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Chip Off the Old Block: Reinventing Courtyard Housing in Berlin

Fusing utopian ideal and economic reality, the reinterpretation of three traditional housing types by Zanderroth Architekten creates spatially rich dwellings for residents and a new urban model for Berlin

To an outsider Zanderroth Architekten’s BIGyard project in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, is an exemplar of an increasingly ubiquitous building type: new-build housing that takes its cue from industrial buildings converted into residential use. In England, the phenomenon is neatly illustrated by the trajectory of the residential developer Urban Splash, which cut its teeth and made its name converting Manchester’s wealth of disused warehouses into contemporary living space. Making a virtue out of necessity, it developed a trademark aesthetic of open-plan spaces, generous floor-to-ceiling heights, industrial finishes and repetitive facades: qualities that quickly became de riguer on its subsequent new-build schemes.

While the warehouse-turned-apartment vibe is a leitmotif of post-industrial society, it is something of an anomaly in this particular part of town. Built as part of the masterplan for Berlin set out by James Hobrecht in 1862, Prenzlauer Berg has held on to much of its original incarnation as an organised composition of late 19th-century multi-storey tenement blocks.

Conceived as a working class district, it has historically attracted a bohemian crowd of writers, artists, designers and students - the ‘pioneer’ demographic that can be relied upon to inhabit, invigorate and eventually reinvent down-at-heel neighbourhoods. There is an inevitable next chapter to this cycle in which the area becomes so desirable that the bohemian crowd are priced out of the market and eventually move on to pastures new. Community building projects can be seen as a show of defiance; a proactive refusal to be priced out of − or into − a particular part of town.

The BIGyard project demonstrates the extent to which this resistance movement has now come of age. With 45 sizeable and spatially complex dwellings and 72 members of the partnership board, the project is an impressive display of both architectural and organisational dexterity. Yet it is still very much a project with attitude. Its sheer chutzpah proclaims its liberation from the invisible forces that dampen the ambition of the vast majority of housing projects: the inherent conservatism of those providing project finance and customer mortgages and the vast army of forecasters − estate agents, marketeers − whose expertise lies in second guessing the prejudices and tastes of an imaginary customer. Real people constitute an infinitely more engaged and engaging client.

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The end result of this collective consciousness is a judicious mix of prudent economy and outlandish self-indulgence. The essential massing and form are highly efficient. The site is divided into three strips − a central area of landscaped space sandwiched between two long narrow housing blocks. The development’s external articulation is restrained; the street-facing facade suggests a straightforward gridded structure that belies the complexity of the buildings behind.

Communal facilities range from four guest apartments that residents can rent on a short-term basis for visitors to a 250m² roof terrace complete with summer kitchen and views across Berlin. But the real extravagance lies in the decision to opt for multi-storey dwellings. Homes are divided into three types. A terrace of 23 four-storey narrow townhouses addresses the street.

The ‘hidden’ block, stacked up against a 22m-high solid fire wall that marks the rear boundary of the site, consists of 10 three-storey ‘garden houses’ topped by 12 three-storey double-aspect penthouses. Volumetric gymnastics take precedence over the prevalent commercial imperative of maximising floorspace. Living spaces revel in a luxurious 4.2m floor-to-ceiling height.

Split levels abound. There is a clear thirst for theatricality, but also a recognition that our houses are no longer simply homes but, increasingly, the places in which we work, study, socialise and shop. A demand for dwellings that celebrate the rituals of domestic life − family tea-time, Sunday lunch − but that also allow for privacy, a change of scenery, a change of mood.

For spaces that earn their keep. The tension between private and professional, sociability and solitude, is at its most explicit in the design of the townhouses, which include a designated ground floor workspace complete with shop window into the street. But it is evident too in the patchwork of studios, patios, terraces, balconies and green roofs that pervades the scheme; indoor and outdoor territory for contemplation and retreat.

But the project is more than a deft composition of disparate parts. BIGyard is billed by the architects as an ‘urban village’; an analogy that speaks of community but also of self-containment and insularity. The image it presents to the city − the nostalgia for workspace-turned-living-space − signals a detachment from this residential neighbourhood; an affinity with those who have sought to appropriate different building types and to change the way in which we live.

For all its professionalism, this is a highly utopian project. Its belief in the value of a clearly-defined community is perhaps best expressed in the narrow landscaped courtyard that is not only concealed from the outer world but which constitutes the project’s heart. This compact space − 1,300m² in all − serves as front garden, back garden, play space and village green; a precious asset in a part of town that has an abundance of small children and a dearth of open space.

Its success lies in its easy ambiguity. Its myriad roles interweave and overlap. Crafted with a faux sang-froid, it suggests a landscape that has naturally evolved. Tufts of grass give way to patches of sand, aping the natural pattern of seaside dunes; flowerbeds are ragged around the edges. An air of congenial chaos ingeniously pre-empts, and even invites, the inevitable ad hoc interventions and general wear and tear of the environment. An Archigram-esque playpod on wonky stilts wears an air of benevolent surprise − as though it has turned up to the wrong party but is happy to stay.

There is a dreamlike quality, simultaneously evocative of the meadow, the moonscape and the village green. A reminder that,
at their best, community housing projects are not born simply of economic necessity or defiance, but of optimism too; a collective crusade to lift everyday existence on to a more poetic plane.

Architect Zanderroth Architekten

Project team Christian Roth, Sascha Zander, Kirka Fietzek, Diana Gunkel, Guido Neubeck, Konrad Scholz, Lutz Tinius

Landscape architect Herrburg Landschaftsarchitekten

Switches and sockets Gira

Client Owned by joint building venture of 72 partners

Photographs Simon Menges

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