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Metropolis Berlin 1880–1940

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General Introduction

From imperial Rome to Renaissance Florence and nineteenth-century Paris and London, the great cities defined the social and political realities of the moment and gave them built form and pattern. The twenty-first century will see half the world's population living in urban areas, with older global cities such as London, New York, and Tokyo joined by new megacities emerging from the dramatic economic expansion of countries like China, India, and Brazil. Such radical changes force us to call into question and investigate the nature of urbanization and the concept of the big city. Over a century ago in Europe, the acceleration in urbanization, the rapid emergence of new cities, and the expansion of others into large urban conurbations stimulated similar debates on the nature of the modern city. Although earlier in the nineteenth century the expansion of London and the transformation of Paris under Haussmann had generated discussions on the nature of the modern city, by the late nineteenth century there was one European city in particular whose astonishing growth in only a few decades came to embody and symbolize the most modern city: Berlin.

Only after the victorious Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership in 1871 did Berlin emerge as a European capital city to rival London, Madrid, or Paris. At a stroke, Berlin was transformed from the residence of the King of Prussia into the capital of the German Empire and the seat of the imperial government. In keeping with its new status as the undisputed center of German communications, transportation, business, and learning, and of the emerging electrical and chemical industries, Berlin expanded at a dizzying rate in response to an insatiable demand for talent, energy, and muscle. In the period from 1850 to 1890, the population of London almost doubled, that of Paris more than doubled, but that of Berlin more than quadrupled. This expansion accelerated after German unification, with Berlin's population growing from 826,000 in 1871 to 1.9 million in 1900 and 2.1 million by 1914: among the cities of the world, only Chicago came close over these years in its rate of expansion. By 1910, the staid but reliable Baedeker Guide declared imperial Berlin to be not only the most modern city in Europe but also greatest manufacturing center in continental Europe. Its industrial development was not to be found in the heart of the city, but was concentrated in the northern and eastern suburbs, in districts such as Moabit and Wedding, where major firms such as Börsig, AEG, and Siemens were located.

Berlin's dramatic expansion generated extensive theoretical discussion on what constitutes a city. At the same time, city building (Städtebau) and the enlargement of existing cities (Stadterweiterung) generated new fields of knowledge devoted to urban design and city planning, which addressed such issues as the wider parameters of urban expansion and growth, the regulation of this growth, and its infrastructural requirements. The very concept of the city itself was not without its ambiguities. The German word for "town" or "city"-Stadt-did not distinguish between the two. This raised, in turn, the question as to what made a large town (eine große Stadt) into a big city (eine Großstadt). Further, could the concept of a metropolis be subsumed under that of the city, or did it require another concept such as that of the world city (Weltstadt)? Such issues could not be resolved merely by a quantitative approach, despite the expansion of statistical data on cities and their characteristics in this period. Nonetheless, a social-statistics conference in 1887 did define a city as possessing a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants. By 1910 Germany possessed forty-nine cities so defined. The more difficult issue of the metropolis or world city was resolved by declaring that the world city possessed a minimum population of 1 million (Millionenstadt). According to this definition, Germany had only one world city-Berlin-with Hamburg in second place with a population of over nine hundred thousand. The largest urban conurbation at this time was the Rhine-Ruhr area, where conglomerations of cities did not achieve a unified city status. In contrast, the expansion of Berlin into Greater Berlin proceeded in part through the incorporation of those surrounding and independent cities with populations of over one hundred thousand, such as Charlottenburg-the wealthiest city in Germany-Rixdorf, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, and Lichtenberg. This process of incorporation created a Greater Berlin in 1920 with a total population of 4 million.

While the suburban edges of the city, near the lakes and forests, were developed as opulent green suburbs, with street upon street of grand villas, the great majority of the population was housed in large tenement blocks that entirely justified the descriptive title of Mietskaserne (rental barracks). This housing type, composed of large blocks set around internal courtyards, was not unique to Berlin but could be found in other German and Central European cities at this time, such as Leipzig, Prague, and Vienna. The Berlin variant, however, was overwhelming in its volume and in the appalling housing conditions that it generated. Symptomatically, the average life -expectancy of Berliners in 1871 was 36.5 years for men and 38 for women. Although all urban housing development depends upon landownership, credit supply, and building contracts, the Berlin condition was unique. In London, urban expansion was historically controlled by aristocratic landowners; in Paris it was a domain of banking capital. Berlin had neither large landowners nor banking capital interested in long-term capital deposits, with the result that the role of developer fell to the weakest link-namely, the building contractor, financed by mortgage credit secured house by house. This capricious mechanism for urban expansion and development was exacerbated by weak local government control, fragmented across the many independent townships that made up the city of Berlin in the late nineteenth century.

Germany's defeat in World War I marked the end of Berlin as an imperial capital and as the seat of monarchy. It also saw the removal of the German parliament to Weimar as a protective measure against the revolutionary uncertainties that followed the defeat in November 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser. During the war and in its immediate aftermath, Berlin became the focus of intensely utopian and visionary expectations that found a particularly strong resonance among the architects. Although short-lived, this phase of ecstatic expectation acted as a powerful link between nineteenth-century romanticism and the quasi-religious and messianic hopes of redemption and salvation that impelled Germany toward dictatorship in the 1930s. It also promoted the consciously political dimension that marks much of the artistic production of Berlin in the 1920s.

