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Cultural Crucible

Tracking the transformation of Berlin up to the second World War, Metropolis Berlin 1880–1940 is a rich, detailed anthology of the city’s changing built environment

‘Berlin is a suburb of New York: no more, no less. Everything of which the Berliner can be proud New York possesses ten times over. And what is New York? A desert. A huge cultural cemetery. Is humanity to finish up there?’

So wrote the social scientist Werner Sombart in 1907, but a year later architect August Endell took a very different line: ‘For anyone who has eyes to see, the city − for all its ugly buildings, its noise, its manifold shortcomings − is a miracle of beauty and poetry. Its streets contain countless wonders, infinite riches.’

This substantial anthology thrives on such contrasts. Focusing on Berlin’s built environment, it brings together 229 texts by diverse authors. Architects, planners and politicians mingle with sociologists, novelists and critics. Some are well-known − among them, Behrens, Gropius and Hilberseimer − but others are less so, often newly translated into English.

Instead of a synthesis and a single authorial voice, this is a history with many different perspectives − its texts all written at the time, not with hindsight, whether by key players in the city’s development or observers.

Berlin became the capital of the German Empire in 1871 and over the next few decades this lacklustre city on the edge of Europe was totally transformed. The book’s editors call Berlin ‘a crucible of cultural modernity’ that highlights ‘the very nature of the emerging metropolis’; which is a valid claim, considering how central this city is to any balanced discussion of housing, industry, transport and consumption in the early 20th century. The texts are chronological, so Berlin’s transformation takes place vividly before our eyes, but they are also grouped thematically, which makes the book easy to use as a reference.

A major theme of the collection is the emergence of functionalism from ornament-laden late-19th-century eclecticism, with housing and industry the particular test-beds. In a 1930 article, Gropius’s prescription for a large housing estate was: ‘Daylight, fresh air, sunshine; tranquillity; limited population density; good accessibility; rationally designed, convenient apartment interiors; and pleasant overall ambience.’

Given the sometimes dour associations of his name now, the conclusion of the piece is noteworthy, as Gropius states that ‘architecture emphatically does not begin and end with its functional value, with mere fulfilment of a purpose’.

A pioneering scheme completed a few years before Gropius’s article was Bruno Taut’s Horseshoe Estate in Britz. The anthology includes an acute assessment by architect Leo Adler, who was attentive both to flaws in the estate’s construction and in its designer’s philosophy: ‘The so-called objectivity tirelessly extolled in spoken and written word is in fact a delusion on the part of those who proclaim it. The series of little windows, like beads on a string, in the blood-red terrace have the air of a stealthy piece of ornamentation.’

Visiting the German Building Exhibition, 1931, Heinz-Willi Jüngst was even more jaundiced: ‘Only when the free life of the individual has been given up and all joyful movement expired, will we discover the true charm of modern living: only then will we learn, like marionettes, to order our existences as functions of the plan and the furnishings.’

In the industrial realm it was buildings for electricity company AEG that attracted most attention, and this book has memorable passages on Behrens’ Huttenstrasse turbine hall and the power station by Walter Klingenberg at Berlin-Rummelsburg. But for some, Berlin became a city of play as well as work, with lavish cinemas, department stores and cafés, alive at night with lighting and adverts whose aesthetics caused much debate. The book gives many glimpses too of movement: the spectacle of Berlin’s streets, railways and huge Tempelhof airport.

Threading through the extracts is the question of city planning, including the ever-topical subject of high-rise buildings. We all know Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt glass skyscraper on Friedrichstrasse but here are the arguments such proposals provoked. Overall there were increasing attempts to control Berlin’s development, from the laissez-faire attitudes of the 1880s to the grim megalomania of Hitler and his lackey Albert Speer in the 1930s, and the last words in the book are Hitler’s: ‘Berlin will one day be capital of the world.’

It’s a convention when reviewing anthologies to indicate omissions but in this case it seems mean-spirited to do so. Perhaps it’s surprising that there’s no sizeable extract from one of Walter Benjamin’s memoirs of the city − his Berlin Chronicle or Berlin Childhood around 1900. The sociologist Georg Simmel is represented by a piece on the Berlin Trade Exhibition of 1896, but as author of The Metropolis and Mental Life he was particularly attuned to the city’s impact on the individual psyche − for instance, the effects of noise.

There could be something from the lecture that Mies gave in 1928, ‘The Preconditions of Architectural Work’, widely reported in the Berlin press: ‘We do not need less but more technology,’ was its credo. Given how instrumental Karl Baedeker’s guides were in shaping public perceptions, a passage from the Berlin one might be instructive (‘Almost every part of Berlin offers a pleasing picture,’ says the 1912 edition).

And to further diversify the tone of the anthology, there could be a Berlin sonnet by poet Georg Heym, admired by both Benjamin and Brecht. But this is just hair-splitting. The most obvious omission is a timeline, to make it easier to put the extracts in context.

We know only too well what happened in Berlin in the years after this anthology ends, so perhaps it’s a little blithe for the editors to say simply that ‘a reunified and reinvigorated city has emerged’, which ‘captures the imagination once again as one of the great cities of the world’. Leaving aside all the issues around postwar reconstruction and Cold War Berlin, surely the process of reunification hasn’t been as smooth as that suggests?

Think also of the protracted debates about the demolition of the GDR’s Palast der Republik and the reconstruction of the Prussian Stadtschloss, in its place. Perhaps in the future an editor will survey the whole postwar period to make an anthology as rich and engrossing as this one.

Metropolis Berlin 1880–1940, Iain Boyd Whyte and David Frisby (eds), University of California Press, £59

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