In Berlin recently I took the U-Bahn to Siemensstadt in the north-west of the city to visit the so-called ‘Ring’ estate designed by Hans Scharoun there. Scharoun himself along with Walter Gropius, Hugo Haring, Paul Rudolf-Henning, Otto Bartning and Fred Forbat all designed housing blocks for the estate which was built between 1929 and 1934. The landscaping of the site, notably absent here of his beloved allotments, was designed by Leberecht Migge.
The linear blocks, or zeilenbau, are generally oriented on a north-south axis to maximise access to daylight, in parallel strips, with Migge’s green spaces running between them, and all feature balconies for individual apartments. Within these parameters the individual architects of each block express the different tendencies coexisiting in German modernist architecture of this period. Gropius, as would be expected, is strictly orthogonal, Haring’s balconies are curved out from his blocks in brick and Scharoun’s Panzerkreuzer (armoured cruiser) is, as its name might suggest, styled with nautical detailing such as deep-cut recesses on its balconies and roof deck and porthole-like windows.
Despite the expression of these different architectural tendencies each conforms to the basic type of the zeilenbau. What is really striking, and, I think, significant at Siemensstadt is though the change in Scharoun’s approach to the housing block when he returns to design further buildings to the south of the site, at Charlottenburg-Nord after WWII. As can be seen from the google earth image, the blocks that Scharoun designed here in the 1950s depart from the strictly linear form of the zeilenbau whose orgin in the military barracks had been adopted, as approriately rational- looking, within modernist architecture. Scharoun’s postwar blocks, in contrast, are skewed, bent and turned in ways that start to produce a much richer and variegated relationship between the buildings and the site than is evident in the regimented strip forms of their antecedents. Furthering the distinctive appearance of these blocks in plan are the balconies projected from the buildings at a further series of irregular angles. In section the extent to which these are extruded, together with the cuts excised into the blocks, effectively produces an interplay of recesses and projections, in place of a conventional building facade, that begins to disrupt conventional concepts of interior and exterior space.
Dissolving boundaries between exterior and interior was of course a favoured trope of Mies van der Rohe in his pursuit of universal space and an architecture accommodated to its fluid qualities. Scharoun’s articulation of interior and exterior, however, works differently and has nothing to do with accommodating universals. Although Scharoun was not uninterested in conceptualising his architecture in broad terms – he was, for example heavily influenced by Haring’s theories of wesenhafte Gestalt, or being-like form – his later work at least can always be understood as a response to pragmatically specific concerns from which its forms result. In the case of the postwar housing blocks at Siemnsstadt his concern was with the orientation of each flat within the block in terms of its access to light, ventilation and view. As Peter Blundell Jones writes in his monograph on Scharoun ‘the blocks take their form from the flats and not vice versa.’ And the flats themselves, it should be added, take their form from the qualities with which Scharoun wants to serve the resident.
At this point I raise the question of how significant Scharoun may be, especially in the context of this particular project, to landscape urbanism. I’m thinking here of a comparison with the Lafayette Park development in Detroit, planned by Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell, with which it is contemporary. Charles Waldheim has always championed Lafayette Park both in its own right, as a successful socially integrative project, and as a precedent for landscape urbanism in its prescient articulation of planning, landscape and architecture for a depopulating city. I don’t dispute Waldheim’s broader arguments – these are very well substantiated – but I wonder about Mies as an example of architecture for landscape urbanism. Scharoun’s architecture seems to offer far more, both in its pragmatic approach, and in its formal plasticity, that would be useful for a landscape urbanism concerned to articulate specifically situated and complex relations between urban, environmental and social conditions than the universalism of Mies.