Remarkably, given the economic constraints imposed in 1919 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the spiraling economic inflation of 1920-23, a malfunctioning democracy, and the political instability that afflicted Germany throughout the decade, Berlin blossomed in the 1920s. Particularly after the introduction of the Dawes Plan in 1924, Germany enjoyed a period of "relative stabilization" that lasted until 1929. As many commentators have noted, Berlin in the postwar decade was very aware of its modernity, of its generally positive reception of Americanization, and of its radical cultural production. The city itself was both dynamo and subject of this self-conscious modernization-a reciprocal relationship that found powerful expression in films such as Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, die Sinfonie einer Großstadt and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, both premiered in 1927, and in the harsh social commentaries of painters like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. Even the factories, city streets, and gray tenement houses of Berlin found a sympathetic eye in Gustav Wunderwald, of whose painting the art critic Paul Westheim wrote: "It also has the hard, inhumane, and cool matter-of-factness of this most matter-of-fact of all the great European cities." This coolness and impersonality, however, found a positive expression in the contemporary European debates on architecture and urban design, in which Berlin played a preeminent role. Under the leadership of an enlightened Social Democratic city council and the housing associations promoted by the trade unions, Berlin became a laboratory for modern living. From the micro scale of the labor-saving kitchen to the macro scale of the new city quarter or the model town of the future, Berlin's architects, planners, and politicians developed the blueprints for twentieth-century urbanism in the industrialized world. Just as it is hard to think of industrial and product design without the Bauhaus model, so it is impossible to conceive of the global downtown without the glass office towers first proposed in the early 1920s by Mies van der Rohe for sites in Berlin.

Over the sixty years addressed by this volume, political and cultural modernism was sparked into life in Berlin, flourished, and was then mortally challenged. An ambitious and recently acquired empire collapsed, to be succeeded by new forms of democracy and of tyranny. Between 1900 and 1930, Berlin was a crucible of cultural modernity; after 1933 it was the epicenter of the National Socialist regime. This extraordinary history illuminates not only the nature and essence of both modernism and totalitarianism, but also their interrelationship, and reveals that avant-gardism in the arts did not necessarily go hand in hand with political liberalism. Nor did the National Socialist tyranny demand a consistent conservatism in the realm of artistic production. For modernism and fascism can be inextricably intertwined. As the texts in this volume indicate, some of the progressive cultural thought produced in 1920s Berlin was latently authoritarian by nature. Conversely, the arbiters of National Socialist taste were happy, on occasion, to embrace radical modernism in several areas of life.

This volume addresses not only the city of Berlin, but also the very nature of the emerging metropolis, as exemplified by Berlin. There are many ways of doing this: the approach could be statistical, in terms of demography and mortality; cultural, through the novels, paintings, and poetry stimulated by the nervous energy and danger of the city; or material, by reference to the volume of building, mileage of streets, energy provision, and the like. This dynamism also manifested itself, according to Walter Benjamin, in the language of the city, in its dialect: "The Berlin dialect is a language of people who have no time, who must often make themselves understood with a very short remark, a glance, half a word ... precisely because in Berlin all these people live together as large masses in the most diverse occupations and circumstances and at a remarkable speed. The Berlin dialect is today one of the nicest and truest expression of this racing tempo of life."

In selecting the texts for this volume, however, a particular ambition has been to delineate and describe the spaces of Berlin, for as Siegfried Kracauer presciently noted: "Spatial images are the dreams of society. Wherever the hieroglyphics of any spatial image are deciphered, there the basis of social reality presents itself." To capture the complexity of the city, the selected texts are drawn from a broad range of voices and expertise, embracing economic, sociological, literary, and technical analyses by architects, city planners, journalists, cultural critics, politicians, philosophers, and social theorists. A small number of fictional texts have also been included to give a sense of how it felt to live there.

Arranged in chronological sequence, the texts were all written during the years spanned by this book, and retrospective memoirs have been excluded. They have been chosen to exemplify the characteristic questions of the particular historical moment, be it structure planning in the 1890s, radical speculation on the nature of the city in the 1920s, or the replanning of the whole of Berlin as "Germania," capital of the Third Reich, in the late 1930s. As a hotbed of new ideas on urban life and planning, Berlin did not escape the radical gaze of the National Socialist ideologues, whose thoughts on the capital city are not locked away in a poison cupboard marked "post-1933" but, rather, incorporated into the mainstream debates on the city as they had evolved over the previous half century.

Following the reunification of the two Germanies in the late 1980s, Berlin captures the imagination once again as one of the great cities of the world. Out of the confusion of the divided Berlin of the Cold War, a reunited and reinvigorated city has emerged, in which a radical edginess is combined with an urbanity that is firmly embedded in Berlin's history. The texts in this volume offer a record of this defining history as it unfolded between 1880 and 1940.