Gropiusstadt: A Winter Walk

The residential complex Gropiusstadt, planned by Walter Gropius, on a sunny winter day in 2015.
5 Sep ’16 by Sara Architecture

I just stumbled upon a series of pictures from last year. It was my first time going to Gropiusstadt for a little walk. Okay, truth be told, I went on a date to a Frank Zander mall concert because why not. If you haven’t heard of Frank Zander, it’s probably better to keep it that way.

Gropiusstadt is a district in Neukölln. It’s known for its history as social conflict area. Christiane F, the protagonist of the famous drug biography Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, grew up in one of the many apartment blocks here, which are also known as Plattenbau. But Gropiusstadt hadn’t always been a problem zone: It was conceived after WW2 as satellite estate by Walter Gropius, who had a very beautiful, modern living space in mind. Only after the Berlin Wall was built, the plans were adjusted accordingly. It was no longer possible to build beyond the West-Berlin borders. So instead of building in width, the settlement was built in height to accommodate the density of the people who were going to live here, and later, you had to have a Wohnberechtigungsschein to move in. The WBS, as it is known, is proof that you are entitled to social housing. Gropiusstadt effectively became a residential complex for the poor exclusively.

From Wikipedia:

“The open spaces between the high rises weren’t green yet and thus offered zero quality of life; dark corners and stairways became spaces of anxiety and fear. The occupants stayed in their apartments among each other, and in spite of many social institutions who tried to combat the problems, the social life didn’t develop as expected. The occupants criticized the lack of inner city urbanity, which was caused by the vast free space, as well as the high density of neighbors and the loss of the “Kiez-Gefühl” (which I can only translate as “Street Culture” or “Neighborhood Culture”). The number of tenants kept fluctuating along with the abandoned apartments.”

In 1986, things were looking a bit better with some changes coming in. Gropius’ image of green space (instead of dark, infertile space) was finally met, and more social meeting places (e.g. youth clubs) were established. The conditions were, all in all, bettered for a while.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, things changed yet again. The Berliners moved out, the subventions of the Senate were cut, and many former GDR citizens moved into the apartments, but it wasn’t social housing anymore. In fact, in the past 10 years the apartments of the Gropiusstadt became so popular again that local politicians decided to establish a Quartiersmanagement, a social housing management program that is established in order to keep the neighborhood well mixed (as opposed to selling to foreign investors and renting out to affluent tenants).


The vast space and architecture of Gropiusstadt

Gropiusstadt was an icon of modern architecture, even though Walter Gropius’ plans were hardly fulfilled. The first time I heard about the Bauhaus settlement was in 2012, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary. When we took a walk through the residential estate, which consists of 19.000 apartments, the place felt desolated. It was a mild December day, with a lot of sunshine; but outside of the Gropius-Einkaufspassagen, one of the largest malls in Berlin, there were no people to be found on a Saturday afternoon. If you’ve ever been to a German Kurort (whole towns that are turned into health resorts, usually for seniors and older people), you’ll know that creepy feeling of “nothingness” washing over you.

After a while, I realized what the problem was. Even though there was a lot of beautiful green space, there was no street life – because there was no business life at all. Nobody works in Gropiusstadt, it seems, because there’s hardly anywhere to work at. With the exception of a gas station and maybe some cafés or bakeries, there was only a whole lot of nothingness in Gropiusstadt.1

These pictures make me miss winter a little bit. As much as I hate the cold, I really can’t deal with the dictatorship of summer in a bad season. The date was totally worth it, by the way.

  1. "Es war ein Fehler, meint Pfeifer, den Bau der Gropiusstadt allein aus den Mitteln der Wohnungsbauförderung zu betreiben, nicht über den Etat der Stadtentwicklung: „Denn Wohnungsbaugesellschaften wollen nur Wohnraum bauen, kein Gewerbe.“ Und damit entstehe nicht die Urbanität, die man brauche. Man sehe in der Gropiusstadt eigentlich niemanden, der arbeite. Heute leben rund 43 000 Menschen in den rund 19 000 Wohnungen der Gropiusstadt." From Tagesspiegel