can scream all we want, but it’s unlikely to help.