All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The little cottages of Hamburg

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Along Stübeheide Straße in Hamburg is a housing complex that dates from the 1930s, the Franksche Siedlung. It is quite cute: rows after rows of red-brick two-story row houses, each with a tiny lawn in front and a bigger garden at the back. The complex, which received heritage designation in 2011, is mostly resident-owned and is highly sought after by young families.

Each rowhouse is small (originally, 57 m2) so as to be as affordable to rent as inner city appartments. The project was opposed by wealthy locals who did not like the change of character to the neighbourhood, but that opposition was quickly overcome.

The gardens were a key part of the project, since the residents were expected to grow their own food. The houses all face east, west or north, but not south; this arrangement minimizes shade and maximizes the growing potential of the gardens.

This project was commissioned by the head of state at the time, a professed vegetarian, anti-smoking environmentalist, who expressed a dislike for large appartment blocks. He said that people need contact with the soil, need a garden patch; just like trees, people have their roots in the soil, in the social and psychological sense if not in the literal sense. He was ahead of his time with respect to anticipating the disaster that the urban renewal projects of the 60’s would become, as well as the trend for local food and urban gardening.

Architect Paul Frank was asked to design the complex. A student of modernist Bauhaus, Frank was already famous for large appartment complexes such as the Jarrestadt in Winterhude, a series of long five-story red brick blocks. He may have been an odd choice for the job, but he took to the new task successfully and the project was a success.

Nowadays, the Franksche complex looks like an improvement on the Jarrestadt one. To my untrained eye, the vaunted Jarrestadt complex, with all its Neuen Bauen glory, looks stark and forbidding, long blocks with wind-swept lawns between them. By contrast, the Franksche feels built on a human scale, pretty, village-like. Indeed, it was partially inspired by the Garden-City ideas of urban development that promoted urban farming and easy access to the countryside. The Garden-City concept was developed at a time (late 19th century) when city living was considered, with good reason, unhealthy.

The problem, of course, is one of scale. If all of Hamburg’s development had followed this model, the city would have sprawl on forever. Food security would have been enhanced, yes, but at the price of atomized communities that, suburban-style, lack true centers and community gathering places, things that the Germans particularly value (see here for a discussion of how German and American cities diverged in the fifties). Of course, not having large community gathering places also means that there is no focal point for social protests. This was not intentional, as these types of development were meant to foster the conservatism of rural values.

The head of state was one who valued the doctrine of Blut und Boden. To him, the German character was forged in the soil of Germany, and the nation needed to return to the land and to nature, rediscover rural values, and reject the degenerate aspects of city life. That man, of course, was Adolf Hitler.
Strange, isn’t it? Here I am actually enjoying this set of buildings, finding them inviting and peaceful, despite the repellent ideology that led to their creation. It is an instance of the ambivalence many feel towards Hitler’s creations: many of his projects were great popular successes that helped relieve the distress that the common people was facing after the depression. It is worth remembering that Hitler was democratically elected.

Not too far from there, in Poppenbütel (Kritenbarg 8), is another building that is quite affecting, the last remnant of a housing complex of low-roofed little houses built out of concrete blocks. These drab little homes were built quickly, out of prefabricated materials, to replace the ones destroyed in the air raids. The builders were mostly Jewish women from the nearby concentration camp, many of whom died at the task.


Source: Duncan JD Smith 2010. Only in Hamburg: a guide to hidden corners, little-known places and unusual objects. Vienna: Christian Brandstätter Verlag.


Written by enviropaul

December 14, 2015 at 11:44 am

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